Management: Missing in Action

by David H. Maister
Posted 6/7/2004

Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of western civilization, replied that he thought it would be a good idea. The same reaction is invoked when considering management in professional firms.

There are four problems with professional firm management: ill-defined roles, managers selected on the wrong criteria, little or no managerial training and few, if any, rewards for managers to concentrate on management.

Managerial roles in professional firms, since they involve managing peers, not subordinates, are ambiguous and ill-specified. No-one is quite sure what the manager (or group leader) should be doing, what his or her rights and obligations are, and how he or she should be trying to add value.

Professionals are deeply (and appropriately) suspicious of management, thinking of it either as the tyrannical rule of corporate-like bosses, or the minimal worth of bean-counting administrators. What is all too rarely considered (or put in to place) is the manager acting as a coach to his or her peers, helping them succeed individually and as a team.

However, even where the role is being performed this way, it is done so implicitly. All too often, managers (or group leaders) have no mandate from firm management as to how they should be spending their time, and those supposedly being coached (the group members) have not necessarily given their consent, nor agreed to function as a team. What is needed, to make management work effectively, is for group members to discuss what they have a right to expect from eachother, what role the group leader is to play and what they are trying to achieve as a team. Without these explicit understandings, management becomes what every professional fears: the arbitrary actions of the individual leader.

It is rare, in professional firms, that individuals are selected for managerial roles according to criteria that are relevant to their ability to do the job. Managerial positions are often a promotion or reward handed out to the best business-getter, the technical luminary, or the most financially-oriented person. While business getting, technical excellence and financial skills are all important, none of them have anything to do with managing. In fact, they may be antithetical to it. Managing is about influencing the performance of other people by having an impact on their enthusiasm, drive and commitment. As a consequence, effective management of professionals is predominantly an interpersonal, social and emotional skill, not an intellectual one. To be effective, managers must be trusted by those they seek to influence: trusted that the manager is acting to help the individual and work for the good of the group, and not just trying to make his or her own star shine brighter. When management is a reward or promotion, it all too often happens that those who compete for the position are excessively self-oriented, and fail this test of being seen as concerned about the success of others.

The third problem is that, once chosen, few managers in professional firms receive any managerial training at all. The higher up you go in professional firms, the less training you receive. In recent years, many large firms have begun to offer business training for their partners and leaders, often taught by faculty from the world’s most eminent business schools. But training in business is not training in managing.

How many professional firm leaders have received guidance on how to critiques an underperformer in such a way that renewed energy and commitment results? Many know how to tell the underperformer that he or she needs to improve, or that there will be financial consequences if he does not, but neither of these actions is the test. The test is whether the recipient of this message actually responds with excitement, enthusiasm, drive and initiative. Few of us were taught how to do that! Or take the common problem of the heavy-hitter who is a disruptive influence on the rest of the team, and fails to treat those around her with respect. Did anyone ever teach us the emotional skill of how to persuade, cajole, nag, exhort or inspire individuals like this to change their behavior? Without such skills, you cannot be called a manager. You are, at best, a bureaucrat.

Finally, effective management in many professional firms is prevented by how managers are appraised and rewarded. Using anonymous voting machines, my co-author Patrick McKenna and I recently conducted a series of seminars for professional firm leaders in eight US cities. Among the questions we posed to the audience was “Are your group leaders rewarded mostly for the success of their group, rather than their performance as individual contributors in doing or winning client work?” In no city did we find a majority of the audience answering “yes,” and in some places the “no” vote reached as high as 80 percent. The norm is that group leaders in professional firms are being judged as individual contributors, and asked to manage as a “second” job in their (non-existent) spare time.

What was perhaps even more surprising to us was that even the members of our audiences working in corporate settings answered the same way. Even there, we found, individual team members did not usually receive one-on-one coaching, there was no role-description for the leader, leaders were not chosen for their interpersonal skills and received no training in these skills. The problem of missing management may be even broader than we thought!