A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

Posts Tagged ‘Leadership capacity’

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.

Screen Shot 2020-08-30 at 12.18.35 pm

#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.

IMG_1306

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?

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 8.32.28 pm

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’.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 8.49.04 pm

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.

Two-speed firms: the problem and solutions

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

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-2-35-30-pm

“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

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

%d bloggers like this: