Author: Rob Lees

I referenced the 16 June edition of LAW.COM’s Morning Minute, in which they reported on a survey by Marcie Borgal Shunk and Silvia Coulter, detailing how most law firms had prioritised business development training to the detriment of leadership training, in a recent short piece. In that note, I talked about what a comprehensive development programme should contain and why leadership was important. And yet, something, has continued to worry me (as a co-author of the best-selling, ‘When Professionals Have To Lead’). How, this author thought, could firms not understand that, with so many firms trying to do exactly the same thing (making competition cutthroat in most markets) that professional services is all about implementation – about executing more effectively and efficiently than your competitors. And, if that’s the case, how could they possibly not understand that at the top of every partner’s thinking has to be that everything the firm does must be best practice.  Because that’s what happens in the top professional firms, where it is all about being the best and winning the game.

Which takes me back to my concerns about the lack of focus on leadership. After all, partners are the leaders in professional service firms – what they do and how they do it determines what and how things get done in every firm. And, that is especially true of the partners who are either the heavy-hitting client service partners or members of the team in the privileged position of leading the firm on behalf of their fellow partners.

Being the best has to put ensuring the firm scans the business environment for best practice at the top of every partner’s radar – but if you are the managing partner/CEO or a board member, it really has to be firmly at the top alongside ensuring that best practice becomes a realty in the firm.

So, why, in most firms, is it not?

The answer, I think, is absolutely clear: most partners’ expertise is grounded in technical excellence and client service not leading or managing teams, practices or firms.  In the absence of any formal leadership education and support, most inevitably struggle with knowing what their role entails. In my experience, there’s never been a job description you can pull out of a drawer that you can slavishly follow and, rarely at all, does anything explain the ‘how.’ This absence of a holistic understanding of how to lead a firm shouldn’t be a surprise and nor is it a criticism, but, to a lot of firms, it is a distinct hindrance.

To try and help overcome the confusion over the ‘what’, I have selected some of the headlines from my work on what successful professional service firms do, and why being the best at everything you do is a fundamental part of that. I appreciate that this is yet more information and that turning it into specific activities can be a problem but, as I am sure most partners would say when dealing with technical issues, if you don’t know or are unsure about what advice to give, ask. It isn’t me as I’m retired but in my experience there some great consultants out there, who have extensive knowledge of helping firms move their operations to the next level.

To help people kickstart their thinking about the ‘how’ and the help they might need, I have followed the ‘successful firms’ headlines with my thoughts and observations surrounding changing behaviour in professional firms – and that will be the challenge facing most firms: how do we move from where we are to being a firm whose beliefs and activities match the very best.

So, here’s the list of ‘successful firms’ headlines. Both these and the set on changing behaviour have been generated from desk research and, critically, from my work, over twenty years, within and with some of the best professional service firms in the world.

What Successful Firms Do

 They have a clear vision and strategies for getting there

  • They think markets as well as clients
  • They have a deep, deep client orientation
  • They believe their people are as important as their clients
  • They have a high performance ethos
  • They are outstanding at execution
  • They embrace the ‘one firm’ concept
  • They have a strong culture and shared values
  • They have a highly collaborative style
  • They have strong partnerships
  • They have an absolute commitment to recruiting the right people
  • They believe that developing their professionals is at the core of the firm’s beliefs and activities
  • They are committed to staying at the top

You can see the strong themes running through them immediately: clarity of purpose, an unequivocal acceptance that outstanding client service comes from recruiting and developing the right people, a shared commitment to being and remaining at the top, and, because of that, the need to embrace constant renewal by continually importing best practice from wherever (not just other professional firms but companies known for doing great things) and, as important, a mindset that believes the firm can be a standard bearer and create best practice of its own.

Changing Behaviour

 In reality, embracing the ‘successful firm’ principles can be tough, and one of the brutal realities facing every firm as they try and implement them is that there just isn’t a simple roadmap you can follow. Quite simply, no change programme I’ve ever known has worked as smoothly as its originators intended. Some things do, of course, but some things just don’t. The key is to not be discouraged but to respond quickly to the new circumstances and put in place actions that take you back to where you want to be.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding change, there are some ‘rules’ that can be used to ensure a successful outcome and these are listed below:

  • Always make sure that people know that the ultimate goal is to make the firm more successful, not just their part of it
  • The partners have to walk together and never splinter into sub-groups with conflicting opinions; there will be differences of opinions and these have to be aired and agreement on the way forward agreed
  • Behaviour only changes where the work gets done, so you have to constantly encourage people to take new ways of doing things on board and not fall back on historical practices even if they’re easier
  • You have to make the ultimate destination real and describe what success looks like, i.e., we will be doing ‘this’
  • Involve everyone in the firm as soon as you can as that way people take ownership of the solutions
  • The partners must keep emphasising the benefits of moving forward and keep people’s energy up when they (inevitably) start to flag
  • People will make mistakes and things, as I’ve said, don’t always work out as planned; the key is not to criticise or complain but to keep encouraging ; if you don’t do that people will simply stop trying
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel; let people know what’s worked and spread the word so that things that work can be implemented in other parts of the firm
  • Use every opportunity that comes along to your advantage; rapidly assess the consequences of different actions and move forward with speed
  • Instil a ‘high challenge/high support’ culture; lots of firms have the former but not the latter although the latter is critical if you want people to keep moving forward and move past any mistakes that they make or beyond things that haven’t worked as intended
  • Recognise people’s contributions – praise is always uplifting and good for morale; criticism is the opposite
  • Make things fun; make the journey exciting and the destination worth fighting for
  • Successful change can take time but that’s not to say that you should let it – in my experience speed and momentum are key; yes, there will be times when things get in the way but you have to keep pushing to achieve that ‘best in class’ reputation because the halo effect becomes self-reinforcing to both clients and, especially, the firms people – and, critically, in the equally cutthroat market for the people you want to recruit to help sustain that positioning

I appreciate that that this list may strike fear in most partners as it’s so far outside of their comfort zone but my experience is that all but the odd handful of partners, in my twenty years of being involved in change programmes, have embraced the challenge and typically personally gained from doing so. For sure, an awful lot have asked for help, but that’s one of the absolute, not to be broken rules I referred to earlier: if you don’t know, ask, and never be afraid of doing so. In fact, having the courage to say, ‘this isn’t my expertise, can you help me?’ has been at the heart of every successful change I’ve ever known.

And finally, I would like to take the credit for the title of this piece, a phrase that I believe, more than any other, sums up what professional service firms have to do to become and remain successful, but I can’t. That honour goes to my co-author and long-time friend and collaborator, Jack Gabarro, who some of you may also remember as an inspirational teacher on HBS’ ‘Leading Professional Service Firms’ programme.

© Rob Lees, Manchester, July 2020