A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘executive leadership team’

The accountants re-enter legal. Meh!

In Articles, Commentary on 24 November 2017 at 12:17 pm

There are countless articles on the threat of the Big 4 re-entering the legal market. Yes, they’re cashed-up, capable and well connected, but I don’t think it will be as smooth a road for them as many are predicting. A deeper analysis suggests there are five factors that will limit their growth.

#1 The one-stop shop segment is small

The essence of the Big 4 value proposition is one-stop shop: buy all your business advisory services from us and there will be lower transactions costs, a deeper understanding of your needs, more integrated advice, higher levels of service consistency, better coordination and greater convenience.

The problem is many sophisticated legal buyers just don’t buy it!

For operational, run-the company work maybe, but for bet-the-company and reputation-sensitive matters, buyers generally prefer horses for courses. They back themselves in picking out tried and tested specialists, rather than relying on one firm to wheel out all their colleagues. Intuitively, these buyers recognise the benefits of cognitive diversity and are wary of the party line or groupthink. They feel it’s easier to hold a specific firm accountable (and sueable) for their advice when it’s more discrete. Many senior buyers regard the ‘all eggs’ approach as risky and lazy.

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Source: alphacoders.com

#2 Brand limitations

PwC is the most well-known and powerful brand in the global business services market. The other Big 3 are not far behind them. Over the years they’ve leveraged these brands to develop massive global management consulting depth, breadth and reach.

Notwithstanding these advantages, firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain still are thriving at the top-end of the consulting market. The evidence would suggest that many clients tend to shy away from accountants when it comes to solving their most complex business problems.

After decades of organic investment, PwC had to resort to paying top dollar to buy Booz & Company to make serious inroads into the high-value segment. Interestingly, they resorted to a new brand of Strategy& for their consulting business rather than a brand extension of PwC. It appears that PwC thought their own brand was a net negative in fighting the likes of McKinsey.

All the evidence from graduating MBA students across the globe points to the top students preferring the specialist consulting firms over the Big 4. I can only imagine it will be the same at the premier law schools.

#3 Ring binders

I did a small consulting project for Booz about a year before they sold out to PwC. Yes, it was all my fault :o)

In speaking about competitors, they referred the Big 4 as “ring binder” consultants. What they meant was that the Big 4 consultants were good at following a predefined process documented in a ring-bound manual. What was implied was that the Big 4 consultants couldn’t really think for themselves.

While grossly disparaging, there is an element of truth in these comments. In order to achieve scale and process efficiencies, resource fungibility, accelerated learning and service consistency across all business lines, the Big 4 have sought to codify their approach and have trained their consultants in how to use it. One can only imagine they’ll adopt a similar method in legal to achieve similar benefits.

The standardised approach is brilliant for repeat work but can come unstuck if things vary widely from the norm. Top GCs will run a mile if they feel they’re being ring-bound in handling their complex matters that they feel require bespoke solutions.

#4 Conflicts

I was shown some recent analysis that listed the number of different law firms and freelancers engaged by the ASX50. The list had over 300 names on it. I can’t vouch for the precision of this research but intuitively it feels right.

One of the key reasons for this fragmentation is conflicts. Most legal clients are particularly sensitive to the same advisors being involved, directly or peripherally, on both sides of a transaction or a dispute.

The Big 4 are just that. Four! This will inevitably put major limits on their penetration of the legal market. The threshold test of perceived conflict in legal matters is much higher than say helping competing companies implement an enterprise software system.

The large mid-tier firms like Grant Thornton, BDO, RSM and Pitchers will be loath to enter legal, beyond tax, because of the fear disenfranchising their major referrers of work.

#5 The club

For the Big 4 to make serious inroads into legal, quickly, they will need to poach some heavy hitters from heavy hitting firms. Assuming they can offer better incomes, they’re asking these lawyers to leave their club.

This is what a typical lawyer rainmaker will weigh up in considering the move..

The new club is a lot lot bigger and I will have even fewer decision rights. The new club will pander less to my specific needs give it already has dozens of heavy hitters. The new club will ask me to fit into their service style and product ‘packaging’. The new club will be run by beancounters.

Nah! I’d rather stay.

