Episode 49 Transcript

Tools and Frameworks to Tackle Management and Technology Challenges w/ Brad Koehn

    Brent Trimble: Welcome to The Professional Services Pursuit, a podcast featuring expert advice and insights on the professional services industry. I'm Brent Trimble, your host again, and today I'm joined by Brad Koehn. Brad is the president of Koehn Consulting and provides advisory and coaching services to technology-focused leaders and their organizations. Today we're going to be chatting about some of the tools and frameworks leaders of those organizations can use to tackle the core challenges that their teams may be facing right now from a technology and management perspective.

    Brad, welcome to the show.

    Brad Koehn: Thanks, Brent. It's so great to be here.

    Brent Trimble: Great. Before we kick off, it'd be great to share with the listeners a bit about yourself, your trajectory, your background, and what led you to Koehn Consulting.

    Brad Koehn: I’d be happy to. I have spent my entire career—some 30 odd years—in the professional services industry. Most of that time, I was in and around the field of software engineering, working on products and in large IT organizations. I spent some time as an independent contractor. I spent some time in a boutique practice, and I ran a region of that practice for quite a number of years. I also got to experience life in a large multinational practice.

    Between those three, I got a lot of feel and flavor for those kinds of software engineering practices, the kinds of work that they do, and the kinds of challenges that people run into running those kinds of practices. Now, I focus on management consulting. Unsurprisingly, a lot of my clients are in professional services themselves and are looking to grow their businesses, develop their businesses to be more valuable for sale, or, in some cases, manage the changes that we're running into in the economy today.

    Brent Trimble: That's excellent. What kind of impetus brought you to found your consulting practice? What kind of need did you see in the market that you thought was where you could provide value to these leaders?

    Brad Koehn: As I was doing a lot of delivery work, I noticed that a lot of my clients were interested in not just technical expertise but were having challenges running their departments or their engagements. I would work with others from other practices, and they were struggling with the same kinds of issues that I was struggling with when I ran a practice. More and more, it became evident that my skillset had evolved beyond just software engineering and running engineering organizations into leading organizations and helping to develop leaders. So I pivoted the kinds of delivery that I do and the kinds of clients that I pursue away from technically-focused engagements toward really management and leadership development engagements.

    Brent Trimble: That's fantastic. That leads us to, I think, a relevant topic today. One doesn't need to dive very deep into the current news cycle and content in both the business press and the general press to see this notion of uncertainty and a bumpy economic cycle. Of course, we're coming right out of one, the pandemic business cycle, but that was largely manufactured to the degree that governments shut down large portions of the GDP and replaced that for a certain time. Then work resumed, in some cases, at a really high level, with a high ebb.

    But this down cycle is a function of maybe some economic conditions—the Fed tightening, credit tightening, the end of easy money in the tech sector, for instance, and technology not being as sure of a bet. Of course, it is, I think, in the abstract. But we're talking about investment, return, and so forth. This is now trickling down into these companies and practices. What we find interesting is that there's now this fairly large contingent of folks ascending into management or having arrived at management, but they really haven't been through and managed a really tough macroeconomic cycle.

    I'm interested to hear, and I think listeners would really be keen on this, how these employees and workers that have ascended into management, maybe similar to you, maybe came from engineering, emerge as leaders. They're in this mid-high-earning stage of their career, and they're experiencing a downturn for the first time. Give us some insight on what you're seeing in the market.

    Brad Koehn: I'm working with a client who is right in the middle of the situation that you are describing. They are about a 12-year-old organization. They grew from two partners who had been gradually, organically growing their business during the long stretch of fairly easy money where, really, if you could develop delivery talent, it was very easy to sell engineering professional services because there was such a shortfall of talent. If you could dial a phone and get talent, dialing was really the main skill that you needed to do sales.

    The kinds of clients that they had gone after were really deeply affected by the recent downturn. Advertising dollars dried up a lot, and startups dried up a lot. Those were the kinds of clients that they had become accustomed to serving. Their pipelines started to dry up, as you can imagine. They were really in a difficult situation. I engaged with the leaders in this organization to help them diagnose and remediate the problem. They had some idea of where it had been coming from, but they were released with the what do we do about it? I think, to your point, they just hadn't been in a 2008 situation because they were in college at the time. This is my third or fourth of these downturns between the ‘80s malaise and the dot-com bust and the financial system collapse. The message that I gave to them when we initially met was, look, you just haven't seen this before, so you don't know how to react.

    We worked with them and had a lot of conversations with them and the owners and their leaders, and we put in place a system for doing some new business development activities, market discovery, and understanding the downstream impact that was going to have on their delivery personnel needing to upskill to some different skills and the changes in personnel that they were going to need. I made that sound really simple. Like, oh, you just know who you're going to sell to and the kinds of technologies you're going to deliver. But the people in their organization felt really threatened by some of these changes, especially when there was some downsizing that they had to do in order to keep the company afloat. Everybody wanted to revert to the old way; can't we just go back to selling to e-commerce sites and marketing? Helping them come to terms with the fact that it wasn't going to work anymore got escalated gradually to the organization.

