How acting like a politician can help you win more clients

Can political figures teach professional services executives about winning hearts and minds? Absolutely, says Dominic Houlder.


As 17th century French playwright and actor Molière once said, “It’s hard to dislike politics without also disliking people.” That may be true, but it doesn’t stop people dismissing today’s politicians as ignorant, selfish, greedy or even corrupt.

For many, politics is a dirty word. But Dominic Houlder, Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, believes politicians possess skills that make them indispensable. They build powerful coalitions, quickly assess and adapt to any environment and know how to negotiate and bargain with others – attributes that all professional services executives should master.  

When teaching on the Professional Services: Next Generation Leadership programme, Houlder shows executives how finding their inner politician can help them retain existing and win new clients. “Imagine you’re a partner in a big law or accountancy firm and you develop a fantastic proposition for an existing client that ticks all those procurement boxes and offers outstanding value for money – but then they dump you anyway,” he says. “Every professional services person experiences this and it seems unfair, so what goes wrong? I would argue that you misread the organisation.”

Companies like to present themselves as well-oiled machines but are often more like jungles, says Houlder. When entering a ‘jungle-like’ business with many different ‘beasts’, professional services experts have to establish how far people will go to better themselves or their own fiefdoms, or whether they’re more interested in working for the good of the business. 

“We have to think of organisations as coalitions, interest groups and individuals with different values, beliefs and perceptions,” Houlder says. “In companies where things are difficult and uncertain, with complicated structures or where responsibilities aren’t clear, you’ll find that decisions get made in a hard or shrewd manner and not on rational grounds alone.”

Within those coalitions, you need to work out people’s agendas and aspirations. “You can do that by talking to colleagues in your own firm who might already be connected to a range of people at the client company,” Houlder says. “You also do it by speaking to former colleagues who now work for the client, or by getting the office gossip when meeting people from the client organisation. With that information, you can work out who has the power and how they stand in relation to you and your firm. Are they fans or potential blockers?” 

Office politics

Professional services experts should emulate politicians who can identify people in a range of roles and establish how much power they wield. Houlder says that this information is key to developing relationships with the coalitions needed to win new or retain existing clients.

He adds that businesses driven by politics can be difficult to read. Identifying the key decision maker may be straightforward, but knowing who in the company influences them can be tricky. Does the decision maker take guidance from their staff? If so, you need to find common ground with those influencers. 

“Who are these people and how much do they matter? What kind of power do they have? Who are your firm’s allies?” Houlder says. “You need to know who you’re dealing with and the coalition you should work with long before submitting an actual proposal. If you do that, the proposal is much more likely to fly.
“As any politician will tell you, dealing with people is about intense personal curiosity and not taking things personally. As a professional services expert, you aren’t going into an organisation to get respect, liking or anything else. Not worrying about what people think gives you a great deal of freedom and it makes it much easier to read who’s in the room, because you’re thinking about them rather than yourself. 

“You need a certain degree of humility; if this is about you going into a firm and projecting yourself, you’ll miss the subtle signals that tell you much about how the business works. There’s something around curiosity, listening and exploring – skills that most successful politicians possess – rather than wading in and saying, ‘Have I got a proposition for you’.”

Friend or foe?

While forging relationships takes time, working out who holds power in the organisation can be relatively quick and straightforward. “You may be able to assess that from a meeting with the client,” Houlder says. “You can sometimes sense the powerful people in the room, because those with less power tend to be more rational or persuasive. Sometimes, the more powerful people aren’t liked or they’re talked about in a more careful and neutral way. It’s often the person who speaks less in a meeting who is the most powerful.”

The biggest challenge for professional services executives is to put their expertise to one side when building networks within the client organisation. As Houlder points out, lawyers and accountants at the top firms have invested heavily in university degrees, post-graduate qualifications and professional training to become experts in their respective fields. Their natural instinct is to use their expertise to dazzle the client when they should be trying to connect with them on a personal level. 

“Professional services experts don’t like looking silly,” Houlder says. “When they get into the ‘jungle’, they feel naked and have to leave behind the things that make them feel comfortable like a PowerPoint deck. Politicians are very good at having conversations on many levels, which is something that lawyers and accountants should strive for when it comes to dealing with their clients.”

The message to lawyers and accountants is clear: if you want to win repeat or new business, don’t worry about being popular – think and act like a politician.    

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