6 strategic shifts and implications for HR

In Articles, Commentary on 8 November 2017 at 4:22 pm

By Joel Barolsky and Sue-Ella Prodonovich

If you have HR responsibilities in a professional services firm then you’re working in the epicentre of turbulent times. Changes to our workforce population, participation and productivity are throwing up new challenges while the expectations of firm owners and employees are changing – but not necessarily in sync.

Here are six strategic shifts we’ve observed which we believe will have profound implications for HR.

#1 Shift to the rocket model 

The next five years will see a migration away from the pyramid model towards the rocket model. A typical pyramid structure has a partner at the top supported by one or two senior associates and four or five juniors. In the rocket model, most juniors are substituted by a combination of technology and para-professionals.

For HR this means

  • Partners need a new set of skills and knowledge to manage their rockets and to win and deliver projects, profitably
  • Improvement in digital literacy across the board.
  • The end of the apprenticeship model that involves training juniors on-the-job on low-level process work.
  • New recruitment markets, processes and criteria to include non-technical areas.
  • Measurement and reward systems that reflect non-time-based pricing, innovation and collaboration.
  • Managing a much more diverse culture of professionals, para-professionals, technologists and project managers,

#2 Shift to workforce accordions

Most firms currently operate with a defined cohort of full-time staff. With growing variations in client demand, there is a growing trend towards the accordion model. This model means having a blend of full-time staff plus a pool of pre-selected trained variable cost contractors. Corrs’ Orbit, Minters’ Flex, Pinsent Masons’ Vario, Allen & Overy’s Peerpoint are firm-based accordions. LOD (Lawyers on Demand), LexVoco, Crowd & CoBespoke are examples of specialist providers in this space.

Other variants of the accordion include flexible work arrangements, hot-desking, secondments, reverse secondments and sabbaticals. Maddocks recently reports that over 20% of its partners were working outside the ‘normal’ 8 to 6, five days a week model.

HR complexity increases exponentially as a firm increases the variability and flexibility of its workforce.

#3 Shift to smart collaboration

With the increased competition from in-house providers, boutiques and individual freelancers, most multi-service firms are recognising that their main competitive advantage lies in the collective. If firms continue to be just a collegiate group of individual practitioners, then they will lose share to other competitors with lower costs and/or better-perceived quality.

Four-Seasons-Orlando-Coffee-Latte-Art-Barista-Bootcamp

Source: uspinjaca.hr

While economic geographers have identified the positive relationship between physical co-location of knowledge workers and firm performance, HR plays the critical part of bringing capable people together. It’s through true cross-practice collaboration that the firm can offer something that others can’t. Bringing a diverse set of expertise and experiences to solve clients’ toughest problems is more profitable, more fun and more valuable to the client. It’s also a lot harder to do.

#4 Shift to supportive intolerance

There is ample evidence that better leadership leads to better performance. Firms with a depth of leadership capacity across all its partners are in a much better position to handle market uncertainties than those with just one or two stars.

Developing leaders doesn’t just happen through a wish and a prayer. It requires a particular style of operating, first coined by David Maister, called ‘supportive intolerance’. The support bit is offering partners personal insight/reflection, coaching and training to help them develop their full leadership potential.

The intolerance bit is making them accountable for their actions and inaction. This means calling-out behaviours inconsistent with firm values, providing constructive, prompt and honest feedback, having full transparency around agreed actions, and if all else fails, reducing reward as a sanction.

HR should be the lead change agent in introducing this style of leadership and operations. Again, it’s really hard without formal authority, but it’s critical to the firm’s long-term sustainability.

#5 Shift to loving the problem (not the solution)

While we try to do more with less and stay up with game-changing ideas, many HR professionals are still expected to solve day to day problems so it’s easy – and tempting – to go into problem-solving mode.  Boudreau and Rice’s caution for HR professionals:  “Embrace too many ideas (from popular talks and articles) or apply them too superficially and you’ll develop a reputation for fad surfing. Dig beneath the surface to the fundamental scientific research and insights and you can set the stage for true impact.” So one thing HR can do to add more value is ‘fall in love with the problem’ – that way you’ll look forward to spending more time on understanding them more deeply.

