Over the last couple of years, The PACE Partners have been studying what makes a really great professional services firm – one that experiences significant year on year profitable growth and builds an enviable reputation with its clients, employees and peers.
We wrote an article in Professional Marketing magazine in July, which introduced six key attributes we had identified. These were:
- Designing the future
- Having the leadership and management to make things happen
- Getting really great people on board
- Defining your offer in a crowded marketplace
- Building great business development across the firm
- Managing a great client experience
The piece sparked a lot of interest and so over the next year we are going to examine each attribute in more depth and explain how a firm can develop success in each area.
So as a famous Rogers and Hammerstein score suggests, ‘let’s start at the very beginning’ and focus on how to create greatness by taking control and designing the future.
Is vision enough?
Most firms have a vision. They have at some point defined what they want to be, what they want to achieve and how they want to be perceived. Some may also state the type of experience they want clients and colleagues to gain from their interaction with the firm. Quite often, the vision is captured in some sort of vision or mission statement. What happens to it next, however, usually marks the difference between a good firm and a great one.
The really great firms treat their vision as a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Yes they too consider the type of firm they want to be, what they would regard as success in a defined time period and all the values and characteristics that will go with it. This is the picture the jigsaw will eventually create but this definition is only the beginning. Great firms then identify all the pieces that will go to make up the jigsaw. They work very hard at making them fit and, if they don’t, they then try other pieces until the jigsaw picture is completed.
The overall objective is not sidetracked along the way and considerable energy and resources are allocated to making the jigsaw image take place in the time specified. In short, the really great firms move beyond simply defining their future. They actively design and take control of their future and make it happen. So what do these great firms do? Let’s examine more closely, what happens along the way. From our research, seven key drivers help a firm to take control of its future:
- Clarity of vision
- Strong purpose
- Right people
- Action plan
- Quick wins
Clarity of vision
When a vision works and is successful, it is usually because it is clear and embraced by everyone in the firm. From our experience, we have seen this come about through the involvement of a group of key people. If the vision is the product of just one person, it struggles more with its implementation. The great firms we have seen bring a mix of key people such as representatives from the senior management of the firm, key sector leaders, practice specialists, marketing, business development, IT, administration and HR professionals and also junior members of staff. They build a core of people, who because of their work, their personalities and/or their influence in the business understand both the strengths and weaknesses of the firm. Collectively they articulate a realistic vision for the firm – one that clearly states where the firm is going. As a group, they are better placed to anticipate all the challenges the vision will encounter. This group of people are also at the heart of making the vision work and building the plan to turn the ambition into a reality.
Defining where we want to be is usually the easiest part of taking control of our future. What follows in turning the vision into a reality is often a lot harder. It requires establishing a programme and commitment to making whatever changes are needed to achieve the overall goal. We call this having a strong purpose. In the great firms, we’ve seen it is embodied in the way they recognise and deal with any barriers that are standing in the way of where they want to be. These firms set out actively to reduce the effect of these barriers and create desire across the firm to achieve the vision. In doing so they identify what is needed to stimulate interest in the overall goals and the specific actions needed to make them a success. Part of this involves articulating what the vision and changes mean for individuals in the firm and what’s in it for them in supporting them. It also involves considering what skills are needed across the firm to make the dream a reality and putting in place the necessary recruitment and development practices to achieve these.
The right people
We will cover the ‘people’ side of great firms in more depth in a later article. For now it’s important to emphasise that taking control of your firm’s future becomes easier if the right people are leading the necessary changes. This means that leaders at all levels of the firm are both inspirational and motivate people to support the vision. Often this works well when a firm plays to its strengths. With one accountancy firm we worked with this meant identifying who was best to influence the necessary changes. It also meant removing resistors – even if their general performance was OK.
As part of the implementation of their vision, the really great firms consider succession and how the success they hope to build will continue after the given time period. Part of their focus is to identify the firm’s future leaders and ensure the right skills and qualities are being developed across the business.
Stemming from the vision and driving its implementation is a plan. In great firms it is one which is clear and defined, so everyone involved knows the tasks needed to be undertaken and within what timeframe. Everyone knows their part to play and takes the responsibility seriously.
Another feature of great firm’s plans is that they are continually evolving. One property firm in particular analysed the implementation of its vision with a view to identifying quickly any new barriers that emerged. By keeping a close eye on the effect of the plan across the firm, they were able to prevent these new barriers diverting and obstructing the vision’s progress. A good plan is therefore never static, as the barriers and obstacles it encounters emerge over time and throughout its implementation.
As part of their plan’s implementation, a law firm we worked with assigned a project team to each of the ‘problem’ areas they’d identified. Each team examined and worked on the improvements necessary to mitigate the negative effect of these areas on the plan’s success.
