A book we often recommend is Good to Great by Jim Collins. In his introduction, Jim Collins explains that he sent out academic researchers to find out why some American companies make the leap from being good to being great performers in their sector. He describes how he instructed the researchers not to come back telling him that it was anything to do with people and leadership – he wanted hard-nosed practical and replicable systems and processes. He was disappointed. The researchers discovered that, not only was leadership important, it was a critical factor. In our own research with outstanding firms, leadership repeatedly crops up as a key driver in their success.
But what does good leadership look like in these professional services businesses? How is it used to drive and manage great performance? How does it motivate employees to, not only stay loyal to the firm, but also be really enthusiastic about it (a great asset in the current war for talent)?
Each firm is naturally very different, however, we have seen that in great firms leadership is viewed and treated differently. It is not seen as just the domain of managing partners. Plans are put in place to actively develop leadership capabilities at all levels of the business. Leadership as an activity, not a position or role. By building good leadership capabilities at all levels they reap the rewards of low staff attrition, high productivity, delighted and loyal clients and great profitability.
The product of professional services is people, their great intellectual capital and expertise. It is not unfamiliar to hear firms boast that ‘our people are our greatest asset’, but few put real actions in place to cultivate the fantastic leadership capabilities that will motivate employee support and loyalty. Those that do repeatedly look at their talent base – their people. They look for the qualities that, to them, form the basis of great leadership in their organisation. When they spot this potential they promptly start nurturing it through training, work-shadowing, mentoring, appraisals, coaching and whatever it takes to bring the capabilities to maturity.
As professionals tend to respond better to those with the ability to inspire, influence and persuade rather than those who try to manage them, this investment in time and energy is well spent. In the most successful firms we’ve worked with such effort concentrates on equipping the individual with five fundamental building blocks that underpin great leadership.
Good leaders have to be good managers. In leading others they need to ensure that the firm (or their part of its business) operates in a disciplined way and meets the organisation’s performance standards. Typically good leaders embrace the responsibility to plan, guide the implementation and measure the results of those plans. And they do this with a positive attitude. It is something they take very seriously and gain satisfaction in doing. The great firms we have seen are always on the look out for the embryo of this attitude in their people. When they find it they use it as a foundation on which to build good management skills. Such development takes different forms, but typically involves an individual being given different tasks and responsibilities to build their management expertise and confidence. Along the way they are assessed and given guidance. These firms do not throw their people in at the deep end and hope they will swim. Instead, they create a very focused management skills development plan for their talented people. And it brings great rewards. Those helped in this way are motivated to help others. They soon become confident and great managers, ones that build confidence in and gain the support of those they manage and lead.
The success of a good plan is dependent firstly on its underlying aim, and then in the quality of how it is communicated and or explained. If people are being asked to work towards a common goal, they will seek to understand it before they give their support. This is especially true of professional services firms’ cultures. People in these organisations are very bright and clever. They will give support and help an initiative, but only if it is explained to them in a way they understand and feel motivated by. Support is always greater if the plan’s explanation relates ‘what’s in it for them’ in contributing to its achievement. So the ability to give clear direction is a fundamental building block of good leadership. The best leaders we have seen also seem to be able to paint a picture in words of what needs to be achieved. Their teams, departments, practice areas or firms have real clarity in their understanding of the vision. This ensures that everyone is not only singing from the same hymn sheet, but also enthusiastic and passionate in the delivery.
Let’s face it, very few of us like to be told what to do. If we are to help turn a plan into reality, we will need to be inspired in some way. We are all very busy as it is. The more personal desire there is behind achieving an objective, the greater the chance that people will prioritise things to achieve it. As one of my colleagues commented recently ‘what’s rewarding, gets done’. So the best leaders develop their personal ability to inspire others. Contrary to some views, such inspiration doesn’t rely on the leader being naturally charismatic. Instead it comes from that person having excellent interpersonal skills to engage individuals. These skills include listening, demonstrating understanding, empathy and genuine interest. They are developed through coaching, assessment, practice and experience.
People believe in and readily support good leaders. They trust them because they are credible individuals who work with integrity and stick to their values in both good and tough times. Good leaders have to be consistent in the way they deal with people and situations. They have to be professional and demonstrate that they too follow the same standards they are asking others to follow.
The most supported leaders are ones who don’t sit in ivory towers or remote offices. Instead they work closely alongside their people visibly taking their fair share of the ‘nitty gritty’ side of work and doing so in a professional and highly respectable way. Yes they delegate, measure people’s performance, discipline, reward and fulfill their daily management tasks. But by getting close to their people in this way, they are also able to understand all the different aspirations and motivations in their team. This insight helps them demonstrate a genuine interest and empathy for their people. It also helps them explain plans and tasks in ways people understand and actively support.
Leading by example may be an old cliché, but it is fundamental to great leadership and developing the right behaviours in people. If the actions of a leader are in conflict with how they demand others should behave, individuals will follow the leader’s actions and not their words. For example, we have seen managers demand punctuality at the start of meetings, but continually turn up late. Over time the team soon learns that actually it is fine to be late. Respect and trust breaks down.
Good leaders do tend to build great teams. They spend time and energy understanding and then playing to the strengths of the individuals in each team. This doesn’t just mean bringing in the right technical skills, it also requires creating a blend of more broader capabilities, attitudes and mind-sets. Creating the right mix of people isn’t, however, enough. Leaders then have to guide and inspire those individuals to work collectively and effectively to achieve the task at hand. Success comes from how they communicate, manage and reward the team’s efforts. It comes from giving clear direction and motivating individuals to commit and support the team effort. That doesn’t mean giving ‘one size fits all’ directives. Instead it relies on investing time with each team member to address any concerns they have and build their commitment. Everyone is different and their differences need to be acknowledged and the management of them tailored accordingly. When this happens, we have seen leaders engender great trust amongst the team. As a result the team is much more willing to follow his/her lead and direction. Trust motivates support and enthusiasm.
As we write, great leaders are being developed by great firms. They put this type of development at the heart of their organisation and create a well-defined route map to equip people with the right leadership capabilities. This always looks beyond their current role to the longer-term career opportunity.
These firms believe passionately about developing their future stars. The war for talent is too costly, time consuming and detracts from where they want to focus their energies on. So, the more they can motivate people to stay and be enthusiastic about staying, the more successful they know they will be.
More people leave an employer because of management and leadership issues, rather than the fundamentals of their job. The more successful firms take leadership development very seriously. They do not expect leadership skills to miraculously appear once an individual is promoted and instead invest time and energy in helping their people develop great leadership capabilities. Nothing is left to chance. As a result, initiatives are well lead and objectives are achieved. Plans are turned into reality as these firms have the right people with the right leadership skills to make them happen.