Category Archives: People


Being a member of the HR team in a professional service firm can be a soul-destroying activity. In too many firms, HR is seen as having little to offer and adding little value (it was once called ‘burden’ in one of the firms I’ve worked with). Sometimes the lack of value is because the firm’s partners, including the firm’s executive have little, or no, idea what HR should do; sometimes it’s because the HR team, themselves, don’t know and so accept the role that’s given to them, and sometimes it is a because a former fee earner has been moved into the role and has little understanding of anything other than the basics.

That role, no matter who originates it, is more often than not the manager of the transactional services that are seen to constitute the relationship between the firm and its people: recruitment, remuneration, employment contracts, disciplinary and grievance procedures. All of them important and needing to be done well – but none of them what HR’s main focus should be.

To understand what that focus should be, we need to step back and think about the market for professional services and how one firm differentiates itself from another in order to gain a competitive advantage. Or, put simply, how it can win more business and be more profitable than its competitors.

It’s over twenty years since I first heard Jack Gabarro, one of my co-authors of When Professionals Have To Lead, say that professional services is an execution game; he was right then and he’s just as right now. Success in professional services is down to what a firm’s partners and staff actually do. It’s always what the people do and how they do it. Whether that’s a simple piece of tax advice or guidance on how to avoid a hostile takeover, the expertise (capability) of the individual(s) providing the advice is paramount.

Which makes the question of how a firm differentiates itself from its competitors extremely easy to answer. Its people must be able to relate to its clients and deliver its services more effectively than its competitors’ people.

Also, therefore, extremely easy to answer is what HR’s prime function should be. It has to help the firm develop the capability of its people, from its new entrants through to its partners. And, as assignments are rarely won or delivered by one individual, that capability must include operating effectively within a team and collaborative context, whether that’s across functions, offices or, as firms grow in scale, states and countries.

So, what should a firm expect from its Head of HR?

Let’s start with the obvious: a set of ideas that take the firm forward and that get implemented. To be implemented successfully, the ideas must be contexted in the firm’s operating reality and be completely aligned with its strategy. So, the HR head needs both a clear strategic understanding of what professional service firms (psfs) need to do to be successful in their different markets and an holistic understanding of how firms ‘work.’

The markets for different types of professional services operate differently and the matrix below indicates how the markets segment. With this knowledge, it is easy to determine the capabilities firms need to operate successfully in the different segments. The operating reality of most firms is that they compete in two or three segments. Only with a clear understanding of which segments the firm competes in, as well as an equally clear understanding of the firm’s position relative to its competitors in each of its markets, is it possible to develop a world-leading strategy to develop the capabilities of all the people in the firm. But, developing is the easy part; implementation is always much harder.

Successful implementation needs more than knowledge of markets and best practice learning systems. It needs something much more personal – the ability to make the case and win an argument with the partners about why developing capability is critical to the firm’s success and the ability to convince the partners you are on their side. That, you are ‘one of us.’

Partners, by nature, tend to be sceptical and non-strategic, so it’s absolutely key that the HR head ‘works’ the partner constituency and persuades them that they, personally, can make a difference. That they can become even more effective and that they must be the people, who lead the firm to the next level. After all, change only occurs where the work gets done – and that puts the partners front and centre.

Although this note has concentrated on the need for the head of HR to primarily focus on developing capability, they must also know what best practice is in all of the constituent parts of the HR function, and be able to put people in place to lead those parts effectively and make the function valued within the firm. And, naturally, they, like all of the firm’s leaders, need to be a skilled team leader.

And, finally, the head of HR must be able to make a contribution to the ‘top table’ debate about the firm’s future. The head of HR that firms need will never be able to do an audit or provide legal advice (other than in employment law), but they must be able to bring their strategic knowledge of how to achieve market success and their holistic understanding of how firms ‘work’ to bear in any debate.

And, what should the head of HR expect from the firm

The first thing here is also obvious – the resources to do the job. It’s pointless having someone with the ability to help the firm make a difference if you don’t give them the resources to make it a reality. And, ‘resources’ does not mean simply cash and people, it includes the freedom to operate.

The second, also obvious, is support and inclusion. Real support and inclusion – not lip service. There will always be some partners, who don’t see the value of paying ‘top dollar’ to someone, who doesn’t bring in fees. When that happens, the firm needs all of the top team to actively support their HR colleague and persuade the partners that he or she will make a difference to what the firm does. Active signalling and support is critical.

