A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘internal collaboration’

Measurement matters more than money

In Articles, Commentary on 24 July 2018 at 7:56 am

A firm’s profit-sharing model is a poor determinant of collaborative behaviour.

Motivational theory predicts that firms with equal-share or lock-step model would be far more collaborative than those with more performance-based reward systems. The logic is that in equal-share firms there is a strong financial incentive for partners to grow the collective pie by sharing clients, staff and other resources.

I can think of a number of firms where this theory simply does not hold true.

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Source: strikingly.com

Despite equal profit share, partners in these firms hoard work and clients, they hold onto resources and they operate primarily in silos. They continue to do this despite all the evidence that better collaboration will result in higher profits, more staff engagement and stronger client loyalty.

SO WHAT IS GOING ON?

In many firms, partner performance measures are oriented around financial metrics like personal and supervised production, fees billed, fees collected, work referred, utilisation, write-offs and WIP. They are usually reported monthly in arrears and are transparent to the rest of the partnership.

It appears to me that silo’ed behaviour is driven by a reaction to the measurement system by three different types of partners.

Insecure Overachievers

Insecure partners view their relative ranking on performance reports as a signal of their worth, both to themselves and others. The data is a form of validation or redemption. Getting higher up the individual billings league table takes on new meaning, that is, proving that they’re ‘okay’. At the extreme, one hears of stories of partners gaming the practice management system and manipulating data so as to rank higher. Perhaps in an eat-what-you-kill firm, this behaviour is more understandable, but in an equal-share firm, it just smacks of paranoia.

Inflated Egos

Those with above-average egos use individual reporting as a competitive scorecard signalling that they’re winning and the others are losing. While some internal competition is healthy, in some firms, it strays into a dog-eat-dog culture where collaboration is the last thing on people’s minds.

Tenureds

‘Tenuritis’ is my term to describe the mindset of a partner who feels that as an owner they have a self-directed job for life with next to zero accountability. For those even partially inflicted with tenuritis, the performance reports have little impact. They’re mostly ambivalent about the data and care little whether they sit at the top, middle or bottom.

With the Insecures and Inflated Egos it is the symbolic power of measurement that’s primarily driving behaviour. With the Tenureds it is the over-reliance of measurement as a leadership tool which, with these individuals, has very limited power.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?

The key issue here is that measurement should not be used as a proxy for leadership. It’s just plain lazy (and a little cowardly) if firm leaders send out the monthly reports and then think their job is done.

Effective leadership is about [i] providing regular feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly, [ii] active listening, [iii] setting direction, [iv] developing capability, [v] offering support, [vi] opening doors, and [vii] removing constraints.

In equal-share firms, effective leadership is crucial to mitigate the measurement system risks outlined above. It is also fundamental to restoring a sense of fairness across the equity partnership and to get everyone performing to their full potential.

Without effective leadership, meritocracies run the risk of letting the “money do all the talking”. The differential in reward might address the perception of fairness but it does little for partner development, especially for those not intrinsically motivated by the Dollar. Profit-share, on its own, is a blunt pseudo-precise deferred performance management tool.

I believe a firm’s leadership capability is a far better determinant of one-firm collaborative behaviour than its profit sharing model. There are thousands of examples of deeply collaborative public and private companies that operate with merit-based rewards. There’s no reason why professional service firms should be any different.

CALL TO ACTION

If cross-firm collaboration is on your strategic agenda, don’t just jump to the reward lever and expect everything to change. Rather take some time to think about what and how you measure and the critical role your leaders play in driving one-firm behaviour.

The end of the club

In Articles, Commentary on 25 June 2018 at 10:09 am

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 June 2018

A ‘club’ is a Tier 2 full-service firm of individual practitioners who enjoy each other’s company. It is a nice, collegiate, shared-office environment where partners enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy and welcome the occasional cross-selling opportunity.

And the club, as a business model, is about to die.

The principal reason for its demise is that most of the individual practitioners that make up the club will not be able to compete. Unless their expertise is unquestionably superior or they have welded-on client relationships, these solo specialists will start to lose out to a combination of freelancers, platforms, networks, focus and one-firm firms.

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Source: strikingly.com

Solo specialists versus Freelancers

Many of Australia’s Tier 1 law firms thinned their partner ranks during the 2010’s (a trend reversed in 2018). This was done through de-equitisation, early retirements and forced redundancy. Ashurst, for example, had 186 Australian partners in July 2013 and 142 in July 2016.

A number of these very accomplished practitioners set up shop as high-end legal freelancers. Using sophisticated cloud-based software, a laptop and a phone, these lawyers have next to zero overheads and the flexibility and agility to practice where and when they like. There is simply no contest when matched to a Tier 2 practitioner constrained by firm pricing policies, high office rents and administration expenses.

Solo specialists versus Platforms

HWL Ebsworth and Mills Oakley stand out as two very successful high-growth platform firms. Their strategy is about aggressively acquiring partners with portable practices and offering them incomes more directly aligned to their total financial contribution, both direct and referred. These firms have strong operational disciplines and lean back-offices. They are well led with partners focused less on office politics and more on things that matter, that is, their clients and staff. HWL prides itself on offering partner chargeout rates lower than many Tier 1 and 2 firms and fixing these rates over time.

These platform firms run harder and faster than the clubs. The energy and discipline they bring to the market gives them a real edge. And if they come across a high-flying solo-specialist in a sleepy club, they’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Solo specialists versus Networks

The past five years have seen the emergence of a number of network law firms and legal staff companies. Examples include Lawyers on Demand, LexVoco and Crowd&Co. There are also a number of legal staff companies aligned with established law firms, such as Corr’s Orbit, Allens’ Adapt and Minters’ Flex. One standout element of these networks is they have a very small team of full-time staff and only contract lawyers to work when there’s a confirmed fixed-fee client assignment.

The toe-to-toe analysis of networks versus solo-specialist yields very similar conclusions to the Freelancer and Platform models.

Solo specialists versus Focus firms

Focus and boutique firms specialise in a narrow range of worktypes or client sectors. Two standout examples in this category are SBA Law, a Melbourne-based corporate boutique, and Thoroughbred Legal, a general practice firm focused on the thoroughbred racing industry.

These firms position themselves as having deep expertise, knowledge and critical mass, and a service delivery model 100% attuned to the needs of their target market.

Beaton data points to technical expertise and understanding of client industry as key drivers of client choice. As such, focus firms will almost always out-credential and out-compete Tier 2 practitioners largely competing on their own.

Solo specialists versus One-firm firms

David Maister coined the term “one-firm firm” to describe a full-service firm where,

  • the firm brand is stronger than individual partner brands,
  • the firm has a ‘house style’ and delivers consistent quality across the board,
  • the firm’s culture is deeply collaborative in regard to sharing clients and resources, and
  • the firm is prepared to invest in new profit growth initiatives without prejudicing individual practitioners.

One-firm firm’s competitive advantage comes from wider ‘institutionalised’ client relationships and the ability to bring many minds to solve complex client problems.

Over the past decade, many larger clients have sought to reduce the size of their panels and form strategic partnerships with fewer (one-firm) firms. This procurement trend effectively locks-out the solo-specialist in a collegiate club.

The preferred strategic option

Over the next five years, some clubs will fold, some will fracture into a series of boutiques and some will be acquired. Most will try to address their situation by trying to become one-firm firms. The leadership challenge of this transformation is huge, and the risk of losing star partners and associates along the way is high. Unfortunately, I expect only a small number will be able to make the necessary changes and survive.

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.

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.

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#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

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