I received an article in the mail from one of my clients last week. It’s written by a Brian Martin, general counsel at a technology firm and poses a question that I’ve heard repeatedly from leaders of in-house professionals (legal, HR, IT, accounting) over the past several years.

  • What are the competitive advantages of internal professionals?
  • How can in-house professionals cultivate the value they provide to the business?

Too often when I work with internal professionals, they try to make cost their competitive advantage. “We cost less than those incredibly expensive outside resources.” This is often a dangerous line of argument to take with internal clients. Internal resources are rarely seen as inexpensive by their internal “clients” and cost leadership is a difficult advantage to maintain anyway.

The author’s conclusion is that in-house professionals have the unique ability to focus on one client and to become “students of their firms and their people.” Learn the company’s products, services, strategies, and challenges. Learn the people who make the organization run. (You can click here to read the entire article.)

This is easy to say and difficult to do in real life. Here are just a few of the barriers that I’ve heard in-house professionals share, any one of which makes “learning the business” a real challenge:

  • We don’t get invited to the table. Line business executives simply don’t include us until they simply need approval.
  • We’re busy. We’re under extremely tight timelines and simply don’t have the time to invest in learning the business.
  • I’m a technical expert. My internal clients know they can call me and I’ll give them expert advice. They’re happy with that and I’m comfortable with it.
  • I don’t know how to learn more about the business and the key people. Where do we start?

Many professionals encounter these barriers and wind up back in their offices, just cranking out the work requested of them by their business partners. But I’ve seen some take on the challenge with gusto. These unusual professionals are the ones who end up over time being invited to the strategy table and how contribute in a way that an outside professional simply can’t.

Here are the practices that seem to set these people apart:

  • They orchestrate opportunities to interact with key business leaders (vs. just responding) so that they can learn more about the business.
  • They plan and sequence these opportunities so that they have broad, deep exposure to the different people who shape the business.
  • They have a ready-made set of questions that can quickly help them learn about the business: its priorities, its key processes, and how it measures performance.
  • They ask, “What are you trying to achieve in the business this year?” more than “What do you expect of our department?” This allows them to see opportunities for creating value beyond just responding to the typical requests that people make of them.

What else do you see internal practitioners do that makes them uniquely valuable?