A final comment on soul-destroying

There is another soul-destroying reality that can occur even when the head of HR has all of the capability necessary to help change the firm for the better, and that’s asking the HR head to report to a partner, whose knowledge and capability are inferior. While there are some great examples of heads of HR working for partners, who truly understand the value of the function and who actively champion it and its people, there are still too many examples where the opposite is true.

The ‘the partners only have confidence in a partner’ argument that usually goes with it is both spurious and demeaning. The real argument should always be about capability, about having the right people around the top table, regardless of their backgrounds. It’s an absolute waste of time and money recruiting top HR professionals if they don’t get the status and recognition they should have. It sends a clear signal about what and who is important, and it’s why some firms fail to hold on to the very people who can help make them even more successful. And, in an execution game, that’s madness.

© Rob Lees and Mike Mister, September 2016

Rob Lees is a co-author of the best selling When Professionals Have To Lead and, until retiring last year, a consultant to the leaders of professional service firms worldwide. He can be reached at

Mike Mister is the head of the leadership practice at Moller Professional Service Firms Group, one of the leading psf consulting firms. Mike helps firm leaders across the globe improve their firm’s strategic and leadership capabilities. He can be contacted at

Guest blog – banking of a different kind, part 2, by Rachel Brushfield

Rachel kindly submitted a blog published on this site a few weeks ago, entitled ‘Banking of a different kind’. Here I’m delighted to publish her follow-up piece. The words which follow are all Rachel’s own. Enjoy! This blog shares the benefits of coaching and personal development and 11 useful resources; personal development books, personal development courses and personal development seminars, videos etc. Time is precious and business pressured, so what are the benefits of personal development? This is what our clients say:

  • Time to reflect/think through where you are and where you are going
  • Time to think about you
  • Time to build on your strengths and address weaknesses
  • Understanding that you can choose to respond to others better
  • Better understanding of yourself and how to relate to others
  • How to address day to day issues better
  • Identifying problems, weaknesses and opportunities and how to work on them
  • How to use strengths to overcome weaknesses
  • Skills to be more confident about yourself and dealing with others
  • A forum to discuss issues/goals/frustrations and how to resolve them
  • How to see situations from others’ perspectives
  • Greater understanding of self, how to reframe, pause and reflect and insights into problem solving
  • Feeling supported and empowered
  • More aware, reflective and reasoned
  • How to be more balanced, composed and in control
  • The opportunity to discuss key personal & professional issues in a non-judgmental and objective environment
  • Time and space to express feelings and thoughts
  • An opportunity to refocus attention
  • Vocalising goals so they seem more real and obtainable
  • Breaking down big scary overwhelming change into small steps, making it easy
  • How to achieve goals
  • A platform to concentrate on the things you’ve been putting off or avoiding
  • Understanding the cost of not addressing important issues
  • Feeling more in control and that you have choice over thoughts & actions
  • Feedback, reframing, support & challenge from someone there for you
  • Courage to do what you want to do
  • Unravels the confusion, identifies the route to be taken and prioritises the abilities that can best be utilised and where
  • A supportive, objective and confidential sounding board

We have identified 5 client types who benefit from personal development.  Which type do you relate to? “I ‘have it all’, so why am I so tired and dispirited?” “I know what I want, but I’m not sure how to best achieve it.“ “I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not this for much longer!” “I know/I’ve been told that I need to acquire a new skill/adapt my behaviour or habits, but show me how to fast!” “I need someone confidential/objective to talk to and bounce ideas off who I trust” 11 personal development tips

  1. Get a coach
  2. Get a mentor
  3. Look at Ted talks
  4. Get in touch about our Energise personal development articles. Topics include busyness addiction, how to do absolutely nothing, managing procrastination, overcoming overwhelm, fear, beliefs, safe risk, insight mining etc.
  5. Read the iconic book Stephen Covey ‘7 habits of highly effective people’
  6. Define your personal values
  7. Do a psychometric test to increase your self-awareness about your personality type and what impact this has on you and others e.g. Myers Briggs, Insight, Belbin, Talent Dynamics
  8. Create a personal development plan with S.M.A.R.T. objectives which will benefit yourself, your employer and your clients
  9. Write an account of your life and what has influenced it
  10. Keep a worry diary to monitor what you worry about
  11. Do a mindfulness class

Are you interested in coaching? Get in touch for a no obligation conversation. What’s the best action you can take to explore personal development for yourself or someone you supervise/manage? Rachel Brushfield

Rachel Brushfield

Talent Liberator



+ 44 (0) 845 22 55 010

+ 44 (0) 7973 911137


Evaluating Managing Partners

This guest blog is by my friend Rob Lees, former global head of HR at Ernst & Young, later a director at their Global Leadership Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and more latterly a consultant to professional service firms. Rob is co-author (with Tom Delong and Jack Gabarro) of the ageless and invaluable book “When Professionals Have To Lead” (Harvard Business School Press, 2007). This piece was originally written for Managing Partner magazine. The words that follow are Rob’s own.rob-lees_height-165


Evaluating Managing Partners when you’re not sure what they’re supposed to do!!