#6 Shift to ambidexterity

One can think about firm strategy as two parallel streams: one being ‘exploit’ and the other ‘explore’ (based on the work of O’Reilly and Tushman). Exploit refers to efforts to leverage current strengths and capabilities to make the current core business as good as it can be. Explore refers to new exploratory and experimentation efforts that will hopefully bear fruit in the future.

Firms need to become more ambidextrous, that is, change the firm’s culture so that everyone embraces explore and exploit in his or her everyday work and client interactions.

In an environment of rapid change and hyper-competition, every firm needs a healthy portfolio of both exploit and explore initiatives. A genuine commitment to exploring will most likely mean substantial changes to the firm’s dividend policy and capital structure. Firm governance and structural arrangements are also likely to be impacted, as will marketing, pricing, IT, operations and, in particular, HR.

Join us in Melbourne November 21 or Sydney November 22

HRMinds have asked Joel Barolsky and Sue-Ella Prodonovich to help finish their year of seminars with a discussion of major trends and practical ideas for those with an HR remit. These November workshops will be in Melbourne on Tuesday Nov 21 and Sydney Wednesday Nov 22. Details and registration here.

Are your practice groups primed to win?

In Articles, Commentary on 26 April 2017 at 8:23 am

If each of your practice groups is primed to win, then there’s a pretty good chance your firm will win as well.

With this in mind, there’s much benefit to be derived by assessing all of your practice groups on two dimensions:

  • A winning strategy – from strong to weak, and
  • Execution capability – from strong to weak.

 

Illustration of portfolio map – not real data

 

If most of your practice groups are in the weak-weak quadrant, perhaps it’s time to take that call from the headhunter. If all the groups are strong-strong, don’t change a thing! If you have a mix of everything, it’s time to get to work…

A winning strategy

There is a range of factors to take into consideration to assess whether a practice group has a winning strategy for the next three years:

  • Does the practice have clear aspirations to win? Is there a stretch intent?
  • Are they competing in sizeable, growing and profitable market segments?
  • Does the practice have a compelling value proposition, that is, clear reasons why clients should choose them over others?
  • Does the practice have a profitable and sustainable business model? Bonus points if the model is scalable.
  • Is there a Plan B if non-traditional competitors strengthen?
  • Are there pilots and experiments in place creating options for future growth?
  • Is there a clear implementation roadmap with accountabilities, measures and timing?
  • Is it clear what they say ‘no’ to, and why?

Execution capability

On paper, the practice group might have a world-beating strategy but it may not have the skills, resources and systems to implement it.

a cup of coffee on the wood table.cafe latte with tulip latte art pattern on the wooden background.

Source: fotolia

The first, and most important, the question is whether you have the right practice group leader. Is she a true leader or merely a convenor? Does she lead or just manage? While she might seek to lead, does she have loyal followers? Does she have the ability to inspire and support team members to be their best? Is she strong enough to stand up to the recalcitrants?

Other questions to ask around execution capability:

  • Is the team a real team or just a loose coalition of colleagues?
  • Does the team generally follow-through on their commitments?
  • Does the team own its strategy and take accountability for it?
  • Does the team have the right talent necessary to win, now and in three years time?
  • Does the group have access to the right technology, processes and systems to underpin its business model?
  • Is there sufficient open-mindedness to adapt to new inventions and work methods?
  • Are there mechanisms in place to regularly review progress and tweak their plans?

The portfolio

While it’s important to assess the competitiveness of each practice, there’s also a lot of value in assessing the inter-dependencies, synergies and gaps across the portfolio. Another portfolio overlay is the amount of partner equity allocated to each group and expected ROE (return on equity).

A review of the portfolio should indicate which practices require investment, divestment or just be maintained. Handling the politics of these decisions is a topic for another post, or three.

In conclusion

While a firm is more than just the sum of its parts, the parts play a critical role in sustaining success. Your firm’s strategy needs to reflect firm-wide themes like overall market positioning, culture, brand, strategic clients, talent, R&D, infrastructure and support. It also needs to deep dive into the practice portfolio, making sure each plays its part and leverages the strengths of the whole.

Firm purpose. Seven options.

