Is referral and networking enough to build my Portfolio Executive workstyle?

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Many of the Portfolio Executives I work with have had no experience of going out and doing anything more in terms of self-promotion than applying for jobs with a CV through an agent. The idea of doing some kind of outbound marketing and some kind of focussed selling can be very very challenging.

Does it have to be done that way?

In my experience there are some professions where you can get most of what you need just through referrals and networking.  Finance and HR are the most obvious ones.  Every business at a certain scale needs people to help them with their finance function and their strategic HR development. And your network, the people you already know, will be very familiar with what a finance function and what an HR function does.

If I think about the Finance Directors and HR Directors that I have worked with, they have got most of their work through referrals and networking.  But that does not mean that work just comes towards them.  Referrals and networking are an active activity that you need to commit time and resources to.  Importantly, you need to develop your networking skills. You need to get better and better at understanding what your ‘60 second elevator pitch’ would be.  You need to learn how to nurture and develop your network. You need to know what the right kind of ask is, who the right person is to ask, and you need to understand that in the networking world and the referral world the BNI motto ‘Givers Gain’ holds true over and over again.

When referrals and networking isn’t enough

For some of the Portfolio Executives that I work with the immediate pool of relationships that they’ve got doesn’t give them enough opportunities to build up the portfolio they want.  This is particularly true if they have expertise that requires engagement with larger businesses.  So, for example many of the IT Directors or the Transformation Directors or the Operations Directors that I work with have to be intentional about positioning themselves and using platforms like LinkedIn to develop their reputation, build new relationships and create opportunities for those conversations which are going to enable potential clients to buy their services.

In my experience, you do not have to see yourself as a salesperson.  Many of us have been, as professionals from professional families, brought up with a scepticism, even a prejudice, against salespeople.  You imagine you need to become the classic double-glazing salesman, or the person who cold calls you to try and sell you a broadband service or to get you to switch your mobile provider.  These are what sales nightmares are made of.   Even that person who sold you that wonderful family car, might have been approaching you with a deal-shaping mentality which is repugnant to you.

Enabling to buy

What we are trying to do is enable people, who have a real need, to go on a journey which results in them buying from us.  You don’t need very many people to buy from you.  If you have a portfolio of five clients and they stay with you for, on average, five years then you only need to find a new client once a year.  But getting your story out there is important.

Getting the story out there

I worked with a corporate finance professional who got most of his work from law firms. And there were two places he got that work from in a law firm.  One was divorce lawyers where they needed expert valuations of complex assets.  The other was corporate transactions where they wanted someone who could help with the fundraising, support the corporate due diligence and in effect develop the valuation.  What he needed to do was to actively nurture and extend the relationships he had.  So, he needed to move from having a relationship with just one partner in the law firm to building a relationship with senior associates and other partners in the same law firm. When a lawyer moves form one firm to another, he follows them there.  When in a divorce case he is collaborating with an expert on the other side, or as a court appointed joint expert, he can build a relationship with a law firm on the other side.  As an independent professional, you can work with lots of different law firms.  It was quite a long time down the road before he developed a website – which is in effect a more sophisticated calling card.  Now, when somebody picks up his name on LinkedIn or finds that dusty busines card in the back of their top drawer and checks him out, there is a compelling story for others to read.

He adopted a very simple but structured approach which was just going out and having more cups of coffee, more lunches.  Or picking up the phone and having a chat.  Lawyers are wonderful gossips, and they love to have a chat. He now nurtures those business relationships. I know that this process has enabled him to rapidly double and even triple his daily fee rate over the relatively short period of time we worked together.

Shifting the mindset

Ironically, some of the people who struggle most with going out and finding new work are people from Sales, Marketing and Business Development backgrounds.  They are confident in selling someone else’s product, confident in developing someone else’s business but there is some psychological block that occurs when they start to turn the attention on their own offer.  I think a lot of this is it starts to feel intensely personal.  You are no longer the salesperson who can blame the marketing department or the quality of service or the price. You’re no longer the marketing person who can complain about the fact that salesmen don’t close your leads, or the products aren’t quite up to spec. You’re no longer the business development person who can say ‘if only we had a better service offer or we had better project management or better account management, or better alliances then I could demonstrate the true value I’ve got for the business I work for.

The buck stops with you and that can be quite unsettling.

Quite a lot of what I do when I’m working with those people is to help them shift their mindset so it’s no longer about whether they are being personally accepted or personally rejected.  They know because their professional disciplines tell them, that it’s a numbers game.  The more ‘Noes; the sooner you get a ‘Yes’.  They know that it’s the proposition not the personality that people ultimately buy, and they know that people who don’t have a need will never buy. So of course, some of the people that they approach won’t have a need. That kind of mindset shift for those in the Sales, Marketing, Business Development arena is exactly the kind of mindset shift that actually all Portfolio Executives need to take on.

Of course, people buy people; but only when they have got a need and they know that you are an expert on their problem


So, do I have to sell to build a Portfolio Executive workstyle? Not necessarily.

But do I have to be intentional about nurturing and developing opportunities?  Absolutely.

And if you only start looking for work when you need work you will end up with a famine and a feast experience that ultimately undermines your Portfolio Executive workstyle.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.