    What the owner actually came to me with was, we know the [unclear 0:07:40] that we've come up with for our organization are the [unclear 0:07:43] for us to do. The challenge is that each one of those solutions creates a bunch of new problems for us. Our salespeople are struggling with learning a more consultative kind of selling approach. Engineers were really happy doing some of the work that they were doing before, but they're not as excited about the kinds of deliveries that they're being tasked with now.

    Isn't that the problem with consultants, in a nutshell? We come up with solutions, and we don't help you with the problems that your solution creates. I've always prided myself on not being one of those consultants who just writes the play on the whiteboard and gets a touchdown at the end. My practice is built around engaging with leaders to help them develop the skills to help their people through these challenges that change inevitably brings, helping them understand the pressures that they're under and how to cope with them, as well as helping their people understand the pressures that that's putting them under. Instead of just pushing the problem down into the org chart, we help leaders manage their own emotions, the pressures that they're under, and how they respond, as well as the challenges that their people are facing. One of the skills that we do talk about in that frame is what we call the Four R's. We can talk a little bit more about that later.

    Brent Trimble: The scenario you're describing is one we're seeing play out across businesses. You note that the e-commerce platform is probably driven by demand-based media, and those dollars are drying up, along with maybe some consumer demand and clicks. So we’re giving a mature reframing, cerebral approach to the business saying, you've built these practices. You've built this expertise. Now it's time to pivot a bit. This is what it means to you, the business, and the people, and we're going to help you navigate through that resistance.

    You gave the example of the e-com shop that's grown organically, probably through some reputation and expertise. Anything else that you think might be relevant to our listeners?

    Brad Koehn: Another organization that was a little bit similar but had a little bit different outcome was a group that I was working with, where one of the partners that had founded the organization decided that he was ready to move on and do other things and wanted his partner to buy him out. This was a very small shop, and the partner that was leaving had done all of the business development, all of the sales, and all of the client management activities. The other partner was an electrical engineer by trade and was focused on running the delivery personnel. All of a sudden, he's left running the entire organization without some of those core skills, and he's in a really uncomfortable position.

    As a coach and as an advisor to that organization, we're put in a position to help them understand not just the tasks that you have to do but also how you think about business development when your whole life has been focused around engineering. This is how you deal with the feelings that anybody who's been in sales for any length of time had to start dealing with in their early 20s: feeling rejected, feeling disappointed—a lot of the emotions that come that way when being smart isn't the solution to your problems. You can't think your way out of a lost deal. You have to come to terms with it and accept that that's a part of the game.

    So helping him to develop skills that were not just the technical skills of running the business and managing client relationships and understanding that work, but to deal with the emotional roller coaster that he found himself on all of a sudden doing something that he was really bad at at first because we're all really bad at new things at first.

    Brent Trimble: You mentioned some frameworks that you've been using to help articulate this change and then drive this type of change. You mentioned one of them before we talked through the second example; if you could give us a breakdown of that, maybe at a high level.

    Brad Koehn: Whenever we find ourselves in a difficult position, we have to come to terms with the fact that our default behaviors are oftentimes not the ones that are going to serve us the best. For example, if you've been accustomed to selling and delivering to a particular kind of client, those are the kinds of clients to continue to reach out to and try to sell to because we all like doing things the same way consistently. When you're confronted with the fact that that just isn't going to work anymore, you usually have a pretty big stress response to that situation.

    A tool that we use to try to help people deal with that, and we train leaders on this and train them to help their people with these same skills, is called the Four R's. It's to recognize that you're having a big stress response to this situation because oftentimes we just find ourselves being a little bit irritable, a little short, hard to get along with, difficult to be around, and we want to recognize what it is that we're experiencing and really make that front and center in our thinking as opposed to just being cranky, or avoidance is another strategy that sometimes people have. Just start to recognize, hey, I'm not doing a thing that I should be doing, or I'm not doing it the way I'd like to be doing it.

    The second R is to reflect, to look at that and say, why am I behaving the way that I am? This is absolutely different for everyone. All of us do what we do because we did what we did. What we did is different for me than it is for you, Brent, in a given situation. I've got my own background and story, and you have yours. As squishy and touchy-feely as this sounds, try to remember that I spent 30 years in software engineering. This was not an easy hill for me to climb or come to terms with. But reflecting on why it is that I'm behaving this way is really important to do to overcome the behavior that you're trying to change.

    The next R is to reframe the problem and stop thinking about it the way that you have. If you've been telling yourself, I'm not good at doing consultative selling, that's probably not really true, at least not in the way that you're thinking it is. You might not be as good at it today as you'd like to be, but it's a new skill. Thinking about it as, I'm getting better at consultative selling is a lot more productive than saying to yourself, I'm really bad at selling. If you think you're bad at it, you probably will be, and you're going to try to avoid it as much as you can, and you'll try to kick it up to leadership. Hey, this stuff just doesn't work. You'll come up with excuses not to change. Reframing that is, again, the next really important thing to do.

