The four secrets of successful professional services leaders

07 November 2017 -

Successful LeaderTo respond to the multiple pressures of leadership, managing partners of professional firms and other leaders should adopt an athlete’s mindset to avoid burnout

Guest blogger Alastair Beddow

Making the transition into a leadership role can be difficult. With greater seniority, the demands on a leader’s time can seem to multiply and diversify exponentially: it is not uncommon to be involved in the development of a new service proposition one minute, conducting a performance review for a colleague the next, and reviewing financial statements shortly afterwards.

Without careful diary management, days can quickly become packed with various meetings, with little time to pause, reflect and prioritise. For people new to leadership these demands may seem relentless.

This is particularly true in the professional services sector, where professionals can rise to senior positions with limited strategic management experience. To compound the challenge, professional firms are facing significant disruption from technology and new competitors, and acute downward pressure on price.

The strategic challenges on the agenda are truly daunting.

Is it possible to manage this workload without burning out? Successful leaders show it can be done. In preparation for writing Professional Services Leadership Handbook – a practical bible for leaders and aspiring leaders of professional firms – my co-authors and I interviewed managing partners and other senior managers about their experiences.

Their collective experience highlights four lessons that are particularly pertinent for professional leaders, but also apply equally to senior managers in other organisations.

First, it is crucial to be disciplined about time management. Although many people think themselves to be effective at managing their time – by writing and crossing off items on a to-do list, for example – the reality is that many leaders do not sufficiently reflect on how their time is spent, and whether that aligns with both their peak periods of activity and the strategic challenges they are trying to address.

One of the leaders we interviewed describes how every week he plots his days into chunks of time and then allocates work accordingly. This is done on the basis of his own peak hours of performance so that important tasks are not scheduled just after lunch, for example.

His total hours are apportioned so he achieves the right balance between time for meeting with members of his senior team, and dedicated time for uninterrupted work.

Effective time management involves navigating these choices and priorities so that multiple demands can be given fair and proportionate amounts of attention.

Second, leaders should think about their time in relation to the decisions they need to make, not just the activities they undertake.

It can be easy to become a busy fool without actually progressing your strategic vision. “Every day I ask myself whether I am doing something that will help the firm meet its strategic objectives – if the answer is no, then I am not spending my time wisely,” said one of the leaders we interviewed.

Third, leaders should learn to think like athletes.

In practice, this means having a steely focus on their strategic objectives and treating every experience as an opportunity to improve. Athletes, however, also ensure they have fun along the way and build in rest time so that they are refreshed and ready for the big moments.

It is important leaders do this too. Just like athletes, many of the leaders we interviewed have used an independent coach to maximise their performance output.

Lastly, successful leaders emphasise the importance of delegation. This is often easier said than done, particularly for professional leaders who have spent much of their own career with a high degree of control over their client-facing work.

“One of the biggest leadership lessons in my experience,” said one of the leaders we interviewed, “was that I needed to focus my time on the things that only I could and should do. It was very tempting to maintain a hand in client work and doing lots of staff appraisals, but I knew that these tasks were better done by somebody else.”

Letting go may sometimes be a wrench, but it is a vital part of the leadership journey. Failure to prioritise and take tough choices is likely to mean leadership pressures will never relent and burnout is not far away.

Alastair Beddow is director at consultancy Meridian West, providing strategic advice to professional firms to help them become more client-focused. He is co-author of Professional Services Leadership Handbook with Ben Kent, Nigel Clark and Adrian Furner. The book aims to help leaders to understand the challenges facing professional services firms and teach them how to respond and take action to ensure a successful future with this practical guide to leadership

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