Lessons from Leaders

Not a Job for the Faint of Heart
by Maureen Broderick

"The challenge is really how to take this very, very talented, high-strung group and mold them into a confident, cohesive team. It would be easier if they were less talented and more malleable."   Ralph Shrader, Chairman and CEO, Booz Allen Hamilton

Of all the ingredients in the professional service mix, leadership is probably the most essential to success – and often the most elusive. In most industries the person in the corner office calls the shots. Operating within a traditional command-and-control environment is relatively straightforward: the divisions between leading, managing, and following are clearly defined and widely understood. In contrast, the matrix structure that most professional service firms have embraced is a far more dynamic business model; it’s flat, fluid, fragmented, and often unruly. “In a partnership,” observed one CEO, “everyone’s an owner, so you have to make sure that everyone’s interest is heard and dealt with.”

In a professional service setting, influence trumps control. Leadership requires powerful motivational skills and adroit maneuvering, coupled with the willingness to make tough calls and to take the heat for them. It also requires a consummate communicator to manage a partnership of equals in which everyone is an owner and entrepreneur.

In the course of conducting research for my book, The Art of Managing Professional Services, we asked over 130 interviewees to describe the most important characteristics of a successful service firm leader. By a wide margin, the traits they believe define successful leadership fall under the umbrella of strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. In fact, of the 12 success characteristics identified in our interviews, only one, “understands the business,” involves technical expertise. The other 11 qualities considered essential for effective leadership can accurately be described as soft skills necessary to effectively navigate the interpersonal dynamics of a partnership enterprise.

Good Influencer/Builder of Coalition

When everyone in an organization is an owner, intellectually intense, and has a view of what should be done and how it should be accomplished, getting the buy-in necessary to make decisions can be an arduous process for those at the helm.  Building consensus in an entrepreneurial environment requires a gifted facilitator. This person must command respect, inspire confidence, and reinforce cultural values within a firm’s partner corps, while also reassuring individual performers that their experience and expertise will be recognized and rewarded. Shifting between mobilizing a partnership around pivotal decisions and managing the needs and expectations of what one CEO called “anxious overachievers” requires enormous patience and mental agility.

Inspirational and Passionate

“A good leader is someone who uses their mind for a sense of direction and analysis, their heart to manage the people, and their guts to have clear values and vision.”  David Dotlich, Founder and Chairman, Pivot Leadership

The ability to inspire and excite people around ideas, strategies, and opportunities is one of the most compelling traits of a leader in virtually every industry. But when the business is dependent on strong individual performance, the ability to inspire people to operate at optimal levels and consistently provide excellent client service is of paramount importance. Passion, energy, and enthusiasm are the currency leaders use to obtain buy-in from their colleagues. As one managing partner told us, “If you don’t passionately care about the business and the service you provide and the value you are bringing to clients, you should find something else to do.”

Visionary

Our respondents placed high value on a leader’s ability to create, clearly articulate, and align a partnership around a vision and then sustain that vision in the face of external and internal pressures. Time and again in our interviews, we heard that professional service leadership isn’t just about the power of ideas; it’s about emotionally engaging people around a shared vision. That vision must be both compelling and attainable in order to mobilize people to pursue it and to keep them on course. Respondents caution that leadership without followership does not work. Paul Reilly, CEO of financial services firm Raymond James, explained the concept, “The problem with leaders is that sometimes they convince themselves they’ve earned the right to lead, and they charge the next hill, and they turn around and there are no troops behind them."

Good Listener

Almost one-third of respondents identified strong listening skills as one of the key requirements for successfully guiding a professional service firm. Here again, many interviewees raised the issue of striking a balance between listening long enough and well enough to gather input from the right people without being overwhelmed by the force of their positions or paralyzed by the diversity of their opinions. The appetite for debate in a professional service firm can be almost insatiable. A good listener leaves his or her ego at the door while skillfully managing the egos of others. As one firm leader told us, “Strong leadership is grounded in the ability to listen and to be able to incorporate a lot of partner voices into a cohesive course of action – a program and a plan for how to move the company forward.”

Good Communicator

“You’ve got to convince people with whom you are working that they want to follow your vision.”   Ben Fisher, COO, Perkins+Will

Effective leaders stay connected. They visit the trenches to identify issues and problems that need handling, they stay attuned to shifting levels of client and partner satisfaction, and they know the key internal stakeholders and regularly reach out to them. Bruce Boulware, retired COO of law firm O’Melveny & Myers, explained the dynamics, “Communication involves connection, constructive candor, and listening. It also involves curiosity – seeking contrasting views. That’s how you get creativity and innovation and create forward thinking in a structured environment.”

Understands the Business

Understanding the business is a given for leaders of professional service firms. Virtually all the leaders we interviewed grew up in their respective professions and are highly skilled and respected in their areas of expertise. Many have spent their entire careers in the organizations they now lead. All have managed some of their firm’s most valued client relationships and have generated significant revenue over time. Some leaders acknowledge that the best client service professionals are sometimes not the best firm leaders. Leading a firm and leading a client engagement require very different sets of skills. However, no one we interviewed contested the importance of having hands-on knowledge of the business.

Without a question, leading a professional service firm isn’t for the faint of heart. A successful leader of professionals wears an impressive array of hats: visionary, values watchdog, motivational coach, consensus builder, and, in many cases, rainmaker and revenue generator as well. As one CEO summed up, “There’s an under appreciation of what it takes to lead businesses like this – better be darn sure you want to do it.”

 

Maureen Broderick is founder and CEO of Broderick & Company (www.broderickco.com), a consulting firm specializing in strategy, training, and research for professional services. Her new book, The Art of Managing Professional Services: Insights from Leaders of the World’s Top Firms (www.theartofmanagingprofessionalservices.com), was published in November 2010 by Wharton School Publishing.