Guest blog: Lead degeneration

This guest blog is by my colleagues Rob Lees and Mike Mister, focusing on the need for firms to develop effective leadership.

“A new study suggests the largest law firms may be emphasizing salesmanship to the detriment of leadership in their training programs. Patrick Smith reports that the study, led by legal consultants Marcie Borgal Shunk and Silvia Coulter, found the vast majority of partners and associates surveyed had received sales and professional development training, but a much smaller percentage reported receiving leadership courses. In addition, the study found that most firms’ much-touted client teams left a lot to be desired, a problem Coulter blamed largely on a lack of training on how to put team members’ skills to work”.

The 16 June edition of LAW.COM’s Morning Minute included the above item, reporting that a study by two legal consultants, Marcie Borgal Shunk and Silvia Coulter, had indicated that firms were emphasizing sales and technical development training to the detriment of leadership training – whether that was firm leadership or the leadership of client teams.  Unsurprisingly, as we are co-authors of two best-selling books on professional service firms (psfs) (Rob with When Professionals Have To Lead, and Mike with How To Lead Smart People), we were stunned that thirty years since we developed a comprehensive curriculum for partner education in one of the top professional service firms in the world, that law firms are still so far behind the 8 ball that it’s hard to believe.  Leadership is key in any firm and should be seen as maximizing individual, team and firm capability, performance and profitability. To ignore it illustrates the lack of strategic understanding and insight at the heart of too many firms. 

But, let’s start at the beginning:

In 1991, a group of people development professionals joined EY’s UK firm as part of the firm’s initiative to ramp up its performance and profitability by enhancing its people’s capabilities. None of us had worked in professional service firms before and so were intrigued by the ’professional firms are different’ mantra that we’d read about before joining – and something which our new colleagues in the firm’s training and development department confirmed was true.

So, how different? And would it make a difference to our task. The simple answer is ‘no’, when it came to deciding what needed to be done, and, ‘yes’, when it came to the implementation.  Much has been written about the implementation issues in professional service firms and we do not intend to go over old ground here, rather to concentrate on the lack of leadership and offer some ideas for dealing with it.

Faced with the challenge of ramping up the capability of firm’s partners, we started by asking the, ‘what do they need to know?’ question. Our answers were very straightforward. We took technical excellence as a given and left that aspect of development to people with the technical expertise we didn’t have. Here’s what we concluded:

  • Partners have to either be a part of or to lead client teams. Therefore, they need to know how to maximise team effectiveness, including how to change behaviour and ensure everyone in the team has the capability to perform. The team needs to operate both efficiently and effectively in delivering outstanding client service.
  • Partners have to win business and so they need to know how to progress and win work from their existing and potential clients. They also need to be able to price effectively.
  • To do these things well, partners have to provide the potential purchaser with insight that adds to the purchaser’s understanding of the business issues they face. Technical knowledge isn’t enough in today’s highly competitive market. Insight about the client’s business, and the ability to place the advice in the right context demands an ability to strategically analyse and understand the company’s business.
  • Partners are also role models for the firm’s professionals so they need to be able lead their people, to ensure they are aligned with the firm’s vision and how it is to be achieved.
  • Partners must also make a contribution to the firm’s vision and achieving it. It simply isn’t good enough to leave that to a management committee and hope for the best.

This is very ‘top line’ and a lot lies beneath which we had to create in order to enable our partners to be even more effective. In simple terms, we decided to create three streams of development:

  • Winning Business: both as individuals and as teams
  • Leading and Managing People
  • Business Strategy

We constructed programmes that were three or four days long and attendance was obligatory. In each, we concentrated both on ‘the what’ and ‘the how’, i.e., how to implement the theory so it became normal practice. As this move from theory to practice is typically the most difficult aspect of any learning (other than for technical content) for professionals, members of our team also worked with individuals and teams in their normal work setting, acting as coaches and consultants.

But what about the firm’s other professionals?

As it made no sense to only train the partners, we instituted the same three development streams across each hierarchical level, with the programmes building on each other. In the first year or two, we inevitably had some ‘backfilling’ to do. As with the partners, attending the programmes was obligatory and promotion was linked to attendance.

This is obvious…

At least it should be! The problem facing too many firms is that the partners running them have not had any business strategy training. If they are lucky they attended Harvard Business School’s Leading Professional Service Firms programme and returned conscious that they needed to ‘align’ all of their firm’s activities. While some people return to their firms and know what to do, most struggle with the leap from theory to practice referred to earlier. Consequently they aren’t able to diagnose the issues their firms face and, even more importantly, how to resolve them.

Which takes us back to Shunk and Coulter’s study

Firms who do not focus on developing effective leadership place themselves in commercial and financial jeopardy. Life is extremely competitive and firms must seek ways to outperform their competitors. In our opinion, doing so can only come from the ability to diagnose and compare the firm’s activities against best practice and implement activities that ensure that the firm is in a place to win the game. In simple terms, it needs strong, effective leadership.

London, 17 June 2020.

Rob Lees is co-author – with Jack Gabarro and Tom DeLong of “When Professionals Have To Lead” – Published by Harvard Business School Press.

Mike Mister is co-author – with Arun Singh of “How To Lead Smart People” – Published by Profile Books.