John Feeney - Business Development Director, McGrathNicol

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McGrathNicol is an accounting, advisory and restructuring firm. They help organisations improve performance through Independent Business Reviews, conducting forensic investigations, mitigating risk in areas such as technology, supporting transactions and deals and restoring value in distressed organisational situations. 

We're with John Feeney today. How did you end up choosing a career in business development?

After university I was lucky enough to be hired into what was then British Telecom in London. I was in their marketing department, and this is going to show my age, a brand new product into the market called a mobile phone! I was in the team that were helping to put the business case together and also test the acceptance of the product when it went into the market and I found it absolutely fascinating.

I then moved in a role where I was running the operations for a professional services outsourcing firm, and I'd sit in pitches with my boss. And that's how I eventually got into the broader world of sales and marketing. And I haven't really left it since.

And between those days and now here at McGrath Nicol, could you just mention some of the positions that you've had before you got here?

In Japan for six years, then back in the UK with more of a HR outsourcing firm, which led me to Australia. I was then head of sales at SAI Global, before seeing a very interesting job at KPMG. I had 10 years here in Sydney at KPMG having a fantastic time with some very smart people, across a number of sub-sectors within financial services.

One of the questions that we talked about earlier, might be the motivations or frustrations of people who are involved in the BD space. So any thoughts around that?

One of the biggest frustrations is when you look people in the eye and say that you are in BD and I use the word sales and business development interchangeably even though in my view, there's different explanations for those two. But broadly when you say that to people they kind of step back and they go, "Oh, pity, it's a bit like being a banker now!" I think that perception is one of the biggest frustrations.

I actually think the world of business development, particularly in professional services is all about needs, It's all about satisfying a client needs. People don't wake up the next morning and go, what the hell did I buy last night? They knew exactly what they were buying and they appointed us because we were able to deliver something that they thought was going to get them out of a situation, or help them grow in some way, so something I'm actually quite proud of. In terms of what motivates me, and that is the BD salesperson in me, I mean it's about success, it's about winning the deals, a happy client who'd say, yep, I'm really glad I chose you. I thought you were the right ones and you delivered.

So, key ingredients of a successful practice. You've been in the game quite some time. You've seen successful ones and the less successful ones. What do you think are the key ingredients for the ones that win?

I think that it’s a really good question. The first one, even though I'm the business development guy, is financial discipline, and I have seen that consistently in all of the practices, in all of the sub practices within firms like KPMG and here at McGrath Nicol. So there's an absolute understanding of the costs, the inputs and the kind of broader profitability of the firm. So that's number one, you just got to be on top of your numbers.

Then kind of more in my world, to be successful, you absolutely have to understand the industries that you're working in and I think that comes out in a lot of the professional research that I see, and from having spoken to clients over the years. If you know their industry, if you've taken the time to understand an industry, that will help you greatly develop clients. And then at a more kind of micro level, the client itself and then the individual executive themselves.

And I think the third area Alistair is, how you look after and treat the people who work in your firm because it is so easy, in professional services, to lose good people and so motivating, developing them, giving them this sense that they can thrive in your environment and so really do not need to go anywhere else is something that is really going to set you apart from the rest. And I think clients like to see some employee longevity in the providers they chose.

Do you have a view about what, from a client perspective, what they would look for from a professional services provider in the modern day?

Yeah, that point I made about, the industry is hugely important. Execs who are hiring professional services have very little time, they are sometimes stressed, they work in fast moving environments and they need answers and they need solutions to their problems quickly.

What that means as a provider of professional services, is they don't have time to explain their industry to you. And I have been in situations in my career where you got the sense that their eyes were glazing over, thinking to themselves how much time am I going to have to spend explaining this situation to you and your team and then have the pleasure of being billed for it? And by the way I have bought professional services myself and been on the other side of the table so I know that's absolutely critical.

Alternatively, if you don’t know the client or their industry you are only likely to get hired because of your high technical capability that is transferable no matter the industry or the company. An example of that situation is our own forensic investigations practice. Fraud and mis behaviour is similar no matter the industry be it a bank, a miner, a charity or a government organisation. So our technical skill and ability to uncover the truth is fairly industry agnostic.

The other aspect Alistair, is that the client is looking at those personal attributes that we talk about a lot in business development, for example how good you listen to them. I've just seen some poor examples of the expert, the partner talk as much as possible and not listen to the client or ask them intelligent questions about their business. And we're both familiar with that phrase that nobody ever lost a sale through listening too much, and that's as true today as it has ever been.