When my colleagues and I were conducting our research into what truly effective managing partners do that differentiates them from their peers, we also asked the partners we spoke to how they evaluated their managing partners when there was often little or no clarity around what the managing partners were supposed to do.

Obviously, when there was a specific action or set of actions the managing partner was elected to deliver, that greatly aided the evaluation process, but nearly all of the partners we spoke to included the performance of the professional management group in their evaluation as they considered the managing partner was specifically responsible for the selection and performance of that group. Unfortunately, in too many instances, the perception of the performance of the professional management group had a negative impact on their view of the managing partner’s performance. The question is why? And, of course, what can managing partners do to ensure they avoid the negative impact?

Undoubtedly, the major issue facing the majority of managing partners in their dealings with the professional management group is their lack of knowledge about what ‘good’ is, although there is an understandable belief that, in the finance function, a fellow professional will know what to do.

Let’s use Human Resources as an example. If we asked most managing partners what the most important task is in Human resources, we would be likely to get a range of responses. But, in professional services, which is an execution game, there is only one answer and that’s to create a development process that enables the firm to develop its professionals faster and more effectively than its competitors – and, by doing so, to create both a competitive and economic advantage. It’s an answer that should be a ‘no brainer’, but sadly it usually isn’t.

Without an understanding of what ‘good’ is, when managing partners assess what their head of HR is doing they can get it badly wrong. And, if they do decide they want to change their head of HR, they usually sub-contract the selection process to a head hunter – assuming, often wrongly, they will know what good is. So, in the end, the selection process often ends up solely about fit (critical, of course, but only after capability) and without a robust discussion about how the individual will create a development process that will deliver what I call ‘speed to experience’ and give the firm three significant advantages over its competition. Not just the competitive and economic advantages I mentioned earlier as there is a clear third. The market for top talent is highly competitive whichever way you cut the market, and all of the research indicates that one of the critical factors in an individual’s choice of which firm to join is the quality of the development experience. The highly competitive people who live in professional firms like to constantly add to their knowledge and experience so they can continually improve and do more challenging work – and they like to do it as quickly as possible. So, if one firm has a reputation of having a discernibly better development process they will attract better people. As I said earlier, it really should be a ‘no brainer’!

So, managing partners must know what ‘good’ is. And, if they don’t know (and in my experience they always know whether they do or not, even if they can’t quantify it), they have to find out. One of the other things that differentiates great managing partners is an unwillingness to accept second best in any aspect of the firm’s operations. And, as the performance of professional management group influences the firm in multiple ways, including the partners’ opinion of their managing partner’s performance, knowing what ‘good’ is and making sure it is delivered is key for every firm – and every managing partner.

You can read more about Rob’s book, WPHTLand indeed buy a copy here




Guest blog – Banking of a different kind by Rachel Brushfield

Banking of a different kindRachel Brushfield 044 Low Res


During the downturn years, I have been doing some serious banking. Not financial banking, but banking of a different kind. I have been banking insights, self-awareness and tools to make myself more useful for my clients and kinder to myself. In a world of uncertainty with disruption the ‘new normal’, this has been an excellent investment, with far greater returns than the interest in a saving bank account would have yielded. Self-interest is not selfish, it is wise and make you resilient and resourceful.  More kind to yourself and more useful and self-aware with others.

I have been banking a number of useful commodities that I am sure you can relate to easily; new high quality contacts now tagged connections on LinkedIn to create ease in future, thought leadership with books, chapters and articles published, content to share for a content hungry world, trend digests to help me make focused and sound business decisions and to add additional value to my time-poor clients.  But I have also been banking something that many lawyers poo poo. Insights and tools from personal development, that soft fluffy thing that is so hard to prove the benefit of or justify in business.

Or is it?

The personal development that I have done on myself in the downturn years and indeed throughout my life has given me a rich treasure chest of useful tools for lifelong use. If such a qualification existed, it would equate to a PHD. In a coaching market that is currently unregulated, isn’t that reassuring to know?

As I sit writing this, I picture you reading this, cynical, sceptical. Am I being unfair to you? You need evidence, I know, practical tangible evidence. You are lawyers trained in critical thinking.

