Are You the George Clooney of Your Market? 6 Strategies to Become a Bankable Star

“Get me Will Smith!”
“We need Sandra Bullock!”
“Call George Clooney!”

What do these three names have in common? They are all “Bankable Stars,” a term used to describe an actor who can give investors utter confidence that they will achieve a return on their money by ensuring a large box-office draw. They are rare, highly sought after, and earn the highest fees in the industry.

In business–in almost every market–there are advisors and service providers who are the equivalent of Bankable Stars in Hollywood. Like their west-coast brethren, they are also highly sought after and have very high fees. I call them “Bankable Advisors.” Some of these are individuals and some are firms.

Think about this from the client’s perspective. You are planning a leadership offsite and you’d like to hire a speaker. You’ll have your CEO in attendance. It’s a high profile event and you simply cannot afford anything less than an unqualified success. You want someone who will have  name recognition with the participants. Someone who can deliver, every time, a great speech. A speaker who will bring the latest and most interesting ideas to your management team. Someone who is, in short, bankable.

Are you a “Bankable Advisor,” or on your way to becoming one?

Examples of famous, individual Bankable Advisors would include Alan Dershowitz (law), Ram Charam (board consulting), Jim Collins (CEO consulting), Marshall Goldsmith (CEO coaching), and so on. Example of firms that historically have been Bankable Advisors could include Goldman Sachs (initial public offerings), McKinsey (strategy consulting), and IBM (computing). There are also individual Bankable Advisors who work inside a Bankable firm—Bain’s loyalty expert Fred Reicheld would be a good example of one.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a global eminence to achieve bankable status. Regardless of your professiona, in your particular market niche you can become a Bankable Advisor without the galactic notoriety of Good to Great author Jim Collins. Here are just two examples:

  • One of my clients is a sales executive who is considered one of the "most connected" individuals in the industry he serves. He's considered to be at the crossroads of market information, and executives eagerly await his calls and visits.
  • A friend of mine runs an upscale travel agency (yes, they still exist!) that caters to a demanding New York clientele. He knows the best, hottest places to go virtually anywhere in the word, and is the go-to luxury travel advisor for many wealthy business people.

So how do you become a Bankable Advisor who is sought after, earns high fees, and rarely has to respond to "RFPs"? There are six strategies you can pursue to move yourself towards bankability in the business world. Let’s look at each in turn:

1. Consistent Quality. You must build a reputation for consistent delivery, year in and year out. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley lead the IPO market because they are perceived to have reliably procured capital, at the right price, to hundreds of newly-listed companies. On the other hand, I’ve had clients who had so many historic quality issues that they struggled to identify reference clients when asked for their names by prospects. As a result, their margins have been cut and they face endless “Requests for Proposal.” I’ve heard this from dozens of top executives as they’ve talked about their most trusted advisors: ‘You have to deliver, deliver, deliver; and over time, my trust in you builds up.”

2. Consistent Thought Leadership. Some Bankable Advisors earn their stripes through writing books. But there are other ways of building a reputation as a thought leader. You can achieve this through deep industry focus, for example—by speaking at industry forums, writing articles for professional publications, and being known as the consultant to industry leaders. A good example of this is Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award, a program they have run every year for over 25 years–E&Y owns this space now. You must consistently engage in thought leadership activities over time—you can’t just write one article or hold one breakfast event and then declare victory. If you can produce, every year, a slow but steady stream of thoughtful perspectives on your chosen niche, you will notice a powerful “flywheel” effect that grows every year.

3. A Tangible Value proposition. Like movie stars, Bankable Advisors have a specific value proposition that people associate with them. For actor Liam Neeson, it’s delivering an “intelligent” action film; whereas for author Jim Collins it’s helping companies become great. Your public value proposition may not define everything you do with clients, but it’s the tip of the spear that you’re best known for. Mine, for example, is “Helping companies and individuals develop their clients for life.” Without a recognizable value proposition, you risk becoming just another fungible expert for hire.

4. Name recognition. Bankable advisors are well-known! And in truth, most of them work very hard at getting their name out in the marketplace. When you're bankable, potential clients in your geographic area, market niche, or industry segment think of your specialty, they think of YOU. There are a multitude of ways to achieve this type of “marketing gravity,” ranging from publishing to speaking to getting known as the advisor to several of the best companies in your industry. Google your own name–how many citations does it get? However known or unknown you are today, start planning two or three key activities that will increase your name recognition over the next 6-12 months. 

5. Scarcity. Bankable advisors are scarce. When you work for everyone, it dilutes your brand. This has been the downfall of some fashion designers (remember Pierre Cardin?) who put their name on everything in sight. But not everyone can hire Alan Dershowitz or Barry Scheck (the “DNA guy”), however, to defend themselves.

Not just any small company can hire Morgan Stanley to do their IPO. Think about the extreme case of Bruce Lee, the famed marital artist. He died right after his first Hollywood film was completed (“Enter the Dragon”), and he is still one of the most recognizable stars in the action flick genre. True, he was extraordinary—probably the best in history. But let’s face it, after the tenth Jet Li movie, the fascination wears off…

Bottom line: Bankable advisors turn down business business that isn’t just right for them and their brand in the marketplace.

6. High Fees. As a result of (1) through (5), Bankable Advisors are able to charge high fees. But there is more to it than that. Many researchers have demonstrated that high prices lead to high perceived value. What? The common wisdom is that high value leads to high fees, not the other way around! But think about it: When you buy a luxury BMW car, you EXPECT it to be fabulous. So on the road to becoming bankable you enter into a virtuous circle of ever-higher perceived value and fees. One other thing happens: part of your value comes from the fact that hiring you reduces risk for the person who has retained you. In other words, you add value just by virtue of your status as a well-known advisor.

Question: How far along are you on the continuum from unknown expert-for-hire to Bankable Advisor? What steps do you need to take to move further along towards being renowned in your particular market?

There’s a natural progression of fame that you should expect and enjoy. Jerry Panas, who is the co-author of my new book, Power Questions, notes this about his own career. Jerry is the undisputed Bankable Advisor in the field of philanthropy and fund raising. He’s written 14 books. He once asked the Duchess of Windsor for a donation. There is almost no-one in the non-profit sector who hasn’t heard of Jerry. No board of trustees will ever be criticized for hiring Jerry and his firm.

Here’s how the progression goes:
“Who’s Jerry Panas?”
“Get me Jerry Panas!”
“Get me a Jerry Panas Type!”
“Get me a young Jerry Panas!”
And someday…"Who’s Jerry Panas?”

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