A couple of other things I thought about, was your own adaptability. And the criticism I have heard from clients is, you come in with a consulting model or methodology or a view of the world and you force the client’s business to adapt to fit with that model. And sometimes you have to do that but there are consultants who don't or can’t adapt to their client’s unique situation. So, that kind of flexibility and adaptability is hugely important.

And one of my fellow colleagues Matthew Ashby, just published an article on LinkedIn about trust. Unfortunately we're in a world and an environment where in many institutions that just isn't there anymore. But people however, do want to trust that individual advisor, that expert who they were working with and depend on. I think that is a trend we will only see more of. That is a big lesson for professional services and how they think about and treat their clients.

You've obviously been successful throughout your career. You've been through some very prestigious organizations. Have you got any examples of what might be described as an entrepreneurial approach to BD or can you think why you might have been particularly successful? What do you attribute your success to?

I have always gravitated to the tough, difficult work situations and rarely the easy ones.  I think about moves that I've made in my life. I've been lucky to have lived and worked in different countries.

That wasn't always maybe the smartest thing to do, but it certainly put me in situations where I really had to work hard to succeed in what I did. That's one thing, to never shy away from getting into the difficult situations because, whilst at the time you may not get immediate recognition, generally your peers and bosses will step back and respect you for it.

These are also the situations where you learn a lot. It is an absolute truism that you learn from your mistakes. And I think that that's something that has really been important for me.

So in terms of biggest achievements, if that's the right way to phrase it, what would you look back on and go, that was a particularly great time? 

Keeping my job. I think is the biggest challenge in business development, because you will be in situations where no matter how charming, how many relationships, how many meetings, how many clever ideas and insights, there's always a look at the financial scoreboard!

Particularly at companies like KPMG and McGrathNicol where, you are surrounded by smart people who have worked hard and achieved a lot in their careers. You need to be at the top of your game when you walk in to the office. 

On the journey, have you had any mentors that you've looked up to, this series of interviews is really for people to try and take away some nuggets from people who've been there, seen it, done it, worn the T-shirt, who have you maybe talked to along the journey?

It's really important to seek out those people who you think can help you in your career, and you will find that is the measure of a good leader, when someone comes up to them and says, "Do you mind if you can give me some advice? They do. I’ve been very lucky like that, particularly at KPMG, that there were several people who helped me. I learned a lot from Bob Peasley who had a long sales career in places like IBM and Optus in what we call Industrial Sales where there are lots of buying influences, you're building a solution and the sales process can be measured in years before you close the deal.

Now in terms of training, this is an interesting one because people who have never worked inside a big four firm, they believe that there's some sort of training regime that goes on inside these organizations that makes them who they are. I mean is there anything that you could share with us in terms of the types of training and skills development that's going on in your career or any tips that people could take away from today?

I think that's a very misunderstood area around the big four. I think we separate BD training from technical training. So technical training within the big four, KPMG and also where I am now at McGrath Nicol is absolutely superb. I think it's because it's more easily understood by the leadership, that's the training they went through and it’s the capability that the clients are ultimately paying for.

However when it comes to the softer skill areas around building relationships or understanding sales and buying processes or whatever that subset of sales tactics and methodologies is it seems to be harder to put a business case together. It’s also more difficult to codify and teach.

I have put together a number of BD themed training courses in recent years and understand the difficulty of transferring your experience and point of view into a structured approach in a class room. Ultimately the best BD training is to be able to visit clients with a senior accomplished professional and observe their meeting preparation, their meeting style, their use of questions, their ability to understand the client need and articulate a solution or way forward.

Good BD training is very much about, on the job training, having the mentor that you and I spoke about.  This is where I think a lot of the investments should go. Of course the flip side is that you don’t have that type of mentor and instead inherit the bad behaviours and poor client meeting management etc.

So if someone was on a pursuit list, what are the types of things, maybe outside the box or entrepreneurial ways of making first connections? It's one of the things I'm often asked, we need to get in front of Mr X, what do you recommend we do to get in front of Mr X? Most CEOs as you were alluding to earlier, are very busy people, how do you try and get on the radar of a very busy executive?