In Articles, Commentary on 5 April 2017 at 12:45 pm

I’d highly recommend Jordan Furlong‘s new book, “Law is a Buyer’s Market – Building a Client-First Law Firm”.

Furlong argues that firms should answer ‘the why?’ question with a statement around creating client success. He states that this approach is congruent with the pursuit of professionalism and will enable the firm to withstand the challenges of increased competition and rapid technology change. Furlong suggests that firms adopt a client-centric purpose statement, something like, “our firm exists to serve the interests of clients in our chosen markets by addressing their legal challenges and opportunities so that those clients can achieve their objectives”.

Cups of coffee on blue background

Source: fotolia

Last weekend I had the opportunity to road-test Furlong’s recommendations in a client strategy workshop. It became clear quite early on in the workshop that while there was strong resonance with a client-centric purpose, it didn’t tell the full story for this firm. They felt that defining purpose solely on clients risked making them client-compelled in areas like pricing and write-offs, and, interestingly, less likely to innovate. They cited numerous examples of innovative ideas that didn’t come directly from clients expressing their needs, but rather from an intrinsic desire to do better than competitors.

To help things along, I presented SEVEN related, yet distinct, purpose statement option:

  1. Client-centric: our firm exists to make our clients more successful.
  2. Business-centric: our firm exists to maximise returns to shareholders.
  3. People-centric: our firm exists for our partners and staff to practise their craft, earn the respect of their clients and peers, and make a good living. In short, the firm is about fun, fame and fortune.
  4. Community-centric: our firm exists to add value to the communities we serve.
  5. Benefit-centric: our firm exists to reduce and manage risk.
  6. Quality-centric: our firm exists to make all other firms look second-rate.
  7. Innovation-centric: our firm exists to set precedent, break new ground and pioneer new products and processes.

I’m happy to report that we came up with a hybrid version that everyone was very excited about. Sorry, I can’t share it here in this post.

Which one of these options, or combination, best describes YOUR firm’s purpose?

Two-speed firms: the problem and solutions

In Articles, Commentary on 20 November 2016 at 5:22 pm

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“We have a two-speed firm! There’s one group of partners who are ambitious and willing to spend the extra energy necessary to win new business. And then we have another group, who work hard but are broadly happy with the way things are. In reality, they expend far less energy than the first group. The problem is we’re all rowing the same boat. Rowing at different speeds makes us go in circles, not forward.”

Does this sound familiar?

The expectations of partner energy, commitment, speed, fire-in-the-belly, etc. are missed in most strategy discussions. You might have motivational words in your purpose, vision and values statements. Your goals might include stretch revenue and profit targets. But, if you look carefully, there’s nothing there on how much petrol needs to be spent by each individual partner. It is just ASSUMED that every partner will be equally committed and energised.

Five key reasons

I think think there are five main reasons why energy expectations are not adequately discussed:

  1. Remuneration model: the view in some firms is that those willing to invest more will be paid more, and therefore there’s no need to talk about it. The problem is that discretionary reward, on its own, is a very blunt (and lazy) performance management tool. Over time, it entrenches a multi-speed firm.
  2. Measurement: there’s no easy and accurate measure of energy level. Firms may have proxies like billable hours or hours worked, but these measures can be gamed and do not really capture the temperature of belly fire. As firms introduce different business models and new flexible work arrangements these measures become even less relevant.
  3. Confrontation: talking about energy expectations inevitably leads to heated discussions as to whom is contributing more or less. Firm leaders often prefer harmony over harrowing debates around relative commitment.
  4. Autonomy: in many firms partners believe their autonomy is paramount and should not be questioned. As owners, they should be free of “big brother” accountabilities around how and where and how much time they spend.
  5. Outputs over inputs: some people will argue that assessing energy feels like clock-watching – a focus on time spent rather than outcomes achieved.

#1 Focus on partner engagement

The conventional solution to address a two-speed partnership is to shine the light on the “under-performers” and hope that this will shame them into speeding up. This is often coupled with a stern conversation around accountability and the threat of sanctions. In my experience, this approach seldom has enduring success and often ends badly.

