A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘Leadership capacity’

Hey partner, do you know where you sit on the career curve?

In Articles, Commentary on 28 June 2021 at 7:59 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 June 2021.

In nature, a seed is planted, begins to sprout, matures, becomes an adult, and then eventually regenerates. While not as unequivocal as the laws of nature, the careers of partners in premium law firms generally go through five distinct phases.

  • Phase one: find my feet. Partners typically work hard to validate the business case for their promotion. They spend time working out how things really work, who calls the shots and what it takes to succeed.
  • Phase two: create backbone. Partners cement their anchor clients and referrers. They build the team and technology necessary for efficient service delivery and a compelling client experience.
  • Phase three: make hay. Partners really hit their straps and use their strong personal brands and honed business development skills to win and deliver an increasing flow of profitable work.
  • Phase four: widen contribution. In addition to growing their own practice, these partners collaborate actively across the firm, expanding existing client relationships, cross-servicing and seeding new opportunities. They share their knowledge and contacts widely and help monetise their IP in new algorithms, products and thought leadership. Some also take on practice and firm leadership roles.
  • Phase five: transition to others. Senior partners in this phase commence the development of designated successors. They start to let go of the reins and lend their social capital to others.

Proactive conversations about a partner’s desired career curve – shape, angle, timing and gaps of the phases – can be of significant benefit to the individual and the firm.

The shape of the arc

The duration of each phase varies significantly from person to person. It is not simply an average 30-year partner tenure divided by five equal phases.

Many partners would have a career that follows a classic “S” curve, with ordered progression through the five phases. There may be a few “J” curves or hockey-sticks that reflect a flat or declining phase one followed by continued rapid growth.

There are partners who have a career arc that looks like a series of angled “Ws”, going from boom to bust to boom, reflecting an innate ability to reinvent themselves.

In more recent times, there are career arcs that have missing chunks as people take extended time out for other commitments.

The early days

In the past, it was common for phase one and two partners to be left alone to sink or swim. It was assumed that, on promotion, the individual became all-knowing and capable.

But many progressive firms now offer tailored training and coaching support to build resilience and keep them on a positive trajectory. Most firms also recognise that these early days often coincide with major changes in partners’ personal lives, like starting a family and taking on more debt. Work-life integration at these early stages is beset with competing demands.

A missed opportunity

A firm filled with phase three “haymakers” sounds wonderful, but recent Harvard research indicates that there is much more to gain if they instead develop a strong collaborative culture with a healthy cohort of phase four partners. These benefits include more valuable client work at higher margins and greater staff engagement.

But going from phase three to four is easier said than done, especially for those individuals who are hard-wired to work autonomously.

Each firm should clarify what the “widen contribution” phase looks and feels like to them and whether there are any practice-area variances. Alignment of measurement and reward to create more phase fours is a good next step, with measurement used to improve not just prove.

Leaving well

Phase five is quite often dealt with too late or superficially. This may be due to a reluctance of a senior partner to let go, the inability of the next generation to step up, the risk of client defections and/or the financial circumstances of the individuals involved.

Like at all other phases, every partner should be asked, and should ask themselves where are they on the career arc, what to prioritise to succeed in the current phase, where next and how?

How law firms can do more with less

In Articles, Commentary, Legal Technology on 5 March 2021 at 6:22 pm

The full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 4 March 2021.

Commercial law firms face constant pressure from clients to do more for less.

They can respond in three ways: say it can’t be done and risk losing out to competitors, drop their prices, or make a step change to improve productivity.

Most are pursuing option 3 and are looking to legal operations to make it happen.

What are legal operations?

Legal operations usually include some or all of these disciplines:

  • Business Management – commercial managers focused on improving profitability, increasing revenues and optimising efficiency.
  • Service Design – workflow and client experience specialists that evaluate, accelerate and support legal process improvement projects. They also often assist with new product development and act as incubators for new business ideas.
  • Legal Project Management – project professionals that make legal work tractable, trackable and transparent, for both lawyers and clients.
  • Pricing – pricing experts that help partners to have better client conversations, align price with value, protect margins, and where appropriate, use alternative fee arrangements.
  • Alternative Legal Services – a team of paralegals, legal technologist and lawyers focused on high-volume process work including e-discovery, transactional and dispute support, language editing, document review and IP management.