Wherever possible, if you can, get a personal referral. Because the age old comment about reciprocity in sales and business is hugely important. And you would be surprised to hear, in a city like Sydney, that you're not that far away from people in terms of those relationships, and I know you're very interested in technology and the role that plays in business development and I think Linkedin and their sales navigator can facilitate this. I wish I had that 20 years ago.

How would you describe the culture here, you talked earlier about it's important to attract and retain the right human capital. And I massively believe that, what kind of initiatives might go on here to drive that?

Well, asking the BD guy about culture. I should have got the HR person in, but I'm with you. It's difficult to describe the culture of a firm but I'm quite happy with the simple explanation, that culture is “how we do things around here”.

So how we do things here at McGrathNicol. One is the relationship, the openness between the leaders of an organization and those people who are at a more junior level is critical. I absolutely see it in here with the senior partners like Tony McGrath, the eponymous founder of the firm, and Tony's got the time of day for everyone in this organization. That's absolutely critical, that the leaders have relationships with more junior people and keep an eye on and understand the tone of what's happening on the shop floor.

Also, if the leaders have a particular view of the culture of the firm they need to demonstrate this. So, if you are a leader and say, we want to have an organization where work life balance is important, and you yourself are always in the office and never take holidays, that's the wrong signal.

For junior employees it is telling them do the hours if they are to succeed in the eyes of the boss. At my last firm they gave you a day off for volunteering and I never used that day until my boss posted on the intranet about his volunteer day and what he did. And that sent a powerful message and a lot more people took volunteering days after that. Leaders demonstrating the behaviours is very important.

We touched earlier on technology and you've mentioned Linkedin by name. Is there anything else that you can think of from a technology perspective that's leading business development now, which perhaps wasn't available some years ago?

LinkedIn Sales Navigator is crucial. I mean I'm not entirely sure how you can do your role in business development, if you don't use Navigator and by the way, I'm not getting paid for that plug, it's just something I use as often as Outlook.

For those who are listening or reading, who might have a Linkedin account, could you perhaps just expand on the functionality that you use within navigator that you think is so vital?

LinkedIn navigator gives you far greater power around searching for both businesses and individuals. It enables you to very rapidly search and save the important names, and their client companies. If you decide to target company X within ten minutes on Navigator I would have put together a fairly comprehensive map of who is who in the company.

It also gives you a very good snapshot and up-to-date understanding of that firm, because another feature is that every time someone within that named account, either changes their role, publishes an article, it comes up in a regular feed similar to the regular LinkedIn feed that you see on your home page. So it is a very powerful tool. 

Can I also make a comment about CRM? I think the caveat around investing in CRMs is that you could spend $1 million and get no benefit at all if the fundamental BD behaviours don't change amongst those people who use it. I think I can run a really good sales organization off an excel spreadsheet, if I have a team with the right behaviours. And that is not to say they're not worthwhile, they are very good business tools however you've got to have the right behaviours to get the most out of it, otherwise you're just wasting your money.

So LinkedIn owe you some dollars but Salesforce are about to withdraw your commission! Change and change management. A big topic. If some people are listening to this and they're trying to change the BD culture in their own organization, any pointers or advice on where they might start or where they might need to go?

I mentioned earlier about one of my frustrations around business development and that is its perception in business circles. It is tainted with this brush of it’s about fast talking sales people with a little sales trickery to close the deal. If you're trying to change to have more of a BD culture, you almost have to go back to some of the basics and give people reasons why they should change their perception of BD.

So tackling head on the reasons why people don’t like to be involved in sales or BD is one stream of training. Also in our organisation I have tried to change the language from “do you want to understand business development” to “do you want to understand how to grow a business”. And that is something that is more appealing to a younger generation of employees who may well go on to start their own business. Business Development is now sounding like a life skill for them to learn.

It is also important not to push too hard on business development in ways like forcing targets and metrics e.g. make five calls a day, have five meetings a week or whatever the number is, it just doesn't work and especially in professional services where organisations have attracted people because of the work they do. And if someone disagrees with this, I would ask them where in  the recruitment and orientation of staff do they emphasises this as part of the role going forward.

There is a high chance that they don’t so how can you then throw that into the job. It very rarely works. A much better approach is to build up confidence, understanding, interest and motivation around BD. Then you will get the outputs that you want, or you will lose your staff or as often happens, get very clunky and awkward attempts at BD.

