Winning the game
Creating a competitive difference isn't easy for firm leaders reluctant to step outside their comfort zone, but it isn't impossible, advises Rob Lees
It may have been over 20 years ago, but I can still remember the “eureka” moment when Harvard Business School professor Jack Gabarro said that professional services is an execution game. At the time, the execution was relatively simple, with a firm’s professionals primarily focused on interpreting the profession’s body of knowledge to help solve their clients’ problems. Being in the firm’s leadership team was also relatively simple. There was little need for either strategy or tactics as, in the absence of competition, work basically just walked through the door.
But 20 years later, life has become much tougher for both the professionals and their firms. Robust competition is a way of life for most firms and, for most partners, interpreting the body of knowledge is subservient to winning business. The multi-faceted changes that firms face have made firm leadership one of the truly tough jobs. Now, firm leaders have to be able to craft a picture of the future their partners will buy into and, more importantly, help them to make the vision a reality.
For some leaders this isn’t difficult, but for most the opposite is true. For too many firms, strategy is simply copying what a competitor is doing. We have seen it over and over, as all firms have focused on relationships, on selling, on pricing, on sectors, on how to retain female staff, and, of course, on growing to scale in the belief that with scale comes safety.
However, one of the things that we know is that scale just means a different level of competition. Put all this together and it is clear that strategy has to be a lot more than simply copying a competitor. With so many firms looking the same as everyone else, it is no wonder that companies are spreading their work across several different firms. For sure, there are some firms that companies go to for specific expertise, but, if your firm is not currently one of them, competitive and financial success ultimately means breaking out of the pack and being the firm that potential clients and recruits look to first.
So, why is it that so many firms don’t think strategically and opt for sameness rather than difference?
One of the things I learned very early in my 25 years working with the leaders of professional service firms is that professionals, especially partners, jealously guard their professional reputations and the societal standing that goes with it. Consequently, they are extremely reluctant to take what they consider to be unnecessary risks, especially if the potential risks involve stepping outside of their professional comfort zone. And, that’s key. Most professionals, including firm leaders, have no background in strategy (other than, perhaps, one week at Harvard or another top business school) and are, therefore, reluctant to experiment with anything beyond their understanding.
This reality is one of the reasons why ‘sameness’ prevails. All too often when faced with moving into the unknown by instituting a different way of doing things, the steps seem like a move too far – even when the potential benefits include a move up the rankings, new clients, and enhanced earnings.
So, winning the game isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible if you:
1. Accept that you need help – and get it. There are lots of outstanding consultants with a deep knowledge of how professional service firms work. And, if you don’t know any, find out who does and ask them. My good friends Mike Mister, who is one of the best strategy consultants I know, and Nigel Haddon, who has an acute understanding of how to enhance firm performance, are clearly places to go for a pointer.
2. Don’t ever ask for help from someone who does not know how professional firms work. I’ve seen too many partners appoint personal coaches who are unable to put their advice in context. The same is obviously true of some consultants, so choose wisely.
3. Remember, change is about changing people’s behaviour, which means the partners have to inspire and help their people to change how they do things.
4. But before that, the partners will also need help. I’ve never known a situation where this hasn’t been the case, so make sure they get the help they need.
5. Even when you have external support, you need internal expertise, so make sure your head of HR has the skills to take on that role. It’s what HR should be doing in every firm and, while recruitment and compensation, to name two classic HR activities, are important, they are not the prime role for any head of HR.
6. The firm’s vision must inspire people and persuade them that they want to be a part of it. One-liners never cut it: people need to know what they will be doing, so a more definitive picture is necessary.
7. Make sure your people have the skills they need to be leaders in their fields and in the delivery of competitive difference. All too often I’ve heard of firms failing to invest in the development of their people. Look at the very best professional service firms and you’ll see developing people is part of the fabric of the firm.
8. Be brave and accept that taking risks is part of the process.
9. Understand that people will make mistakes and get things wrong as they try to do things differently. Blame, often the traditional response in professional service firms, has no place in a culture of a firm that wants to continually innovate to be the best.
10. Remember that you serve at the behest of your partners and that you can’t get ahead of them. If you do, you’ll never convince them to persuade their people of the benefits of doing things differently and to act as the role models so critical in any change process.
11. Focus on building and sustaining momentum. It will be tough at times and it’ll be all too easy to let things slide – but you can’t. You have to be at the forefront of moving the firm forward, painting that persuasive picture of the future and keeping people focused on the benefits that will accrue.
12. Prepare yourself for a long and uncertain haul. But, there’s where the help mentioned in the first point comes in, and why the choice of consultant is absolutely key. When you are fed up (and, possibly, depressed with the time things are taking), remember the end point, and don’t ever forget what a great future the firm will have when the game is won.
Successful firm leaders know that winning the game, creating a competitive difference, isn’t about sameness, or doing what everyone else does. It’s about being fixed on an end point that takes the firm to the top of the tree and garnering the support to make it happen – all the while remembering that professional services is an execution game. And execution is about capability, about what people do and how they do it. Too many leaders don’t grasp that developing people and teams in line with the picture of the future is the key to success in any professional service firm, and it is another reason sameness and a lack of competitive difference prevails.
I have worked in too many firms not to know that winning the game isn’t easy, but I also know it isn’t impossible. Being a firm leader really is one of the truly tough jobs and helping your firm to break out of the pack takes courage and a willingness to put aside concerns about your own capability and professional reputation. I hope that, in this short article, I have done enough to persuade you that, if you have the right help and follow the guidance above, all things are possible.
Rob Lees is a co-author of When Professionals Have To Lead and How to Become the Firm of Choice and a consultant to professional service firm leaders