Key leadership activities for a professional services firm

Although the nature of professional services is changing, with firms experiencing greater internal demands from professionals and greater external demands from clients, the majority of leaders are using old frameworks and ways of thinking to fashion makeshift behaviours to meet the new challenges, according to Thomas DeLong, John Gabarro and Robert Lees in their book When Professionals Have to Lead: a New Model for High Performance. The book provides a new framework for leading and managing professional services firms, called the integrated leadership model.

The new model proposed by the authors consists of four interrelated sets of leadership activities:

  • Setting direction, which involves articulating the firm’s objectives and how the work of professionals relates to those objectives
  • Gaining commitment to the direction, which is necessary to make professionals feel involved and included
  • Execution, which involves follow-through and accountability to ensure that financial goals are met and people do what they promise to do
  • Setting a personal example, which requires the leader to embody the firm’s stated values and goals

While I thoroughly agree with the importance of these four sets of activities, I am left wondering whether there is anything particularly new about them. I would have thought that these have always been important activities for successful leadership of a professional services firm.

The book contains chapters on why professional service firms require a different style of management from that required by product-producing businesses, using segmentation to respond to commoditisation pressures, the importance of strategic differentiation, how to motivate and develop high achievers, and the important role played by professionals who are “solid performers” rather than stars.

The book’s title refers to the fact that professionals are often not well equipped for leadership in a firm. It is often quite confronting for a newly-promoted professional to be faced with the demands and opposition of erstwhile friendly colleagues. I expected the book to deal more extensively with this problem, including in particular how to identify the best candidates for leadership positions and how professionals can work towards acquiring a suitable range of leadership skills.

Notwithstanding these minor issues, in my opinion the book makes a valuable contribution to the field of professional services firm management, and is useful reading for anyone in or aspiring to a professional services firm leadership role.

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