Slight change of tac, if we may look at pricing and the way that professional services are charged for. There has been a significant attempt in many professional services firms to try and drop the billable hour, but it seems to be like a cockroach. It's not dying. I would suspect that probably 80% or more of professional services are still charged in that way. Do you have a view on the way that services are charged for or should be?

Quite often it's the clients who want this, they want that transparency and they also want comparability, when they've got four proposals in front of them. As much as possible, they want to be able to see how they all compare. And sometimes this is driven by procurement particularly in larger organizations.

Also I've seen a few alternative ideas over time including introducing risk reward sharing where you go to an organization and you position the project where you think you can deliver a bottom line benefit or you think you can assist growing a product or service line and then seek a $ or % share of that benefit.

I've tried it myself, tried to explain it to clients and they rejected it most of the time. And the simple reason is, information asymmetry - that they feel that the advisor who's bringing that type of deal knows a lot more than them. The risk is on their side. I don’t have as much risk because I know exactly how to achieve that $ benefit and I am going to get this massive kind of payback. I found clients speak very cynical about that type of pricing. So you can't win, can you?

Many people are predicting bad things for accounting and many of the professionals to be replaced by robots. So how do you see the future of the profession of business development? I'm guessing it's hard to get a robot to replace a salesperson if I'm allowed to use the term.

Yeah, yeah, sure. I think that the personal interaction is crucial. In professional services BD I don't really see the BD/ marketing / client facing type of role being replaced because understanding and securing the client relationship and contract is about how you interact and respond with individual executives. In other sectors I'm not qualified to answer that. Maybe there's some sort of slow robot invasion but I don't envisage that I'll be hanging out my suit for the last time and handing over all my meeting notes to a robot. 

I guess a lot of it is relationship build and it's hard to take that away from you.

I would struggle to see how some sort of robotic intelligence could sit here, this is what we're talking about, you and I sitting across the table drinking tea, having a discussion, having to respond to those facial and body triggers, the challenges and objections that you have to overcome from clients in discussions. That's beyond any kind of robotic intelligence. I think that is genuine.

Someone who's starting out in the business development function. With your benefit of hindsight and your knowledge, what type of advice might you give them?

You should always try and do what you like and you enjoy. I enjoy coming into work and doing what I do. And if I didn't then I certainly should be thinking about something else. Also the advice is to get yourself a mentor or a coach, you get yourself that individual who you know is going to help you or try to help you and is on your side.

One of the observations that junior people often say to me is that we don't have a network yet.

Oh yes they do.

So they say, what advice would you give me to try and build my personal brand? It sounds like you have some advice to give them.

Most people, would have had some sort of higher education, college, university or some sort of professional qualification and they would have studied with five or ten people. There you have one part of your network, and it's as simple as linking in with them and keeping in with people, as people's roles change. 

You also will develop networks in your social arena, through sports or through the senior schools that you went to, I think it's important if you're in business development that you connect with those individuals. And I'll emphasize It's not because you're looking to sell them something because you should never be that craven with your personal friends, but the lesson is that friends will try and help you, friends will always help you if you're asking them for a little bit of advice or insight about an organization or industry that they know and that can often be very helpful as you are researching your opportunity.

The other thing is once you start getting familiar with certain industries, say it's financial services or construction, these big ones that are driving work in the Sydney market, it pays to get involved in the industry associations, because they're pretty much run and driven by volunteer professionals and they're always looking for the next generation of people to come through. You attend events, you make some friends and you learn about the industry as well. 

Okay, good advice. I'm conscious of time and I should allow you to add some colour to your own personality and not have people think it's all work and no play. So what does John do when he's not doing Business Development?

Well, I have a family and I greatly enjoy going home in the evenings and being with my wife and son. I always try and find time in the morning when it's just myself, be it reading or whatever I feel that I need to do. I think that is critical as you get older and life is busier.

You have to find that time that is just for yourself and you put yourself first. Number one. I also like a glass of wine at the weekends, and am very passionate about football and all your listeners and readers will hear soccer, I'm passionate about that and that's maybe natural given my accent and I will put in a plug for one of the finest teams in the world, Arsenal!  

I've been very lucky that in life and in work over the years, I've managed to get to many countries and that's hugely important, I think particularly in Australia where we are positioned geographically, that everyone gets that opportunity to go and see how it works everywhere else and I don't mean in terms of business, just what life is like.

Thank you very much indeed John. Thank you for your time.