An alternative approach is to shine the light on everyone in the spirit of support and development. The idea here is to frequently check-in with the whole partner group on questions like:

  • What’s going well?
  • What’s causing you the most stress at the moment?
  • How’s your team’s strategy implementation going?
  • What support do you need?
  • What are your key priorities over the next period?
  • What things might get in the way of success?

The logic there is that through greater transparency and a more supportive leadership style there will be a positive impact across the board. This approach is aimed at growing the overall pie and reducing dissonance between the fast and the slow.

The reason this approach is seldom attempted, or, if it is, implemented badly, is that it requires the firm leaders to do some serious heavy lifting. It’s practically impossible to do well in medium and large firms.

Until now…

There are a range of new applications, like Jobvibe (an Australian start-up), Wethrive and Culture Amp, that allows for easy frequent check-ins to assess how people are feeling at work, and to identify and resolve issues quickly. The trick is to tailor the questions for professional services and for the partner group in particular, and to run it out of the managing partner’s office, not HR.

dreamstime_m_33010417

#2 Agree a partner charter

A complementary approach is to agree the social contract between the firm and its partners. As Nick Jarrett-Kerr explains, these partner codes or charters should agree explicit expectations for each partner in regard to :

  1. their dealings with the firm, for example, to accept the spirit and the letter of the firm’s strategy;
  2. their treatment of the firm’s clients, for example, promoting the highest standards of professionalism, truthfulness, integrity and trustworthiness;
  3. their dealings with fellow partners, junior staff members and support staff; and
  4. their personal learning journey and commitment to ongoing development, improvement and innovation.

I’d suggest adding a fifth dimension which describes the expectations around commitment and energy levels.

#3 Team profit contribution

Some firm’s have shifted focus away from individual revenue targets to team profit contribution. Rather than set individual budgets, the core accountability is for the team to deliver a specific profit outcome. Team members need to work through the optimum approach, roles and requisite energy levels. While there are many positives to this approach, it may further entrench silos and factions. It may also hide enduring aberrant behaviour by some individuals.

Call to action

I don’t think there is a magic silver bullet to address the issue of variations in partner contribution. It’s a complex, politically sensitive problem. The key is not to ignore the problem as it festers rage in the fast, and facilitates a victim mindset in the slow. Without active positive leadership, you’re charting course for a circling boat.

Photo sourced from dreamstime.com

5 takeaways from teaching management at the Melbourne Law School

In Articles, Commentary on 31 October 2016 at 7:30 am

“The best way to learn is to teach.”

Cup of hotlatte art coffee on wooden table

Source: fotolia

I had the privilege and pleasure to present the Management for Professionals subject on the Melbourne Law Masters program over this past week. The course covered the foundations of leadership and management within a legal context. Reference material was sourced from Maister, Porter, Kotter, Beaton, Martin, Susskind and Day, amongst many others.

After road-testing all the material in the classroom, my five key takeaways are…

#1 Maister needs an update

David Maister’s famous practice spectrum outlines a range of business models for professional service firms to consider. These include Rocket Scientist, Grey Hair, Procedural and Commodity, which in turn influence the settings on leverage, utilisation, margin and rates.

Maister’s models are still largely relevant in a people-intensive firms, but less so in technology and data-intensive legal businesses. These latter firms clearly price, operate and scale up differently. Perhaps a better business model map – see below – is to have High to Low Complexity on one continuum and People to Tech-Intensity on the other. The top right position is currently vacant, but has a huge number of aspirants.

#2 NewLaw is no longer new

During the course we studied INSEAD’s new case study on Axiom Legal. We had a great presentation from Jarred Hardman, the founder of Crowd & Co, and explored alternative models such as Keypoint, Lexvoco and Bespoke.

It appears that over the past 12 months, many traditional law firms buying-in or are copying the “new” bits of NewLaw to the point that they are no longer really fresh or compelling differentiators. One student commented that many NewLaw models shifted so much business risk to individual lawyers that they would struggle to attract really top talent.

#3 Love the grey

One of the most interesting class discussions centred around a HBR video on the common myths of strategy execution, that is, success will come from aligning goals, better communication and following the plan. The video highlighted that while the latter approaches are worthwhile there are many nuances and subtleties that need to be considered. It appears there are few absolute truths in management and most things are contingent on context, characters and constraints.

