Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

People management in professional services - professionals vs managers

I thought that the best way of starting this series on people management was by focusing on the difference between managers and professionals because this links to one of the issues that I mull over from time to time - why do so many professionals make lousy people managers? And, more to the point, just what can be done about it.

I know that this is not a new issue. In engineering, for example, the problems involved in promoting good engineers into management positions removed from direct hands-on engineering has been a topic of discussion for years. In medicine, the sometimes inability of doctors to communicate with patients is well know. The inability of some senior partners in law firms to manage is infamous.

While the issue is not new, I was reminded of it again in a recent discussion with a senior professional on a management issue. The professional is highly intelligent, even brilliant in his field, and also has an interest in management issues. Yet he simply could not see the issue in question. He gave instructions, his staff should get on with it!

When I looked at the discussion later, I realized that the core of the problem lay in the role, training and even language of the professional as compared to the manager.

A good point in looking at managers vs professionals is to start with their varying roles.

A manager's core role is to manage the resources available to him/her to achieve the objectives set for the area. Performance is always measured, or should be, by the results of the area.

In contrast, the professional's role is to carry out specific professional tasks. The core focus is on the performance of the individual professional in undertaking those tasks.

This difference in roles is reflected in training.

The professional's training dates back to the craft system of the middle ages. It focuses on the individual acquisition and application of the knowledge, skills and values associated with the profession. The core focus is individual, not collective. The subsequent rewards offered by the profession, and especially the critical recognition of peers, are all based on individual performance. It is no coincidence that the Nobel prize is awarded to individuals, not teams.

The manager's training is different.

To begin with, we have to distinguish here between the acquisition of technical skills such as financial analysis and broader management skills. Many of those coming out of business schools become technical experts and should more properly be classified as professionals rather than managers.

Beyond this, management training focuses on managing people and other resources. Further, most managers become managers by doing, by actually managing with increasing degrees of responsibility. In contrast, many professionals are suddenly thrust into management roles when they get to a certain point in their career and are then, suddenly, expected to manage.

Differences in role and training are also reflected in differences in personality. Perhaps more accurately, different personalities are attracted into the professions as compared to management. The professions tend to attract people who prefer individual endeavour, whereas managers are more collectivist.

I recognize that these are broad generalizations. Some professionals are very good managers, some managers are hopeless managers. Nevertheless, the differences are real and mark very different cultures.

The bottom line in all this is that it is not surprising that most professionals are not good managers and that professionals and managers can experience difficulty in talking to each other.

I will focus on possible responses to the problem in my next post.

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