An accountant friend recently told me of her struggle with what she called “good leadership”. My friend is an expert in her field and, as a partner, she handles the marketing and sales of her accounting practice whilst leading a team of accountants to deliver excellent client services.  Her practice is thriving and she loves what she does.  Following recent leadership training, she was challenged by the principle of empowering her team to take over almost all responsibility for delivering work to clients while she retains overall accountability (hah) for her team’s work.

The traditional “general management” model of leadership requires leaders to step away from their expertise and, instead, manage the team and the business.  The problem with this model in a professional services context is that it does not work.  Here’s why.

We’re different

I hear this most often when working with professional services firms and I experienced it myself when I was a lawyer.  As a lawyer (or any professional) to become a leader:

  • you often have to develop expertise in a particular area of the law (e.g. building and construction litigation)
  • deliver excellent client service
  • develop a practice (bring in work and or clients)
  • lead a team

The last 3 elements are just the same as for leading a large business which is not a professional services practice.  The first is very different.

Most professional services leaders find leadership a challenge and many firms are now investing in leadership development to help them.  While this is well intentioned, the development often focuses on teaching them how to move away from their expertise to influence the outcomes through their team.

As I see it, there are 2 spectrums of leadership:

  1. Influencing vs immersing
  2. Interested or involved

Involved and Immersed – Work

This is usually where most individual professional contributors are located.  They are heavily involved in the work of delivering the professional service and highly immersed in it, to the exclusion of practice development and leadership.  Whilst they input into the service delivery to clients, the accountability for service delivery sits with another person. This is work.  Most professionals start here.

Interested and Immersed – Expertise

In time, most professionals progress to develop their expertise and become the subject matter expert in their practice group or firm. They are expected to lead with their knowledge by sharing their expertise rather than formally leading a team of other professionals.

Influencing and Involved – Leverage

Some professionals may find that they can leverage their expertise by leading a team in the same discipline where they are effectively first among equals.  Their role is to build capacity in their team to deliver the work to clients,  whilst being accountable to deliver an excellent client service, grow the practice and lead the team. They will often become involved in the details or providing client work, as needed by the team or required by the client

Influencing and Interested – Lead

According to most leadership advice, good leaders should focus on this area.  The advice is that they lead by influencing and empowering their team to deliver client outcomes and practice development.  In other words, the professional services leader is required to lead her team only.  This is what I call “the general management approach to leadership”.

The problem with the general management approach to leadership is that it ignores the fact that a partner of a professional services firm often has to dance between Lead and Leverage and at times shimmy into Expertise to run a successful practice.  To be a successful practice lead or partner, you need to manoeuvre the dance floor with the grace and make conscious decisions about where to place your attention and focus and when to switch.

Where do you sit on the 2 spectrums of leadership?  If you are a professional services leader, how do you manage the tension of applying the general management approach to leadership and maintaining your leverage and expertise?