#4 Strategy should be for everyone

“I wish I had done a course like this when I started my career. It would have made sense of all the decisions my firm has taken over the years.”

It is common in many firms for discussions around strategy to be treated as secret partner business. In my view there is a strong case to give everyone in the firm a deeper appreciation of how the firm competes and how it makes money. Better understanding of these key concepts will facilitate innovation and execution.

#5 The world is small

From the class discussions, it appears that cats in Santiago, Perth, Beijing, Milan and Jakarta are equally hard to herd. The Melbourne Law Masters program attracts law students from over 40 countries across the globe. Professors, such as Katharine Christopherson (also teaching last week), come from far and wide to present their classes. Being immersed in this global village for one-week was truly an amazing experience.

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I will be presenting the Management for Professionals course again in October 2017. It is available as a single subject study option or as an elective on the Masters and JD programs.

Is your board focused on strategy or operations?

In Articles, Commentary on 22 April 2016 at 7:29 am

“Our board gets preoccupied with operational issues. Important discussion around the firm’s strategy is the exception rather than the rule.”

Sound familiar?

Addressing the firm’s expanded balance sheet is one way to get your board to focus on big-picture strategy. Expanded balance sheets include the intangible assets that are crucial to the firm’s long-term competitiveness and profitability.

While accountants often refer to these intangibles as goodwill, I think there’s much strategic value in disaggregating these intangibles into four separate asset classes*: relationship capital, human capital, brand capital and structural capital.

Variety of cups of coffee and coffee beans on old wooden tableBoards need to make a critical assessment as to whether capital value is growing or slowing? Asking good questions and directing management to address significant strategic issues and opportunities is what the board’s stewardship role is all about.

Relationship Capital

This refers the quantum, strength and stickiness of existing client and referrer relationships.

  • Grow: growth in relationship capital can be assessed by things like major client acquisitions, client commitment/risk indexes, client engagement, Net Promoter Scores, % of sole-sourced work, sales pipeline velocity, bid-win ratios and service mix per client. Some firms track client lifetime value as an indicator of its relationship capital.
  • Slow: relationship capital can be diminished by major client losses (actual and pending), loss of key people with strong networks, structural change in client organisations, and growth in competition, both direct and disruptive.

Human Capital

This refers to the quality and performance of all those that work in the firm.

  • Grow: growth in human capital can be assessed by things like partner and staff retention, engagement, participation and discretionary effort. Culture mapping often reveals amazing strategic insights.  Clear and compelling succession plans for the firm’s key rainmakers and team leaders is good a lead indicator of future capital value.
  • Slow: human capital is often diminished by cultural misfits, major internal disputes and disruptive politics. One indicator of the latter is the percentage of time the firm’s managing partner spends addressing internal matters like performance measurement (i.e. who takes credit), partner remuneration, client ‘ownership’ and resource hoarding/sharing. Power struggles and infighting between divisions, office locations, teams, practices and individual partners are often major distractions and result in sub-par contribution from everyone.

Brand Capital

This refers to the strength of the firm’s brand and reputation in key target markets.

  • Grow: growth in brand capital can be assessed by things like brand awareness, consideration, preference, use, recommendation and social media following. This can be evidenced by awards, rankings and directory listings. Relative price premium is often a useful proxy for brand strength.  The firm’s ability to attract star recruits, at junior, mid and senior levels, is also an indicator of its brand capital.
  • Slow: the firm’s brand can be weakened by major losses, be it clients, projects or people. Recent developments at Slater & Gordon are ample evidence of the negative impact of an externally visible crisis. Clayton Utz took years to fully recover from the infamous BAT case.

Structural Capital

This refers to the value of the firm’s IP, its systems, products, apps, methodologies, technology and platforms.

  • Grow: growth in structural capital can be assessed by things like the firm’s investment in R&D and its innovation portfolio. Quantification of the current and potential revenue from leveraging the firm’s IP may also be useful.
  • Slow: a strategic assessment of structural liabilities might include a systems effectiveness and efficiency review. In one leading law firm, they classified of each of their systems into: [1] value-adding, [2] functional and [3] deadweights. The latter were clunky systems that reduced efficiency, increased user frustration and/or lowered quality. The outcome of this review affirmed the conclusion that the internal user experience was a crucial part of creating a high-performance culture.

