In conventional corporate settings, leaders are expected to inspire and direct their employees- leading is something they do to followers. But in professional service firms, the leadership dynamics are different, because the power relationships are different. Consulting, accounting, law firms, and investment banks tend to be full of highly opinionated rainmakers, who don’t easily accept the role of followers – and maybe just as unwilling to act as leaders. In this context, leadership is a collective, not an individual endeavour created through interaction among powerful peers.
In professional service firm, those resources are specialized expertise, major client relationship, and reputation in the market.
In partnership, which many professional service firms are, this is recognized in the firm’s legal structure, because senior professionals own the business.
As a result, power is widely dispersed in professional service firms- autonomy is extensive, and authority is contingent. Senior professionals need considerable autonomy to customize services for their clients. And while they elect or appoint their peers to leadership positions, reserving the right to challenge, ignore and even dispose of them.
That places a severe constraint on professional service firm leaders, who are entirely dependent on the continued support of their peers to get anything done. As someone once rightly shared among colleagues at his level, “Frankly, nobody has to follow anyone.” One senior partner of a law firm described the way he works with his fellow partners like this: “It’s not telling them what to do; it’s just coming up with the prompts and ideas. So leadership sort of happen.”
If you have recently taken on a leadership role at a professional service firm, all this may sound daunting. How can you actually get anything done?
In conventional organisation, rising stars are often advised to demonstrate their potential by seeking out leadership responsibilities. But in a professional service firm, it’s wise to be wary. When a boss invites you to take on a “leadership” role, he or she may simply be trying to offload burdensome administrative responsibilities. You risk getting side-tracked from income-generating client work and being seen by your peers as a glorified administrator.
Among professionals, legitimacy as a leader ultimately depends on your ability to generate revenue; in other words, to be a good rainmaker. Research has found that people who reach the top of professional service firms are outstanding at winning new business and at managing the most demanding and lucrative clients; they also work harder and longer at earning fees than their peers do. Because colleagues see them as role models, they are willing to code authority to them.