Managing Professionals: Key Tactics

Many professionals see themselves as being at the top of the organisation structure, with managers and other functions being there to serve them.

Writing in HBR almost twenty years ago, to develop on the common analogy between a conductor leading an orchestra and a business leader, Henry Mintzberg spent time observing British Conductor and Composer Bramwell Tovey taking charge of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Mintzberg defines the management of professionals as being a form of covert rather than overt leadership, one where the systems and structures are inherent more to the profession rather than the organisation or its management.

We see this commonly in hospitals, law firms and accountancy practices where professionals or experts work largely on their own without the need for extensive interdepartmental co-ordination or engagement.

Mintzberg suggested that many professionals, surgeons or university professors see their organisation structures as being upside down with themselves at the top and the managers and other functions being there to serve them. HR leaders in Law and Accountancy firms will also identify with this outlook.

Leading Experts

Wharton Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, Richard Shell, describes in his book “Management of Professionals” how managers in a professional services environment often have highly specialised training and work focus.

This is central to their purpose, and as a consequence often pay little attention to the development and application of leadership skills.

Dominic Houlder of London Business School recently addressed the difficulties for leaders in professional service firms, identifying that such firms are facing new pressures and competitive threats and need to adapt accordingly.

He poses the question how do you lead in, and indeed change, an organisation where everyone is an expert and where knowledge and expertise are the products?

Four Tactics For Professional Services Firms

Houlder sees four core tactics the professional service firms must adopt in order to succeed:

  1.  Information
    Understanding the firms operating eco-system. With increased regulation and risk through a more mobile media of threat to brand, along with rising costs and demand for less expensive service solutions, organisation agility is essential.
  2.  Determination
    Total commitment to driving change, often with the backdrop of deep historical firm values and culture. Leaders in professional service firms must inspire younger associates to adopt key change initiatives and make them work universally.
  3. Activation
    While the leader must present as a living example of the new desired reality, they must also identify other influencers in the organisation who are comfortable with uncertainty and align to the new vision. These influencers drive the change process by vividly articulating the new strategy for the firm and putting it into action at a detailed level.
  4. Delegation
    In return for their commitment, leaders must fully delegate to these influencers, being quick to support them, give them more responsibility and to recognise their impact in these specific areas.

And if there is any doubt about the need for leaders to drive change in their professional service firm, then Richard and Daniel Susskind are determined to remove it. In “The Future of the Professionals – How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts”, the authors predict the decline of today’s professions.

They forecast that with the increasing capability of artificial intelligence, society will no longer need or want Doctors, Teachers, Accountants, Architects, the Clergy, Consultants, Lawyers and many others. As examples of this change, the authors state that in 2014, 48 million US citizens filed their own tax returns, an increase of 6% on the previous year, they expected further rises in the following years.

They also state that the best known legal brand in the US is no longer a traditional law firm, but online legal advice and document drafting service legalzoom.com.

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