In practice

Boards that have adopted the four capital approach, or a variation thereof, usually rotate their agenda and focus on one area per board meeting. Discussions usually revolve, firstly, around the nature, quantum and key trends in the asset class, and secondly, how the assets should be protected, developed and leveraged further.

This approach results in a much clearer delineation in the role and contribution of the board and that of the firm’s management team. It also means that in-depth deliberations around preferred colour of Post-it notes are omitted from the board’s agenda.

* This approach is adapted from the work of Erik Sveiby.

Cultural fit, or do you mean no misfit?

In Articles, Commentary on 25 September 2015 at 7:05 am

I’d love a dollar for every managing partner that says they want to recruit a new person, or acquire a new practice, that has the right cultural fit. What does that really mean? When push come to shove, in most firms cultural fit is a proxy for “no dickheads” (to quote a client or two). It means a person like us who won’t disrupt the status quo. It’s not really cultural fit, but rather no cultural misfit.

I think viewing cultural fit in this way is a missed opportunity and doing a disservice to your firm’s strategic potential.

Your culture club

salons_coffee_art_contest_our_daily_shotsYour firm’s culture club can be divided into three groups: Misfits, Colleagues and Catalysts. Misfits are unmanageable non-team players who have been retained either because they’re major rainmakers and/or the firm’s leadership hasn’t had the guts to have the hard conversation. Misfits are sometimes referred to as cultural terrorists.

Colleagues are those that fit in and play by the tacit and explicit rules. They are solid performers and contributors within the current cultural norms.

Catalyst are those that will help create the firm you want to become. They’re the agents of change that enable the firm to adapt to new client demands and competitive realities. Whilst Catalysts are collegiate and respectful of others, they are disruptive in that they act as symbols and sources of energy for new ways to operate and compete.

Misfits and Catalysts are sometimes confused in they both discordant, and therefore risky and confronting. The critical difference is that Catalysts are willing to put the firm first, their motivation is less about ego and personal power.

During recruitment, most Misfits try their best to present well, however, one can try discern their true colours via a combination of personality profiling, personal references and behavioural-event interviewing.

Strategic potential

A firm with 100% Colleagues, and therefore no Catalysts, will feel like a cosy club but is likely lose ground to competitors over time. In a turbulent environment if you’re not adapting at the same speed or faster than the market you’re going backwards. Catalysts help you adapt but with a level of control and discipline. They enable the firm’s culture to move beyond nice and to develop real cultural differentiation.

Map your firm

When you are about to do your next round of partner appointments or a senior lateral hire, think less about general cultural fit and more about whether you want a Colleague or a Catalyst?

Another worthwhile exercise is to map your current partner cohort into Misfits, Colleagues and Catalysts. It’s probably time to bite the bullet (and load it at the same time!) and address your cultural terrorists. In asking firms if they’ve had any regrets in letting their Misfits go, the universal response has been, “just one – we should have done it ages ago”.

The really tough question is whether you have the right number and type of Catalysts that will create the firm of the future?

Photo source: http://salon.com

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10 reasons why culture eats strategy for breakfast

In Articles, Commentary on 4 September 2015 at 10:53 am

Over the past 12 months I have worked with three professional service firms that have outperformed their peers. Despite operating in flat markets they have consistently recorded double-digit revenue and profit growth. This success has come without superstar rainmakers, with undistinguished brands and with no fancy shmancy disruptive business models.

So what is it that has made them so successful?

To me it’s cultural differentiation. Not market differentiation, but an internal culture that creates value, both internally and externally. It’s a culture that’s eating strategy for breakfast, as famously proclaimed by Peter Drucker.

Based on these three case studies and other research, I posit that there are ten areas where cultural differentiation really counts.

#1 Productive politics

img90In firms with highly politicised cultures, enormous energy is expended addressing internal matters like performance measurement (i.e. who takes credit), partner remuneration, client ‘ownership’ and resource hoarding/sharing. Power struggles and infighting between divisions, office locations, teams, practices and individual partners distract from value creating time with clients and staff. A managing partner of leading law firm once revealed to me that he spent around 40% of his time on an annual basis making, negotiation and justifying partner remuneration decisions.

