The 5 Struggles of the Professional Services Leader

Published on: September 2017

Written by: Philios Andreou

By Dr. Philios Andreou Sphika, Global Partner, BTS

In professional services organizations, leaders will often suffer from low performance, irrespective of their experience and long track records. The following are five stumbling blocks that I believe are critical, and that I’ve seen many others struggle with as well.


Five Struggles


1. Leading still involves execution, but the balance is key

Leading from the front—maintaining an execution focus—role modeling—whatever you call it, we’re sure folks in your organization are calling for it. The real challenge is knowing when your hands-on efforts add value over and above simply making progress on the project. Far too often, newly promoted professional services leaders continue to do what made them a star— execute on client work flawlessly or prodigiously, or in lots of cases, both. Unfortunately, the role of the leader isn’t simply to be a star individual contributor with some administrative tasks heaped on top. You must now focus your hands-on efforts toward those elements of projects where you can add extra value and exemplify the behaviors that your people most need to develop. Most often these opportunities are in facilitating client discovery meetings, participating in other client meetings, scoping projects, and conceptualizing project plans. Being too involved can also signal the wrong message to the organization, causing some to think: “there is no difference between leading and executing, so what’s all the fuss and promotion about?” In other cases, your over-involvement may be an obstruction for others who feel that it is their time to shine and that their “time has come” to be seen.

2. Coaching “prima donnas” is not easy

As former rockstar individual contributors, it can be difficult to accept that in order to be successful (and because professional services is all about human capital), we are going to have to build and manage teams of people who are more technically proficient, analytically gifted, and more experienced and/or better educated than we are. Let’s just put it out there: you’ll have to manage folks who are smarter and more competent than you are. On top of this humbling fact, these folks will be questioning the value we add if we ever get in their way of doing great work. Whatever skills led us to our current post, we must now cultivate a new set of people management skills that prove to our team that we aren’t pointy-headed middle managers enforcing corporate policies, but rather career enablers who can accelerate our team members’ professional lives by championing their talents and successes. In addition to this, in many cases, these bright people may also be “prima donnas” who are used to the spotlight, and thus, managing them requires a complex set of skills that fall somewhere between firm direction and humble “admiration.” Leading prima donnas in a professional services business is as much a guarantee for success as it is a quick way to failure—and the difference depends on the leader. In sports there is a saying: “no player is bigger than the club, but a club should be big enough to accommodate any good player.”

3. Shaping the envisioned future through enabling

Knowledge workers don’t typically like being told what to do or how to do it, and professional services are the most exaggerated versions of knowledge work. New leaders quickly find that leadership is not about giving orders. The key to leading these teams is helping to clarify the destination for them, whether that means building urgency around the goals in your annual strategic plan or clarifying the highest priority results of a project. After illuminating the end goal, the role of the leader is to connect their team members to the people, concepts, and resources needed to successfully chart their own course. So, a way to see the transition is to think that the leader is now moving from “getting things done” to “enabling things to be done,” whether these things are deals, acquisitions, projects, or talent attraction. The leader is there to win the matches and the championship rather than focus on ego-clashing.

4. You: a minor celebrity

Leading people is always a means to being in the spotlight. This is perhaps most true in a professional services firm, where there is even more of a focus on exposure. Junior members of your organization will constantly be watching you and what you say, how and when you say it, your approach to client and internal problems, even what kind of car you drive, etc. This shouldn’t induce paranoia or inauthenticity, but rather, you should keep in mind that your brand and the firm’s are now linked in a way that they weren’t previously. You can use this power to begin to subtly shape the culture and image, but be aware that any serious missteps won’t be missed by the organization. Therefore, make sure you take this into consideration at every moment, whether at one-off events – such as the office party, the client conference, or the town hall – or at the routine, daily interactions that occur within meetings, lunches and the general office work. Take note that this spotlight exposure does not stop with your face-to-face interactions, but rather, goes beyond to your emails, communications, and even social and professional media— so think twice next time you are posting a funny (?) picture in your well-connected Facebook account.

5. The news is better (and you are funnier)

We call this effect “top warp.” Top warp is the effect of information becoming more positive as it filters up to leadership. This actually hurts your ability to lead, because you don’t have the opportunity to see things objectively, get good feedback, and get critical information rapidly. The keys to defusing top warp are communicating at regular intervals about critical issues directly with clients, creating a culture of open communication within the team, and having direct access to data through the systems, as well as through sometimes reviewing materials yourself. The second part of the equation is that what you say and do can come back with false positive feedback (a concept related to the well-known idea that as you rise to the top, your jokes start to become funnier). So, the next time you are about to get all the positive feedback on your presentation, actions, and decisions, think about whether you have built real relationships with your direct reports, encouraged brutal honesty in giving feedback, and rewarded them when they exercise it.

Being a professional services leader is complex, given the requirements of client and team management, as well as deploying your expertise through projects. There is no better way to ensure favorable results than having in mind that in the “war for talent,” talent has actually won the ensure your people are engaged and well-led. As my boss likes to say, “You do not need to follow the above advice; do it only if you want to be successful!”