    The fourth R is that once you've done the first three, you have a chance to respond. That's when you can be really effective in what it is that you're going to do. Am I going to lean into this, write an after-action review, and review it with people? Am I going to work with an outside expert or somebody with a little bit more experience in this? What are the things that I can do to handle this difficult, stressful situation? Again, these are coming up all the time in consulting and professional services right now because, in a lot of ways, we're right at the bleeding edge of these economic changes. They tend to hit us first.

    Brent Trimble: I noticed in the recognize R that the avoidance strategy is certainly employed very well by my children whenever I ask them to do something. Procrastination and avoidance are really significant. But I'm struck by the fact that recognize, reflect, and reframe can be deployed in a lot of different scenarios.

    In our business, in the industry, we tend to distill sometimes major strategic decisions, certainly operational decisions, down to really technical choices, feature functionality, the things we need to do to be more technically successful, and pull the levers in professional services on chargeability, utilization, margin, and deal flow. But it sounds like what you are helping to do is contour these emotive responses and get to the heart of the matter, where the solution might be just part of that managerial acumen and their motive response to different types of conditions.

    How has it been navigating some of the scenarios you've outlined—a couple different shops, one with disparate talent and a different alignment in focus, and another in a business that they might have to pivot away from, at least in the short term? How do these framework deployments work?

    Brad Koehn: They work quite well. It's not as quick as pulling a lever. At the end of it all, what we're talking about here is modifying human behavior. As leaders, we're in a position where, when it comes to human behavior, we really have two choices. We either change people, or we change people, if you know what I mean.

    One of those is fast and expensive, which is why it's relatively quick for me to bring someone new into the organization compared to helping to build some leadership skills and self-awareness in the people that I have. But what we found is that those investments in people's leadership development really pay off for the organization over the long haul because the person that you bring in might not have a problem with consultative sales, just to continue with that analogy. They will have another set of challenges that they have to face, and you're going to be put in a position to work with them. That's the role of leadership. If it were as easy as pulling this lever and getting different utilization, we wouldn't need leaders to have supervisors.

    But the truth is, we're dealing with people who are complex and bring a lot of themselves into an organization. As leaders, we have to help them grow into where they want to be if we want them to stay around and really help drive the growth in our organizations.

    Brent Trimble: Oh, that's excellent. That's a good point about strategic patience.

    Brad, these have been really great insights, and we're in a choppy period. Everyone is looking to double down on key business levers. If you're in professional services, which makes up our business, our focus, and certainly that of our listeners, it's all around, can I find and launch another practice that's adjacent? Can I look to reposition? Certainly all the operational maturity metrics like chargeability and deal flow, margin, and doubling down on cost management are important, but your framework really helps cut through that a bit, add that behavioral dimension to things, and just make leaders all that much more effective. As we close out today, it'd be great if you wanted to just recast the Four R’s and then let our listenership know where they can find those, and you.

    Brad Koehn: I'd be happy to. The Four R’s are just one of the tools that we use to help people deal with the stresses that they feel when they're undergoing change. Like you said, every single one of those levers that you get to pull as a leader is a change that's inflicted upon somebody else, and they're going to have a stress response to that situation. So when helping people recognize the stress that they're experiencing, how do they feel? How can they best describe the pressure that they're feeling? Maybe it's disappointment, or maybe it's something else for another person in another situation, but recognize it for what it is. Label it as effectively as you can. Reflect on it. Why do I feel the way that I do? Why do I feel pressured, maybe unfairly put upon, frustrated, or disappointed? Why is it that I'm feeling that way? What's contributing to this? Has this happened to me in the past? Is this completely out of the blue and unexpected to me? Where did that emotion come from?

    Then take some time, and this is something that you can work with your leader on, to reframe the situation. How can I best think about this in a way that will allow me to do whatever it is that I need to do next? Whether that's moving from my favorite technical tool that I really enjoyed working on into something that is a little more legacy, but that's what's paying the bills these days, whether it's learning how to sell differently or doing delivery in a different way, whatever that is, try to think of a positive way to think about it that's going to make it easier for you to manage that stress response that you're under. That'll help you with the fourth R, which is responding, finally doing the thing that you know that you should do that you might have been avoiding or feeling upset about, or whatever it was that was there.

    The Four R’s are one of the many tools that an effective advisor and coach uses to help people deal with the changes that they're going to go through in an organization. Right now, we're in one of those periods, like you said earlier, Brent, where change is coming to us. It's going to be forced upon us. Other times, we have an opportunity for growth. Lots of organizations get stuck there. This is one of those times where maybe it's not as fun of a change right now, but it's a real opportunity for individuals to learn how to grow into a new role, to be comfortable, and to learn that they can handle something that maybe they've never had to handle before in their careers.

    While I'm at it, I'll just put in a plug. You can find or get a copy of the Four R’s and a little bit more verbiage around what they mean and how they work. You can download that at leadership-engineering.com/kantata.

    Brent Trimble: That's excellent, and I really appreciate the insight today, Brad. As always, we’d love to hear from our listeners. If you have any follow-up questions for myself or Brad, please reach out to us at podcast@kantata.com.

    Thanks so much, Brad.

    Brad Koehn: Thank you. It's been great being on, and I look forward to talking with you some more.