Politics is inevitable, but firms that effectively balance collective, individual and directed power have a huge competitive advantage.

#2 Collaboration

Recent Harvard Business School research has revealed that when different practice teams are able to collaborate around client needs, there is a massive positive financial impact. In one case study, the average annual revenue per client increased from US$150,000 to US$800,000 by having seven practice groups offering an integrated solution versus cross-selling seven discrete services.

Those firms that have transitioned from a “my client” to “our client” culture usually outperform those where partner autonomy reigns supreme.

#3 Consistent high standards

I recently chaired a panel discussion with three senior buyers of professional services. One of the questions put to the panel was whether there was a difference between top performing firms and the rest? Consistency was the universal response. Top firms were characterised by extremely high technical and service standards delivered consistently by everyone. In other firms they felt it was a bit hit and miss.

There is much evidence to support the proposition that successful firms are those that have cultures that are intolerant of mediocrity and expect and get high standards from everyone.

#4 Discretionary effort

Organisation cultures that are perceived to be genuinely caring, trusting and fair tend to get the best out of people. Staff are more likely to go the extra mile, to act above and beyond the call of duty, or just do that little bit more. Toxic cultures often result in lower productivity, higher absenteeism and substandard output.

#5 Continuity

In their bestselling book, The Service Profit Chain, Heskett, Sasser & Hart referred to research that showed that client satisfaction increased significantly with staff continuity. In situations where a financial services client had five different relationship managers over a two-year period only 40% clients were satisfied or very satisfied. This jumped to over 80% where there had been only one relationship manager. Continuity builds understanding of the client and fosters deeper relationships. These factors are critical in client choice, loyalty and advocacy.

Positive firm cultures facilitate retention and ensure continuity. A stable workforce also reduces the direct costs associated with staff churn.

#6 Alignment

Each of the three case study firms mentioned in the introduction to this blog post are characterised by a lean management structure. All leaders across the firm, but excluding the managing partner, still retain significant practices. In a way each team or cell within the firm has an ethos of self-sufficiency. They don’t see themselves as paralysed subordinates waiting for orders.

Alignment around firm direction, trust in leadership and a strong culture provides the glue that prevents anarchy but at the same time allows individuals and teams to be empowered. Self-management results in a significantly lower investment in planning, control and oversight and therefore more time on winning business and delivering work profitably.

#7 Busyness

In most professional services, busyness begets busyness. There is much evidence to support the notion that smart, highly motivated professionals seek to master their craft by doing good work for good clients. ‘Bring it on’ most say. In my experience the assumption that better work-life balance creates more staff engagement only applies to a minority. Consequently, one can conclude that a positive productive work culture creates more capacity to do even more work (within limits of course).

#8 Agility

If your firm is changing slower than the competitive environment around it, you’re going backwards! Firms with strong market and client-oriented cultures are really good at two things: [1] sensing and predicting trends, and [2] willing and able to make the necessary changes to adapt to different conditions. Agility and adaptability are cultural elements that are the hallmarks of successful firms in turbulent times.

#9 Fire in the belly

Business development is both a relationship game and a numbers game. Without some personal connection it’s very hard for a prospective client to develop enough trust to say yes. Equally, there will be fewer sales opportunities if you don’t show up. In tough times, there is usually a reward for those professionals with some fire in the belly and show up more often than others. The hunger to win is more intense and bears fruit in fuller pipelines and better strike rates.

#10 Execution

The last cultural element is related to all the others but is worthy of a mention on its own. It relates to the efficiency and effectiveness of implementing strategic decisions. It’s the ability to make it happen, to have the discipline and fortitude to overcome obstacles and to follow though on agreed actions. It seems so obvious, but so many firms struggle with this ‘simple’ ability to execute.

In conclusion

It is common for professional service firms describe their cultures as “collegiate”, “respectful” and “friendly”. In these tough times I don’t think just being nice is going to make a difference, to generate real value. Thinking beyond nice is incumbent of every professional service leader. Striving for true cultural differentiation will allow you to have culture for breakfast, strategy for lunch and champagne over dinner…

Photo source: http://nespresso.com

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