Why Leadership Matters in Professional Practices
“A leader has two important characteristics; first he is going somewhere; second he is able to persuade others to go with him.”
How many of the people who run professional firms have achieved their positions as a result of planned career development? Or through assessment centres, or their ability as leaders and managers? I wonder whether a large number are still there because of some family connection, who they know and bring to the firm as clients, length of service or revenues generated? This does not mean that there has to be a problem with those at the top as some will be capable and some will be natural leaders. However, how many could be better? When I have worked with groups in professional firms, the senior people have generally admitted to having no real training in leadership and often admit to lacking the skills. Those at lower levels commented about a lack of leadership, direction or support.
Why does it matter? Fundamentally, all businesses need clear leadership from the top. There needs to be clear strategy and direction. The top leaders will set the culture of the organisation too. Too many organisations are “over-managed and under-led” to quote Warren Bennis. There is a difference between leadership and management. Managers get things done, operating within the culture and the rules. Leaders create the direction, developing the culture and rules and taking the people with them. This article will raise some questions about what happens if you do not address the leadership challenge for your firm and shares some ideas for how prevent them. As your markets change, the competitive forces become even more threatening a lack of executive and strategic leadership might prove to be terminal!! However, if you start to apply the principles you can create a more robust and resilient business and, if you wish to, achieve even greater things.
Leadership itself is a word which can trigger a wide-ranging debate if you want to reach a consensus about what it means or what it is. There are hundreds of definitions within the business press alone. To add to the complication, it is generally accepted that there are different levels of leadership, from that required for a team leader or first line supervisor to that of a CEO of a major blue chip! If we think about leadership at the top of an organisation, there are some key elements they need attention:
- having an eye on the future and the horizon
- taking a medium and long-range view
- looking outside and inside the organisation
- challenging the status quo
- setting objectives
- inspiring trust
- asks questions and listens
- develops others
If you had to look at the leadership you, or others, are providing in your firm, how many of these aspects to they demonstrate consistently. My experience is that too many “leaders” in professional firms are too hands-on. This leads to a lack of clear strategy and direction compounded by a lack of thorough market awareness. There is often a reluctance to change and little is done in a proactive way. The senior people may provide sound professional guidance and mentoring, but they rarely focus on developing the staff throughout the firm. The actual people-management skills are not necessarily good either. These problems are not the fault of the individuals, they are effectively sins of omission. There has been little, or no, formal or structured training or development in management or leadership skills – sometimes reinforced by the “I didn’t get where I am with training” mindset!!
“Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.”
There are a number of qualities which good leaders can be expected to possess and demonstrate. These would include:
- inability to articulate the vision for the organisation, department or function
- problem-solving and making decisions, especially difficult ones!
- effecting change
- acting with honesty and integrity
- leading by example (ie the way they behave and act, not doing the other jobs)
- communication and influencing skills.
How would you assess yourself, or other leaders in your firm? If there was to be a 360° assessment, what would the others say? Reading the list the qualities do not seem to be highly complex when expressed like this. To demonstrate them requires the underpinning skills and knowledge which will give the confidence to use them.
Most professional firms, regardless of your discipline, have a huge amount of technical expertise and experience and many of you will have some form of CPD (Continuous Professional Development). All of this is acquired over time and through training in the technical aspects of the role. However, when it comes to running and leading the firm, or a key part of it, how much is invested in developing the skills and expertise in that area? Experience suggests that for many of you, it is very little. How do you develop leadership, and management, skills? Well, some can come from experience, but that is both time consuming and can be expensive if it means learning from mistakes!
If you want your firm to survive, thrive and grow, it will almost certainly pay to think about improving leadership and management skills – and to think of it as an investment. There is evidence that more successful organisations are those which are well led and well managed. The bigger firms will have some form of management or leadership development programme in place in order to improve these skills and to ready people for future responsibility. Where existing teams need to improve, training programmes can be designed to address their specific issues, building their skills and competencies and improving overall performance. I know that even where we have just done simple interventions on some basics around time management, delegation and goal setting it has helped clients see an improvement in productivity and reduced the amount of work being done in evenings or at weekends. This has enabled senior people to spend more time doing what they should be doing – leading and directing the business. For some firms, the preferred option, especially for senior people, is to tackle these areas on a more individual basis and use executive coaching as the way forward. This can give significant returns in performance and also areas such as staff retention and productivity. These options are not mutually exclusive either, you may consider combining individual support and development with some team training. I have found that this can be particularly effective, especially when some of the people involved have a high degree of technical expertise and need to work on their “soft” skills and strategic thinking too.
Leadership is something which is needed in all businesses and by most groups. As the quotation said at the beginning, the leader has to provide the direction for the organisation or group. They need to believe in this for themselves and now how they can get there. The second stage is to persuade others to go along. This needs a combination of skills and the right attitudes. These are not necessarily innate qualities which everyone possesses. They can be learned along with the underpinning skills. Without good leadership the firm is likely to have a lack of direction, which might mean that the people down the line are not fully engaged or motivated. In this competitive age, can you afford not to be investing in improving your leadership capability?
Remember - Manage the business – lead your people!
Graham Yemm has over 20 experience as a consultant. He runs a UK based consultancy, Solutions 4 Training Ltd and works both in the UK and internationally with organizations developing their leadership capabilty. He can be contacted at Solutions 4 Training or +44 1483 480656
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