A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘Leadership capacity’

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.

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

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

Three essential topics for your 2014 strategic agenda

In Articles, Commentary on 14 January 2014 at 11:26 am

This is a good time to do a quick stress test of your firm’s 2014 strategic agenda.

Looking at the list of strategic priorities you should be asking: [1] is there a reasonable balance between today’s business and tomorrow’s business; [2] have we been brave enough in tackling our sacred cows; [3] have we adequately addressed client, market and competitive challenges; [4] is the list too long/are we trying to do too much; and [5] is everyone committed to the same list?

You may wish to take your stress test one step further by asking whether these three critically important topics have been considered:

  1. Innovation
  2. Co-venturing
  3. Leadership capacity.

Innovation

Late last year I was quoted in The Australian Financial Review and The Australian on the rapidly changing dynamics of the legal and accounting markets. What’s clear is that these markets are displaying classic signs of market maturity: new entrants, product commoditisation, mergers and client demands for more and to pay less.

Latte-Art-16The old saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, could not be truer. Firms that are not looking to innovate and make step-change improvements will simply fail. The market will no longer tolerate mediocrity.

The problem with “innovation” is that it’s very broad concept and means many things to different people. My strong advice is that if you want to address innovation in your firm, you need to define it for yourselves. Without this clarity, everything will quickly be lumped into the innovation bucket and when it’s everything, it’s nothing.

To illustrate how you might commence on this innovation journey, I recently ran a successful half-day “kick-start” innovation workshop for a client (XYZ). The workshop yielded two key outcomes: XYZ’s specific definition and approach to innovation and five high-impact innovation opportunities for the firm to action.  The workshop covered:

  • Why is innovation important
  • Types of innovation inc.  process, product, people, pricing and positioning
  • Reshaping culture to become a more innovative and agile firm
  • Case studies in successful innovation amongst professional service firms
  • XYZ’s definition and approach to innovation
  • Brainstorming XYZ innovation opportunities
  • Priortising the XYZ’s best ideas
  • Action plans to advance XYZ’s innovation approach and to develop the top few ideas.

Co-venturing

The second strategic agenda topic is about asking the question: “which other businesses in your universe would be best to partner or co-venture with?” Co-venturing might enable rapid entry into new markets, accessing new technologies, acquiring complementary capabilities and de-risking new product development. Partners might include other types of professional service firms, suppliers, intermediaries and even competitors.

Traditional firms might be able to leap-frog the innovation and R&D process by partnering with a start-up business with a new service delivery model. This is one option to avoid disrupting your core operations and to bypass conservative cultural constraints prevalent in many firms.

One great co-venturing example is the initiative between environmental engineering firm, Energetics, and accounting firm, BDO. They’ve worked collaboratively to provide carbon auditing and assurance services in Australia. The two parties have brought complementary capabilities to the table enable each to compete more effectively:

  • BDO –  audit process and risk management; in-depth knowledge in the audit of company finances, financial accounting systems and performing transactional-based audit analytics.
  • Energetics – well-recognised emission knowledge and reputation across wide range of industries; largest group of technical specialists in Australia in greenhouse reporting, grants and renewable schemes. 

Leadership capacity

The third critical issue that all firms should examine is their leadership capacity. I see many firms with highly skilled CEOs or Managing Partners but with moderately competent team leaders. Teams, be they client, work-type, office, internal service, project or industry teams, are where all the action happens. They’re the bedrock of the firm.

In the past, a buoyant market masked the lack of leadership talent and allowed teams to thrive largely on auto-pilot. This, in my view, is no longer the case. If your firm does not have the current and future capacity to lead teams, it will always under-perform and succession will become a major headache.

Developing leadership capacity is not a quick-fix, easy issue to address. It’s NOT about running a 2-day leadership training program and expecting everyone to walk out as Nelson Mandela. 27 years in jail is not a feasible alternative either!

Building leadership capacity is about a systematic developmental approach tailored to each individual. From experience, it’s expensive, risky and delivers returns over a long time period. In other words, a prime candidate for the ‘too hard basket’. Notwithstanding this, there is much merit in doing an honest assessment of your leadership talent and to develop a plan to address the key gaps and to realise the potential that’s there.

Dread or delight

In 2014 we have the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the Winter Olympics in Russia and a mouthwatering cricket test series in South Africa to look forward to. With a robust strategic agenda in hand, hopefully you are looking forward to 2014 with more delight than dread. I wish you and your firm everything of the best for the year ahead.

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