Ok then, here you go. Some examples of how personal development has been useful:

  • Staying present and achieving a complete turnaround of an outcome in an hour with a stressed HR law firm client. Closing gambit – “I apologise, I took out my frustration on you, we do want to continue working with you.” Opening gambit “We think you are too expensive, you are not giving us what we want and we are not sure we want to work with you any more.”
  • Making decisions in line with my personal values, the things that are important to me, so that I am always authentic and fulfilled
  • Staying resourceful and resilient when my back has been against the wall at the darkest time post 2007 crash
  • Preventing a high potential employee from derailing their career. They were physically running out of the room before delivering a training. In 4 hours of coaching, I helped them understand why their fight or flight mechanism was kicking in and to develop a detailed strategy and plan to feel comfortable and choose to stay in the room. It worked first time.
  • The instant disappearance of anger in a client by working out the insight that the anger was caused by frustration. The cause? Conversations were always moving on to a different topic because an introverted and reflective French speaking father was thinking in French, translating into English and preparing what to say, compared with his extroverted fast thinking and speaking English wife and children.

Why have I made personal development a priority? The future has been firmly in my sights – a happy inner future as well as a prosperous financial and reputational outer one.

Finally, one last thing to share. One of the things that has stuck in my mind when I researched and wrote an article for Managing Partner magazine on emotional intelligence was the insight that a feeling is faster than a thought, neurologically speaking.  Now that could give you a serious competitive advantage. Not so soft and fluffy perhaps.

Rachel Brushfield

Talent Liberator




+ 44 (0) 845 22 55 010

+ 44 (0) 7973 911137

A people business, right?

images833IJ8SAA people business, right?


The topic for this blog almost literally fell in my lap. I met a friend for post-work drinks when, as is the way with these things, we soon turned to a kind of ‘how was it for you?’ conversation, about the last few months in general, and our respective businesses in particular. It didn’t take me to long to take my friend through the evolution of my consultancy practice over that period – I suspect both of us were more interested in how my friend’s medium sized law firm was faring.

I heard what I expected to hear given market conditions and my knowledge of my friend’s firm’s place in their chosen markets, that is, it had been a record year in terms of turnover and profitability. Some of what I heard had made the regional press, and why not? It may not be of huge interest to clients, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with celebrating success. Heck, I’m in favour of it, I’ve been there and done that! But what I was told next stopped me in my tracks, and left me pondering the meaning of ‘success’.

My friend told me that over 25% of the Partners and staff who had been at the firm a year ago were no longer there. Now, some level of attrition is normal, and I’ve always thought that churning 10 to 15% of your staff per annum is what you’d expect in most professional service firms (PSFs).  After all, people retire, move out of the area, leave for a lifestyle change and so on. There is data out there (it won’t take you long to find using your favourite search engine) to suggest that around 8-10% is what law firms should be aiming for, it’s ‘healthy’ at that level, and that 12-15% is towards the very top end (or poorest outcome) that a PSF should achieve. But 25% plus? Something about that didn’t sit right with my understanding of ‘success’, even allowing for record financial results.

For me, success in a PSF is about creating a ‘One-firm’ firm which is able to harness its resources in a way that enables it to compete most advantageously in its chosen markets. Those ‘resources’ are its structural, relational and human capital (together its’ ‘intellectual capital’). And to quote David Maister, a One-firm firm is characterised by “institutional loyalty and group effort” and such firms “rarely lose valued people to competitors”. Given the challenges of recruitment in the legal sector nowadays, you’d have thought that firms would be putting discretionary effort in to talent retention, wouldn’t you, in creating a “sense of cohesion and belonging among the firm’s people”[i]?

Now, I don’t know that my friend’s firm didn’t do everything in their power in 2014/15 to do just that, and were just plain unlucky with the outcome. But I do know that the “starting point in addressing any firm’s strategy for human capital is to place people at the centre of [the firm’s] efforts to gain sustained competitive advantage by developing a workforce that feels it is an integral part of the general needs and aspirations of the firm”[ii]. After all, law is a people business, right?

In short, a firm needs to provide all its Partners and staff with a clear line of sight as to what is required from each of them, each day to help the business achieve its strategic goals. It can be difficult to do this at the best of times, but if strategic objectives are centred on vague goals like being ‘bigger’ or ‘more profitable’ it can be too big an ask. But unless meaningful efforts are made to provide that clear line of sight, people may conclude that they don’t belong in an organization that isn’t clear about where it’s going, and what it wants from its people.


[i] Nick Jarrett-Kerr ‘Strategy for Law Firms’ (2009)

[ii] ditto