About

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How Much Do You Earn?, and other difficult questions for a consultant

Do you remember the first time you spoke to somebody at the top?

I do. I was terrified.

Two days into my first job, I was shouted at by a dozen of them. I was shaking.

Here’s what happened:

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Day 1. I was given a desk and a list of the top 100 law firms in London, plus a list of all the partners.

My job was to phone partners at every firm, and ask how their financial year had gone. I had to find out:

gross turnover;
profit margin;
how profit was shared, and
between how many partners;
what junior partners earned,
and senior partners;
and how long it took partners to reach the top.

There was no reason why anybody should answer my questions.

It was none of my business. I wasn’t a consultant. I was a trainee journalist.

Lawyers, in those days, didn’t talk to journalists – certainly not about private matters like this.

My heart raced, but I picked up the phone, and started making calls…

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Within hours, I had spoken to a LOT of very senior lawyers.

Most slammed the phone down within seconds.

A few listened first, amused by my cheek.

Some tipped off their firm’s management, who immediately phoned me to administer a bollocking. (British term for scolding.)

But I kept calling.

One man, at a firm I’d not heard of – one of the very biggest – gasped in disbelief when I told him why I had phoned:

“Wait a minute! You want me to tell you how much I earn? And my partners too?”

I said: Yes, please.

Expecting him to hang up like the rest, I started scanning my lists for the next call…

But he didn’t hang up.

This one did something different.

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He gently placed the phone on his desk – I heard a soft tap – then he moved towards a filing cabinet, which I heard him opening.

He closed the drawer and came back. I heard a whump as he put down (I guessed) a heavy file.

My heart started pounding.

He picked up the receiver again.

“Right… what do you want to know?”

He told me everything.

And you wouldn’t believe which law firm this was.

Perhaps I’ll tell you…

But first, I need to explain something.

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I didn’t WANT to be a journalist on a legal magazine. I wanted to be a novelist.

But training as a reporter gave me some incredibly valuable skills.

Skills that I would later use to write for some of the best publications in English:

The Financial Times magazine (which I launched in 2003)
The Guardian
The Sunday Times
And many more (but I won’t list them because your time is precious)

Skills that went into the five books I’ve published (so far), including fiction, in 16 languages.

But there’s something else.

That baptism of fire, telephoning lawyers, gave me something I didn’t expect: a lasting interest in how conversations work.

Because the way we talk to other people, and how we listen, makes all the difference in the world.

You have probably seen that for yourself, many times over.

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As well as prying into their financial affairs, working as a young journalist required me to engage with eminent legal figures:

Managing partners at top-five firms
Top QCs
Law lords

It’s unusual for somebody so young (mid-20s) to get access to people like this, with great minds and imposing personalities.

It’s more unusual still to be allowed to ask tough questions.

I soaked it up.

And with the arrogance of youth I sometimes dished out robust criticism.

Richly deserved, in many cases, because they were screwing things up for clients and giving their colleagues a hard time.

I may have gone too far occasionally.

But I’ve grown up a bit.

I’ve come to understand the difficulties faced by people at the top.

And these days, when I work with them, it’s as a consultant. A trusted adviser.

I still ask difficult questions, and some find that awkward.

But it’s the only way to get clear on strategy…

…and how to communicate it to the people who matter…

…so that everybody gets on board.

I share storytelling skills that keep people’s attention (as I seem to have done here – thank you for reading).

I show how to leave your audience desperate to hear more.

I can teach you to do that. And I’d love to.

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But I don’t have many openings to work one-to-one.

If you are really determined to work with me, read THIS, then get in touch.

I look forward to hearing from you.

JP Flintoff

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