Australian experience

In Australia, some very large national firms have embraced a centralised approach to legal operations. Others have adopted a more decentralised model with each major practice group acquiring the resources specific to their needs. 

Over time, I would expect most firms will move to a model of centralised governance to avoid duplication and facilitate the sharing of knowledge and applications. At the same time, operational specialists need to work right at the coalface to find smarter ways to deliver more for less.

Innovation roles will be also subsumed into legal operations. Legal secretaries and assistants will still work directly with local lawyers but will be more connected with and directed by legal operations.

In medium-sized and smaller law firms, a new business service function will likely emerge with the status of HR, marketing and finance. It will often start with outsourcing basic IT services – hardware, software and helpdesk – and the insourcing of specialist tech-savvy resources to help lift productivity and client connection in key practice areas. Once this is established, other roles involved in supporting legal service delivery will enter the legal operations orbit.

New career pathways

This emerging area of legal operations is also creating an alternative – and attractive – career path for lawyers.

They benefit from a deep knowledge of the intrinsic needs within a legal workflow, but also enjoy the respect of the various stakeholders involved in migrating to a new way of working.

MinterEllison offers new lawyers the option of entering its Legal Operations Graduate Program. The program gives candidates exposure to lean six sigma, design thinking, change management and agile methodologies. The firm recently graduated its first cohort and is reported to be delighted with the outcomes so far.

The growth of legal operations is not just confined to law firms.

Stuart Fuller, the global head of KPMG Legal Services, recently predicted that “half of the [in-house] legal team will not be lawyers by 2025”.

Fuller says the use of automated solutions, chatbots and other forms of productised legal services will rise, and these will need support from lawyers as well as a more multidisciplinary workforce with different skill sets. As a result, the proportion of legal work done by paralegals, data analysts, operational experts and other specialists might rise to the point where legal professionals become a minority.

The key message is that the path to improved productivity is not pressuring lawyers to bill more time, but rather working smarter with the evolving disciplines of legal operations.

Is HWL Ebsworth Limited a buy?

In Articles, Commentary on 30 August 2020 at 12:35 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published in the Australian Financial Review on 27 August 2020.

Earlier this week, the Australian Financial Review reported that HWL Ebsworth (HWLE) was preparing to list the firm on the ASX with a $1 Billion-plus valuation.

While details are scant at this stage, it is worth asking whether stockbrokers will recommend a BUY when the HWLE Limited prospectus is issued?

My prediction is they will give this IPO a thumbs down for five main reasons.

#1 Insufficient surplus

As a listed entity, HWLE partners will have to share a portion of the firm’s profits with external shareholders. For the sake of argument assume the current partners enjoy average earnings of $1.5 million per annum. In the future, partner earnings – salary plus bonus minus profit share – might reduce to say $1 million. The incumbent partners will most likely accept a reduced annual income given their significant capital gain upon listing.

This business case seems logical but misses one key point – there is a fiercely competitive market for top talent. Many of the best HWLE partners are proven rainmakers will still be able to command incomes around $1.5 million or more at other non-listed law firms or by setting up their own practice when their employment and escrow handcuffs come off.

At $1 million – the maximum the firm can pay and still maintain dividend payments – HWLE Limited will be way off the mark in attracting any new ‘$1.5 million’ partners.

Over the long term, there’s insufficient surplus to keep both partners and external shareholders happy.

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#2 Clients don’t buy the firm

When Shine Justice Limited first listed on the ASX, they presented strong evidence that their personal injury clients chose them because they trusted the firm’s brand and were largely lawyer agnostic.  When IPH listed, investors were enticed by a large proportion of annuity income from patent and TM renewals and an ambitious plan to scale.

When it comes to HWLE’s mostly business-to-business relationships, research shows that clients are much more discerning around who does their work.

HWLE external shareholders will not be buying a company with a strong brand with sticky institutional client relationships. They will be buying a collection of individual portable practices, each with their own reputation and client following.

#3 Vague growth story

External shareholders examining the IPO prospectus will be looking for a compelling growth story. They will want to see how a fresh capital injection will drive shareholder value.

Under Juan Martinez’s leadership, HWLE has a solid track record of acquiring legal practices without the need to splash much cash. Economies of scale work well in mining but less so in premium legal where even boutique firms can generate supernormal profits. Despite all the hype, there’s no legal technology yet available that will create a sustainable cost or client service advantage. Creating a multi-disciplinary practice or moving offshore is fraught with risk.

