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Effective PSF leaders 'do not appear to seek power'

Study finds ‘highly sophisticated’ political skills are key  

20 June 2013

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

The most effective leaders of professional service firms (PSFs) do not appear to be seeking power but have “highly sophisticated” political skills. 

That’s according to a research study by Laura Empson, professor in the management of PSFs at Cass Business School, of three firms that rank among the top four globally in the accounting, consulting and legal sectors. 

Her study found that individuals elected to the most senior positions within their firms are perceived by their ‘electorate’ as apolitical, when in fact the opposite is true. 

“The most effective leaders in these firms displayed highly sophisticated political skills – but they were able to persuade their colleagues that they were acting in the interests of the partnership rather than pursuing their own self-interest,” said Empson in her initial research report Who’s in Charge?

“Professional service firms are led by consensus and the act of building consensus inevitably involves negotiation, trade-offs, and politically expedient compromises. Professional service firms would grind to a halt without the effective deployment of political skills,” she added. 

The study suggested that it is possible for a leader with no constitutional authority to “wield considerable power” under the “cloak of ambiguity”. 

“Individuals with the interpersonal skills to understand and navigate the ambiguous authority structure can exercise considerable informal power. If they are among the few who really understand the leadership dynamics within the firm, then they are in a particularly strong position to influence them,” Empson said in her report. 

Interestingly, the study found that the management professionals studied in the legal sector were able to do “what they thought they needed to do to make things happen” by “allowing the partners to believe that they were in charge, whilst subtly and systematically establishing their own basis of authority”. 

Qualities of effective PSF leaders

There are ten qualities that are shared by the most effective leaders across all of the firms studied, according to the report. 

The ability to identify and navigate the leadership constellation is highlighted as key, but the study found that leaders also need to avoid appearing to seek power. 

Being highly respected for their skills as professionals is noted as being important, as is the ability to inspire loyalty and commitment. 

Having a strong personal vision and being able to communicate it was also found to be a key quality of effective leadership, as is the ability to build consensus and act decisively. 

The study found that effective leaders are able to transfer responsibility but intervene selectively, and are comfortable with ambiguity and conflict. They spend a lot of time ‘massaging egos’, but do not expect to have their own egos massaged.






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