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Devoting the Time and Energy to Lead Successfully

I am a leader by default,
only because nature does not allow a vacuum.
— (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

It is far from being a universal problem but many leaders of teams of professionals are reluctant to devote enough time and attention to the responsibilities involved. According to John Stapleton, Managing Partner of Thomas Eggar, a large law firm in the South of England, there are two reasons:

Many of our people became lawyers because that was the work that they wanted to do and that’s what they were trained for. They didn’t join us because they had a passion to be leaders or managers. In this sense they are very different from graduates who join large corporations as management trainees. Young people who become management trainees do so presumably because they have an ambition to run a bit of the organization or, maybe, eventually take charge of the whole thing. Similarly, graduates who join the army and go to Sandhurst are trained specifically to be leaders. That’s the whole point.

When we appoint people as team leaders they are sometimes reluctant to devote enough time to the task because the work involved will take them away, to some extent, from the thing that they enjoy doing most, which is the legal work for the clients. They don’t want to let go of the seam of gold – the client base.

Secondly, there is the fear factor. People worry that if they give up too much of their fee-earning work then they will get out of touch. They become concerned that if later on they were to give up the leadership job then they would find it difficult to get back to being an effective full-time lawyer.

I have come across similar sentiments in other professional activities such as consultancy, software development, education, accountancy, scientific work, engineering and design. They occur in professional service firms but also among professionals working within large corporations and elsewhere.

In quite a few small and medium-sized professional service firms there is another factor that contributes to reluctance. Even though there may be protestations to the contrary from the top, many members of the firm believe that the bigger financial rewards accrue to those who personally generate the higher fees. Leadership of teams is regarded therefore as an undervalued activity. In some cases the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the only overt individual performance measurement that is used is whether or not fee-earning targets are achieved. It is a classic case of the old business maxim, ‘What gets measured gets done’.

There is one more associated problem. Even when the importance of the leadership function is fully acknowledged, some leaders of professionals find it hard to delegate work. The more common reasons are:

  • They believe that nobody else can do the work as well as they can.
  • They reserve tasks for themselves because they enjoy them or they like the recognition that they receive from their clients.
  • They believe that they have insufficient time to explain the tasks or coach others to do them.
  • They fear that others will make mistakes and that the consequences will be disastrous. (This is especially true in the risk-averse professions such as law and accountancy.)
  • They lack confidence in the abilities of their team members.

Schooling ourselves to be willing and able to delegate is a prerequisite. It helps, also, to seek the following:

  • an agreement with seniors to have sufficient time to do the leadership job;
  • an agreement that financial rewards will be based, at least in part, on leadership performance;
  • a commitment from senior management to extol the importance of the team leadership function.