So, unless I’m missing something, the growth plan beyond more of the same seems less than convincing.

#4 Key person risk

From interviews with former staff, it appears that Juan Martinez has a robust directed leadership style. Overheads are kept to a minimum and all lawyers are encouraged to be on the tools all the time to compensate for below-market pricing.

This is the operating model that has been the bedrock of HWLE’s success to date.

Given Mr Martinez’s tenure and track record, the market will have many questions over the strength of HWLE’s bench. If the proverbial bus had to arrive who will keep the firm together and herd the cats? I’d imagine the firm’s value will be discounted heavily because of this key person risk.

#5 More losses than wins

Future investors in HWLE will have a good look at the investment category and proceed with caution. A 20-year analysis of law and accounting firm IPOs in Australia reveals far more losses than wins, especially for external investors. This includes firms like Stockfords, Harts and Slater & Gordon.

One of the reasons for these failures is the loss of the partnership culture that underpins their initial success. This culture comes from the incumbent partners’ sense of proprietorship, stewardship, collegiality and identity. Shifting from partner to employee is a big shock to many. Financial transparency, share price volatility and an added compliance burden all often have a negative cultural impact.

In conclusion

I have drawn strong conclusions about the potential float of HWLE without access to any specific details. I look forward to reviewing their IPO prospectus and seeing how wrong I am. But if I’m not, buyer beware!

Stop trying so hard to be different

In Articles, Commentary on 6 May 2019 at 4:33 pm

Full text of op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 3 May 2019.

99% of Australia’s full-service law firms have a strategy based on seeking clear market differentiation. In my view, they’re largely wasting their time and money.

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AFR Legal Affairs op-ed

Conventional strategy thinking suggests there are two sources of sustainable competitive advantage: [1] having the lowest cost, or [2] differentiating from competitors on things that matter most to customers. The former strategy allows firms to win by having greater price-setting discretion. The latter strategy allows firms to extract a price premium for added benefits.

When it comes to the legal market, this theory starts to get a bit wobbly.

Research shows that while most law firm clients can distinguish firms between groups of firms, such as Tier 1 versus Tier 2 or domestic versus global, they really struggle to clearly discriminate between specific full-service firms within a group. To clients, many of these firms look and feel the same.

One of the reasons for this is market fragmentation. Unlike most industries with three or four dominant players (think airlines, grocery retail or banking), the Australian commercial legal market has nearly 30 firms claiming in some way to be leaders in legal expertise and client focus. Australia’s largest law firm by partner number, HWL Ebsworth, has less than 5% share of the total market. Carving out and keeping a unique and relevant market position in such a crowded market is next to impossible.

Another reason for a lack differentiation is a self-inflicted one. Most full-service firms present themselves as being all things to most people. Within the partnership model it’s political suicide not to give every partner a guernsey in describing what the firm is really good at.

So, what’s the solution?

The first part of the answer is to worry less about being known for being different and focus more on just being known. Strong brand awareness still counts in opening doors and staying top-of-mind.

The second part is to encourage more differentiation at the practice, partner and/or product level. With a more micro approach, differentiation usually come from legal specialisation combined with a focus on a particular market segment or industry. So, for example, a general commercial litigation team can distinguish themselves by positioning as class action defence specialists for ASX200 companies.

The third element is to concentrate firm strategy on how the firm competes. ‘The how’ refers to the resources, skills, standards and systems used to win. These are collectively called capabilities, or as Pier D’Angelo, Allens’ Chief Strategy Officer, calls them, the organisation’s “muscles”.

Most full-service law firms need work on these five muscle groups and the inter-play between them:

1.   Firm and team leadership – setting and aligning everyone around a clear direction; inspiring others to meet/exceed expectations; and providing support with accountability.

2.   Talent management – recruiting, developing, engaging and retaining the right workforce for the firm to flourish, both now and in the future.

3.   Winning work and capturing value – developing trusting relationships with clients and referrers; converting more of the right opportunities; and pricing profitably.

4.   Collaboration – shifting the mindset from ‘my’ to ‘our’ client and combining expertise from inside and outside the firm to solve clients’ wicked problems.

