When Professionals Have To Manage

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Having worked in various leadership positions in Professional Services over the last 35 years, I’ve noted how firms small and large struggle with knowing how to manage. What’s the goal of good management? It’s to realize its business objectives: growth, partner profitability, cash flow, employee development, client retention, or some combination. At some point in their growth, many firms realize it is a lack of management capabilities that are causing them to plateau.

I recall an article in the Harvard Business Review, “When professionals have to manage” (behind a paywall but free to create an account). This was published many years ago, but in my experience, I have found it applicable today. The article’s point: what happens when these firms realize that good management is a key to realizing their business objectives?

Most firms choose leaders for their ability or potential as lawyers, accountants, or consultants, not managers. Addressing longer-term strategic issues always seems to give way to short-term pressures of serving clients and managing staff. MBA’s and management specialists populated many of my Fortune 500 clients’ management teams. However, there were very few of those people found in the firms I worked for.

How do firms find (or create) professionals to manage the strategy, business, and people? Because initially, they are not hired and trained (or perhaps rewarded) for managing. A few thoughts to consider:

  • · Think longer-term. Professionals work with a short-term focus and often have rapid, measurable results. We can define a project and its milestones, watch as it progresses toward a conclusion, and get immediate feedback from a client. Managers, on the other hand, achieve results slowly, sometimes over several years.
  • · Choose good people. These people need to be perceived within the firm as having integrity. They need to understand other professionals’ needs, and they must have the skill of leading decision-making under complex and uncertain conditions. Successful business producers have a lot of autonomy and often maintain one-on-one relationships with key clients. On the other hand, managers have the skill to work with superiors, peers, and subordinates to achieve firm objectives.
  • · Consider producing managers. Putting the most productive producers into management roles can hurt business development and potentially client service. Placing poor managers into management roles confirms the traditional disdain for management. Producing managers are formally responsible for management activities, as well as engaged in client service. The key is to develop those people from within over time.
  • · Keep the organization structure simple. Base your management structure on function and geography and keep a flat system. A flat structure is more attractive to professionals who want autonomy to deal with a dynamic business climate (like now). I’ve worked in a matrix organizational structure, and while it may be effective for very large firms, it takes a cottage industry of support to keep it aligned and optimized.
  • · It’s a balancing act. People on the management track will have to get comfortable balancing their time between client service and management roles. You also have to compensate them for producing managerial results and not penalize them for spending needed time to help the firm achieve its objectives.

Have other ideas on professional services leadership? Let me know at njramsey@visorie.com, and as always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.