Seven themes on assertiveness, effectiveness and impact – We’re all in the same boat on fee-earner relationships

At a recent PM Forum workshop on “Assertiveness, effectiveness and impact” a key insight was the reassuring realisation that we are all in the same boat on fee-earner relationships. Seven themes on assertiveness, effectiveness and impact emerged on fee-earner relationships (guilt, value, variety, impact, influence, questions and time).

1. Ignore the guilt

As marketers, we advocate a client-centred, responsive service by our fee-earners for our external clients. And naturally we have to be exemplary role models in providing such a service internally. So when fee-earners come to us it feels uncomfortable when we need to decline to help.  So often we will accept their requests and provide assistance in areas that are not strategic priorities or part of our role. So then we spread ourselves too thinly and have insufficient time to deliver the results against which we are measured. So our contribution and effectiveness is reduced. It’s a difficult balancing act – especially for younger and less experienced members of the M&BD team. We need to work smarter – do less but achieve more. And not feel guilty when we maintain boundaries.

2. Add value in every interaction

To build credibility and trust we need to ensure that every interaction with fee-earners adds value. If they know that they will always benefit from talking to us – or gaining something useful from meetings – then they will be available and engaged. It might be simply providing support or ideas. It’s just like in selling – we need to show we understand what they want and prove that we can deliver benefits and results. We have to win them over. We may have to start small before we can move on to challenging their thinking.

3. Mix it up – add variety

If we continue to do the same things, we will get the same results. So we need to mix it up. Fee-earners will often “zone out” when we repeat the same things in the same way at every meeting. By preparing different approaches, unusual information and novel activities we add the element of surprise. And this keeps people alert and engaged.

4. Show your impact

Too often we talk about the things that remain to be done. Talk about what has been achieved and the results obtained. Ultimately, we are measured on our outputs and not our inputs . Focus – driven by the strategic plan – will enable us to make better use of the time available to achieve results.

5. Harness the power of questions

If we tell people what to do (push communications) they are likely to resist.  But if we ask questions (pull communications) we are more likely to be in a collaborative space. By skilful questioning – like that used in coaching – we can help the fee-earners reach the right answers themselves.  It’s a more consultative way of working rather than directive. Hopefully, we’ll achieve the sleeper effect – where they believe that they are the source of the ideas.

6. Use a variety of tools of influence

The starting point for influence is empathy. And we develop empathy by seeing things from the fee-earners’ perspective – the pressure they are under, the targets they must meet, the fees they must earn and the client demands they must respond to immediately. We build empathy by asking questions. And listening carefully to what they say.  And we can draw on a variety of influencing tools – such as those identified by Cialdini (there’s a short video on his six principles of persuasion) and covered in this book by James Borg.

7. Manage “Lastminitis”

Another common issue that prevents us from doing our best work is “lastminitus” – when fee-earners ask for assistance at the last minute. Everything is urgent! They want everything now! Naturally, we want to help and get them out of hole with last minute preparations for articles, videos, events or pitches. But we also know that we can’t achieve the best outcome for them with so little time available. A pragmatic approach is to help them on the first occasion and explain that you can do much more with more time available. And then – with senior management support – maintain the required advance notice guidelines in the future. Another approach is to take the time (yes, I know it’s hard) to produce a really great version of what they wanted and show it to them so they know what is possible when more notice is given.

Other ideas discussed by delegates

It’s different in professional services – Those delegates who had worked in other industries and sectors were relieved to know that the “culture shock” they experienced working in professional services was common. The way that marketing and business development is conducted in a professional services firm – primarily through the fee-earners – is different. It changes the nature of our role and the way we design and implement campaigns and activities.

Give and receive feedback – We talked about the need to give and receive feedback.  It’s a key part of assertiveness. These quotes illustrate its importance:

“Feedback is a gift. Ideas are the currency of our next success. Let people see you value both feedback and ideas.” Jim Trinka and Les Wallace

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” Bill Gates

“Employees who report receiving recognition and praise within the last seven days show increased productivity, get higher scores from customers, and have better safety records. They’re just more engaged at work.” Tom Rath

Build credibility and confidence – We need to develop more knowledge of the services our fee-earners provide and the markets and clients they serve. We expect them to learn about marketing and business development. It’s only right they should expect us to take an interest and learn about their services and markets.

Manage expectations and educate – This links to the “Lastminitus” point above. We need good communication with fee-earners so that they know what we are doing, and why and how. If they are unaware of the consequences of their requests, they can’t modify their demands. So part of managing expectations is to educate them on what can and can’t be achieved within the time and resource constraints.

Build your presence and personal brand – We spend much of our time helping fee-earners to build their presence and profile externally. We need to apply the same principles to build our own presence and profile. We looked at a number of resources to help us do this:

Be more visible – the PVI model (

assertiveness, impact and effectiveness ( (The PIA model)

Building a personal brand – Key Person of Influence (

Lessons in leadership – personal brand, presence, stages (

Brand Basics (Video) – What is a brand? Why are brands important? (

Key themes and takeaways

The delegates selected the following key themes and takeaways from the session:

  • Add value at every meeting
  • Ask more questions
  • Be more assertive
  • Boost my own self-confidence
  • Build trust with fee-earners
  • Clarifying the brief – take time to consider a task before agreeing
  • Eat the frog – tackle unpleasant or postponed activities early
  • Empathy with the fee-earner perspective 
  • Face-to-face meetings achieve more (34 times more effective at achieving agreement than telephone or email requests)
  • Fee-earners face the same challenge as us – not enough time
  • Improve communication with teammates and fee-earners
  • Manage fee-earner expectations
  • Manage time (for myself and fee-earners) better
  • Offer more ideas
  • Reframe how I see fee-earners 
  • Suggest alternatives rather than just saying “No”
  • Working smarter – focus on everyone’s goals

Delegate poll results

There were polls throughout the session – selected results are shared.

At the outset, we asked delegates about levels of confidence in their roles – although there was a wide spread of responses (from 5 to 9) a third scored 7.

It was gratifying to see that even during Covid delegates felt they had made a big impact. 50% of the delegates scored 7 and 8. Another encouraging result was that nearly 90% felt that their fee-earners trusted them in some things.

A more worrying results was that two thirds say that they often or always said “Yes” when they wanted to say “No”. And over 50% said that they struggled with time management or faced too many conflicting priorities.

The assertiveness self-assessments were also surprising – with nearly two thirds feeling that they are mostly passive. A worrying score was the over 50% felt stressed quite often or all the time. A third felt their goals were unclear compared to two thirds who felt they were clear.

Previous session summaries

Assertiveness skills – getting what you want and saying “No” ( March 2017

Insights into assertiveness, confidence and effectiveness ( October 2020

improve impact, assertiveness and effectiveness for marketing and BD ( Aug 2019

Be more confident and convey confidence – top tips (  June 2019 (There’s also an eight minute video on being more confident)

assertiveness, impact and effectiveness ( Mar 2018

Assertiveness confidence and effectiveness ( July 2011