As the Australian economy starts to navigate its way through the recovery from the Coronavirus shutdown, it’s been a common theme in recent weeks to look at what business leaders can do to guide their organisations through these challenging times. Phrases such as “the new normal” and “leading through a downturn” have been littering the internet, and it’s been difficult for many to process all the information being shared.
The Leadership Code
Among the myriad of articles written on this subject, one of the most enlightening I’ve found while researching this post was from American Management Consultants RBL Group , who talk of a “Leadership Code” for defining effectiveness when leading people in a business environment. Their data suggests that 60-70% of leadership effectiveness can be distilled in to five key areas. You can read the full article here,but the graphic below gives a good summary of these.
Nothing particularly new here you might say, as Strategy Formulation, Talent Engagement and People Development are all well-established components of effective leadership, but it’s interesting that the model has investing in leadership development itself at the centre of the equation.
However, although being a very useful benchmark, this model is very generic. As with most industries, Professional Services has its own unique leadership challenges. For example, many leaders in this field are often responsible not only for the general management of their business, but also playing a key part in revenue generation. The partnership model is typical of this, and often results in its leaders being torn between working “on” the business and working “in” it. So how should Professional Services firms embrace leadership, particularly in a challenging economic environment?
To help answer this question, as well as getting an up to date example of the current market challenges, I enlisted the help of Peter Jarrett, Head of Operations for Management Consulting firm Business Aspect. Peter has spent the majority of his 20+ year career managing within a Professional Services environment, having spent time at both EY and Avanade before joining his current employer in 2017. As we discuss his insights into leadership in the sector and the current challenges he faces, Peter is keen to emphasise how “operating in both the long term and short term are key” to his approach.
Moving beyond the Tactical Response
As he explains, “it’s easy to stay busy in the weeds”, which in his case has recently involved facilitating the shift to working from home for his team, and the logistics of what the new office will look like when they return. Peter describes this process as the “tactical phase” of the response to the crisis we have all endured recently, when it’s been critical to “look at what’s essential and cut out what isn’t.” However, he agrees that most businesses are now through this stage, needing now to focus on planning for what the market will look like going forward, not what it was like before Covid-19 hit.
This last point is particularly relevant, as although most leaders are competent in planning for the future, the current challenge is somewhat different. Are we planning for what the market was like before, or addressing the potentially systematic changes that the pandemic may bring to our specific markets? It’s an important distinction, and one that Peter is very conscious of currently, believing his organisation, and many others like it, will need to be different to what has gone before. He categorises this as the “change management phase” which involves taking a step back and strategising on how best to position resources to serve changing market conditions. With this in mind, he has deliberately set aside time to “read, think, write and plan” for this change in recent weeks.
Fortunately for Peter, change management is something he has become accustomed to during his time at Business Aspect, with one of his key tasks on joining being to better align the niche management consulting firm’s systems and processes into the broader structure of parent company Data #3. “We’ve learnt a lot of lessons along that road,” he states, going on to explain that many of the methods utilised in the smaller firm didn’t fit as well in a larger corporate environment.
So, are these lessons useful in the current environment? “Without a doubt the skills we learnt around change management in our business will be critical moving forward” predicts Peter. Most organisations will have been through a change management process in recent years, and by applying the lessons learnt from this experience to a new setting is something leaders need to be conscious of.
Another skill Peter highlights as being valuable both during the recent transition and in the future state is “negotiating perpetually and being comfortable with a constant state of flux”. We agree this is particularly relevant in the Professional Services arena, where competing priorities over clients and managing key revenue earners is often challenging. “It’s important to strike a balance between guiding people and holding them accountable,” he continues, encouraging the need to be a “calming influence” on the personalities at play to ensure the team is working in harmony. It’s no secret the leading a Professional Services firm is different in that the knowledge of key individuals is the primary service offering, therefore managing these resources effectively is critical. By accepting that these individuals are by their nature more unpredictable than a static product, leaders can be better prepared for the inevitable roadblocks not necessarily found in other industries.
Investing in Yourself
One final point Peter makes is the concept of making time to invest in yourself, bringing us back to the central plank of the ‘Leadership Code’ detailed above. “It’s important to realise you can’t know everything’’ he concedes, adding that “learning from others” and “reaching out for advice within your peer group, both internally and externally” is another of his recommendations. It’s an important realisation to make, and one that leaders often neglect, particularly in the SME market. As Peter concludes, “you can’t shrink your way to greatness!”, quoting Tom Peters’ timeless business bible, ‘The Circle of Innovation’. This seems truer than ever in the current climate, not only in terms of business expenditure, but also personal development.
It’s clear from our conversation that the leadership role within Professional Services isn’t going to be an easy road to travel over the coming months. However, by combining both a short-term “tactical” response, while dedicating time to longer term planning and embracing change management concepts, industry leaders can give their businesses the best chance of coming out of the other side in reasonable shape. Finding the time for the development of your leadership skills and seeking out advice from others, however challenging, may also pay significant dividends in the long run.
This article was published on Linkedin on 12th June 2020, and was written in conjunction with Business Aspect’s Peter Jarrett.