Change very rarely happens overnight and visions often take a while to come to fruition. Human nature being what it is, it’s therefore important to create a sense of achievement to help people remain motivated and support the vision in the long-term. Quick wins help here.
Typically, when a professional services firm tries to take control of its future, 30% of staff – the ‘early adopters’ – will jump on the bandwagon straight away and give their support. There are then the same number of people who become ‘detractors’. They will resist change and some may even be hostile to it.
The remaining 40% of people in the firm are what we call the ‘wait and sees’. They will support whichever side seems to be the more successful. To ensure the ‘wait and sees’ move in the direction of the ‘early adopters’ we have seen some firms actively identify and communicate signs that demonstrate the new strategic direction is correct and is beginning to work. Often these are small examples such as:
- Individual cases of positive client feedback
- Good examples of cross-selling within the firm
- Successful implementation of a new process or system
- Winning the appropriate type of client with the appropriate type of work
- The results of staff surveys that demonstrate things are moving in the right direction
- External press comments which demonstrate positive changes and successes
Communicated regularly to the firm, these examples reassure and motivate people towards the vision’s implementation.
As part of their planning, we saw an actuarial firm identify what elements of the plan could be progressed quickly to ensure there were some quick wins to communicate as soon as possible.
Interestingly, listening forms a major part of the great firms taking control of their future. Yes it is important to tell everyone in the firm in which direction you are headed, however the really great firms spend a considerable amount of time listening. Only then can they work out how to articulate the vision and plan in a way that people will buy into. Also by taking on board people’s views, they can identify the areas that will speed up or slow down the plan’s progress. With this knowledge on board, they then craft a carefully constructed ‘internal PR plan’, which reduces the need for a rumour mill. Instead it takes the initiative in communicating the vision’s key messages, the activities and the outcome of the plan’s implementation.
The best internal PR plans operate across a number of different channels as everyone is different and people like to learn about things from different types of media. We have seen some firms combine a use of ‘road-show’, team meetings, office meetings, intranet, social networking tools, videos and podcasts to name but a few to communicate the vision and its implementation across the firm.
The seventh key driver in taking control of your future helps a firm keep implementation on track and success in its grasp.
The great firms we have seen identify and then build the behaviours and values across the business that are crucial for whatever changes are needed. They also put performance measures in place that focus on desired outcomes in a given timescale and will help the firm along its vision journey. Quite often this requires identifying competencies and key performance indicators. To help people support and achieve these, the firms reorganise or change their reward practices.
They recognise and reward behaviours that support the vision and include short-term rewards that encourage repeat ‘good’ behaviours. Over time long-term rewards are also created to support long-term behaviour change.
Fundamental to this is the inclusion of the vision, the desired behaviours and values in the firm’s appraisal and reward system.
What is rewarding gets done and people are more comfortable making change if they see it rewarded. It is, however, important to add that reward isn’t always financially based and that recognition, gifts or other forms work just as well. It all depends on the individual and by listening to their people the great firms work out what rewards will best motivate people to achieve the vision.
One thing that all great firms have in common is that they do celebrate success amongst their people. Those who have made positive steps in turning the vision into reality are profiled and rewarded. This helps to further explain to other people in the business how to make their own contribution. It also signals that this is something being taken very seriously.
Taking control of your future
The great firms that we have seen spend time, not only defining the right vision for their business, but project-managing its implementation to a successful conclusion. In doing so, they do not rush things. Instead, they recognise that lasting change doesn’t necessarily happen quickly. As a result, they often tackle elements of their vision’s plan one thing at a time. They give time to help their people adjust to and embrace the new vision and, whilst they do quickly promote any examples of success, they do allow time for things to take hold and work.
The speed of communication and the world around us can make humans impatient. The great firms recognise this and reassure their people that progress is being made, but at the same time, they ensure that progress is right for the vision’s overall achievement. They also hold off introducing other initiatives and so allow their people the chance to remain focused and do something well. When firms introduce one initiative after another their people become ‘punch drunk’ by it all and soon resist initiatives as just another fad.
So, if your firm is looking ahead (and 2012 is very popular at the moment for a planning destination), here are our key tips:
- Draw on your firm’s strengths – bring together the people who will help to define the best and most realistic vision for the business.
- Listen to your people to work out what barriers will crop up along the way
- Start drawing together a plan, one which evolves over time and ensures the right people are doing the right activities to make the vision a reality.
- Above all, communicate the vision and reassure your people that progress is being made, no matter how small.
- Do practice what you preach and ensure your performance appraisals and reward mechanisms are focused on the task at hand and do not detract from the main message.