5.   Operating with discipline – having an efficient and effective operating platform; ensuring adherence to agreed policies; executing plans consistently; and optimising leverage and utilisation.

Spending more time at the law firm gym will, over time, create a form of cultural and operational distinctiveness. Paradoxically, this will most likely be reflected externally and create a firm that both top clients and top people will want to work with and for. They will be authentic points of difference not created by spin doctors but radiating from a firm truly fit for the future.

Avoiding the Bermuda Triangle of law firm management

In Articles, Commentary on 2 March 2019 at 8:50 pm

Full text of my opinion piece first published by the Australian Finance Review on 1 March 2019.

Is your firm getting trapped in the Bermuda Triangle of law firm management? It might be and, worse still, you might not even be aware of it.

In the early 2000s, Professor Ashish Nanda of Harvard Business School commissioned a study to test whether the concept of economies of scale applied in commercial law firms?

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AFR print edition

He plotted profit per equity partner (PEP) against the number of fee earners for over 200 firms in the United States. The results disconfirmed the scale economy theory but revealed something even more interesting: PEP was relatively high for small boutique firms focused on specific market segments, and for very large firms who were able to compete for larger bet-the-company M&A transactions, projects and disputes. However, a majority of mid-sized firms had lower PEP relative to their much smaller and much larger peers. While the graph had dots everywhere, the best-fitting line looked like a large ‘U’.

Two theories were put forward to explain the U-shape. The first was that many of the mid-size firms found it hard to differentiate themselves and as a result were unable to secure a price premium. The proposition was these firms were in the ‘mushy middle’ losing out smaller and larger firms that were better positioned in the market. A deeper analysis of the data revealed high- and low-priced firms across all the three groups and therefore market differentiation was concluded to be a relevant factor but not the full story.

Growth pain zone

The second theory was that many law firm partnerships suffered heavily from growing pains. Small firms benefited from quick, informal decision-making and lean management processes. Large firms had the advantage of more mature and formal management practices and leadership capability. Problems emerged when shifting from small to large. Professor Nanda called this growth pain zone the ‘Bermuda Triangle of Law Firm Management’.

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The Triangle phenomenon can be explained as follows.

Growth in the number of fee-earners, office locations, service range and clients often results in more management complexity. There are more day-to-day decisions around who to hire, fire, promote, take leave, reward and sanction. There are more issues to deal with in regard to administrative processes, technology and systems. Marketing and business development decisions such as client pursuits, pricing and conflicts become trickier. At a strategic level, there’s more at stake when making major investment decisions and signing long leases for larger premises.

Many law firm partnership struggle with this increase in complexity. A common response is to allocate more partner time to deal with management issues. As decisions become more complex, more and more time is taken up in internal meetings and management conversations. Partners are drawn away from the things that matter most, that is their clients, prospective clients, referrers and people. Firms become internally-focused at the very time that an external market-orientation is most critical. This collective distraction has a material negative impact on firm performance and competitiveness.

With the noble pursuit of partner equality, fairness and sense of proprietorship many firms are reluctant to take away any decision rights from partners. With this approach, almost every decision, from the colour of sticky notes to staff parking policy needs consultation and consensus. This often results in extensive delays and lowest common denominator decision-making i.e. doing what all can agree on rather than on what’s right.

Major blind spots

In some growing firms, partners take on designated management role in key functional areas like HR, IT, Marketing and Finance. While this helps share the load very often the partners overseeing these functions have next to no training or experience in these areas. They have major blind spots and often make sub-optimal decisions that ultimately cost the firm. Even when firms hire specialist managers in these business support areas it is quite common for partners to second-guess these professionals and override their decisions.

The most critical element in navigating through the Triangle is effective leadership and followership. If the firm has a competent leader, they tend not to over-invest valuable partner time in governance roles, they make the right decisions quickly and implement them. Effective leadership builds trust amongst the partners who are happy to cede many of their low-level decision rights. Good leaders provide the right support and intolerance for partners to perform to their full potential. They facilitate a culture that is focused on delivering a superior client and employee experience. All these things matter.

A quick review of the high growth firms in Australia over the past decade confirms this hypothesis. Many have a strong, effective leader or a leadership group that have helped minimise growing pains and navigated through the Triangle. The words of the Bear Hunt, “they haven’t gone over it / they haven’t gone under it / they’ve gone through it.”

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.

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