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Leadership, Management and Self-Awareness

We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
— (Aristotle)

When professionals such as lawyers, architects, engineers, accountants, advertising specialists, designers, teachers and research scientists become team leaders they invariably have to continue with their technical work. They have to combine the roles of team leader and team player. They also have to manage individuals who expect and enjoy considerable autonomy and who often prefer to work alone rather than with colleagues. Professionals, whether they work for professional service firms or within other private or public sector organizations, tend to be unenthusiastic about being managed. They prefer to do things in their own way without reference to the ideas and views of colleagues. Inspiring, motivating, coaching and managing bright knowledge workers, in such circumstances, is difficult and rather different from the leadership challenges that people face in other walks of life.

Ed Smith, UK Board Member at the international business advisory services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, sums up the difficulties:

A professional partnership brings together people with strong personalities who usually want to shape their worlds and, in many ways, have a deep-down preference for being sole traders. We are experts in our fields, spending much of our time advising our clients, and many of us don’t particularly recognize the connectivity which leadership tries to bring to our specialist skills.

There are two common problems. First, the belief that professionals cannot be led and managed takes root. Amythology that professionals do not like working in teams, resist accountability, always know best, are uninterested in broader business issues outside their own speciality and are reluctant to be helped becomes entrenched. As a result, team leaders are often no more than nominal heads of groups who undertake a number of additional administrative and clerical tasks.

The second problem arises partly from the first. Professionals are frequently reluctant to take on a leadership role. Some of them believe that they cannot make a difference. For others it is because they enjoy being designers, lawyers, teachers, accountants and scientists. That was the career, after all, that they were trained for, and they see a leadership role as a distraction. Yet others worry that if they were to become a team leader they would begin to lose touch with their professional work, become out of date and ultimately risk career damage or even job loss.

I will try to show that, far from giving in to these difficulties, considerable benefits can accrue from having well-led, highly competent and motivated teams of professionals working together towards common objectives. This in principle is no different from what is required in successful organizations generally. However, because of the nature of professional work and of professional people, the task requires considerable sensitivity. Leaders of professionals have little power or authority by virtue of their positions alone. They are largely, but not entirely, leading and managing peers and colleagues rather than subordinates, staff or employees.

Ed Smith at PricewaterhouseCoopers puts this into context:

Our team leaders only succeed by being excellent facilitators and enablers. They do a lot of leading by listening and providing help to their people so that they can live up to their capabilities. We put coaching at the centre of the team leadership role. There is a continuing need to help people to hone their relationship skills so that they can operate with ease at board level with their clients. Coaching also involves knowledge transfer and helping people to cope with changing circumstances. Sometimes it is demonstrating best practice. It is also about helping team members to develop their careers and to continue to learn.

Good leadership in our firm is not particularly a matter of drama and charisma. There is a lot of one-to-one work. An immense amount of consultation and dialogue with team members and support for them is involved. In a way we have a reverse pyramid. The unit leaders and their teams throughout the firm hold up the partnership from below.

The CBI employs highly qualified young policy analysts and advisers who prepare papers on political, economic, social and technological issues that are important to member firms. They also lobby ministers, politicians and civil servants on such matters. Some of the analysts and advisers are generalists and others are specialists such as economists, lawyers and environmental experts. They work both in dedicated specialist teams and in multidisciplinary project teams.

John Cridland, Deputy Director-General at the CBI, has this to say about the challenges involved in leading these teams of professionals:

We select our young policy advisers primarily for their intellect, creativity and ability to make individual contributions. We don’t want identikit people. We want them to be different and original. In many ways, in organizational terms, they resemble oldfashioned craftsmen rather than modern team players. They demand and expect independence and in many ways that is a good thing. The downside is that sometimes a touch of intellectual arrogance creeps in. Our leaders have the difficult task of fostering individual intellectual excellence whilst at the same time ensuring that team members meet the CBI’s service standards such as prompt, polite and comprehensive replies to questions from members. The team leaders are first among equals. They need to encourage, support, cajole and occasionally confront but not to direct or instruct. Our culture is mixed. It is partly collegiate but we have to put some iron into the staffroom atmosphere because we are interested in objectives, performance standards, customer care and so on.

All of our team leaders play a significant role in scoping assignments and setting objectives along with each of their team members. The problem is that sometimes it ends there in that the person doing the job is left to get on with it. Some of our leaders feel that they cannot intervene, even if things are going wrong. They feel that to get further involved would smack of supervising and that would be considered unprofessional. Our best leaders, on the other hand, do not let go completely. They gently help the person doing the job to steer the assignment around to get it back on track. Although I have stressed the encouragement of individual excellence we also want our people to share their thinking, provide each other with ideas, give each other support and so on. These are conventional team-working attributes. Our teams now work in open-plan offices to help that along. Our opposite numbers in the German employers’ associations are astonished. They all have individual cell offices and would deeply resist any attempt to change. Although the open-plan office helps, it remains, in my view, very much the task of our team leaders to foster good teamwork and to balance that with nudging people along to become outstanding individual contributors. It is both/and rather than either/or.

There is a tricky issue involved here. As well as having the necessary skills, those chosen to be leaders of professional service teams need to be genuinely enthusiastic about the task of helping others to perform effectively. Creating the conditions for people to be highly motivated to achieve first-class results and have the competence to do so is a key requirement of the job. It is therefore crucial for firms to signal the importance of leadership by communicating the fact that it is a highly valued activity and by rewarding those who do it well. This may seem a trite point. However, I have come across too many professional service environments where the leadership function is poorly regarded. It is viewed disparagingly when compared with the professional work itself. Consequently individuals with no enthusiasm for the job are pushed into team leadership positions with deplorable results. They often have excellent qualities such as being outstanding at their technical work and very good with clients. But they do not lead well because they are reluctant to do the job. Either they do not see it as being sufficiently important or they would rather be doing something else.