Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, September 11, 2006

People Management in Professional Services - Effective Delegation

The inability of partners and senior staff to delegate properly is a common complaint among junior staff in many professional services firms.

Fear of Delegation

Many professionals simply do not like delegating. They fear loss of control and standards. Most have had very little management training, so do not really know how to do it. Many will argue that the client wants them. So how do they get the client to accept someone else? When they do delegate, they over control, giving nominal responsibility without authority.

In response, I try to hammer the message that effective delegation offers very real benefits to client and firm. One of my favourite quotes here comes from David Maister's True Professionalism:

"There should be no tolerance for underdelegation. If a portion of a professional's work can be done with quality by a more junior person under proper supervision, there should be a requirement for that professional to ensure that the work is always assigned to the lowest level capable of producing quality work under supervision."

This approach generates fairly common reactions from many professionals. Specfically, I can do things faster myself. The client won't pay for supervision time. How do I record that time and charge it to the client?

In response, I generally point, among other things, to the significant difference in charge rates between senior and junior staff. So even if a junior took longer and had to be supervised, the client could gain.

There is a simple test here. If the total time value involved in the job ( junior plus senior supervision and planning and any reworking) is less than the value of the time that the senior would have charged on his/her own, then the client has gained and full time should be charged. If the time cost involved is more, then the extra estimated time fees should be not charged but treated as training and development time.


Some professionals who do delegate go to the opposite extreme, overdelegation. That is, they either give the staff member work that goes beyond that which the staff member can be expected to do and/or fail to provide proper supervision and support.

The message that I try to get across here is that effective delegation requires planning and thought. Here-in lies the rub that often explains both under and over delegation.

Because this planning and thought generally falls into the important but not urgent class, the busy professional finds it hard to find or justify the time involved. So it doesn't get done, leading to later problems. The difficulty can be made more accute where the time codings used do not properly recognise nor reward supervision or training and development time.

Steps in effective delegation

The time code problem can be dealt with via alterations to the time recording system. The delegation planning processᅠcan be eased by following a few simple steps:

  • Study your people: Effective delegation requires relating work to capabilities. Here three things are important: knowledge (what the staff member knows), skills (what the staff member can do) and attitude/judgement (this covers attitudes to work, personality and core intelligence). My practical suggestion here is to take a sheet of paper, put down the three headings and then jot down assessments under the three headings. This need not take a lot of time. The objective should be toᅠprovide a simple benchmark that can then be refined through experience.
  • Analyse your job: A suprising number of professionals do not think about what they do beyond the immediate professional issue being dealt with. By analysing the overall pattern of work and then relating it to the capabilities of the individual staff member, it is usually possible to identify fields of work that might be delegated.
  • Define the task: A pre-condition for effective delegation. In most cases, this need not take a lot of time. All that is required is to take a sheet of paper and jot down some thoughts: just what have we to do and why (essentially what the client wants); when must it be done by; information sources (precedents etc); any problems to be overcome; what might the staff member do on the job (whole, part). Many experienced professionals assume that things are self-evident. But you have to make them explicit if you are to delegate.
  • Check task against person: Having defined the overall task, you can then check just what you want done against the person. Can he/she do the job in whole, in part? What special support/training might be required?
  • Define responsibility/accountability: just what are the specific outcomes do you expect from the person, in what form and when?
  • Give clear instructions: Steps one through five above should allow you to explain precisely what you want done. In explaining, check that the person does understand.
  • Follow up: Sounds dumb, but a lot of problems arise because the person delegating does not build any follow up into the process. It is always a good idea to work out just when to check progress, sort out any problems that might have arisen. Recognise that the junior staff member may not recognise that they have a problem, or may be afraid to mention it.
  • Finally, accept mistakes, praise success.

Staff Responsibility

Delegation is a two way street. That is, the staff member also has responsibilities under the delegation process. It is suprising just how often staff do not understand this, so it is generally a good idea to make your expectations clear. Specifically, you expect the staff member to:

  • Tell you up front if they do not understand the task, tell you of any difficulties they see in the task, tell you if they feel that they cannot do it.
  • As the task proceeds, identify any problems and advise you should they need help.
  • Progressively report back on progress.

Development, Information, Realism and Keeping Things Simple

Delegation forms an integral element in effective staff development by pushing out the envelope of just what the person can do. This is best done consciously.

A few simple guidelines:

  • If you have followed the steps above, you know where the person stands now. So then work out where you thing that they might be by, say, end year. A comparison of the two then tells you what you think they need to gain in terms of both knowledge and skills over the year.
  • Then work out roughly how they might get there. Much of this may come from delegation/on-the-job training, but some may require specific training external to the practice.
  • Do not overload the person with too much information initially. Keep things simple. People learn by doing, so give them information in blocks relating to immediate tasks. I often think in terms of bricks and walls. There is certain foundation of knowledge/skills, then you need to add bricks progressively to build the wall.
  • Review progress every few months. By then, progress and problems should be clear.

Other Issues

Turning to a few final issues.

On marketing, people's marketing capacities vary. In part, this is a matter of attitude, personality and capability. Some people are just not very good at it. However, my view is that all professionals should be expected to play some role in marketing, with the exact role depending upon the person's knowledge, skills and capabilities.

In terms of knowledge required for marketing, you have to give the staff member sufficient understanding of the firm so that they can explain it to others. They also need to understand your basic marketing strategy. They need knowledge about key customers. Finally, they need some knowledge about marketing processes themselves. If you cannot explain these things to staff, then the firm has the problem, not the staff members.

In terms of skills, these come only from doing.

Part of the doing is simply doing a good job for clients since referrals remain the best source of work for most practices. A second part of the doing is conscious involvement in your existing marketing activities. This includes sitting in at client meetings, helping prepare newsletters etc. A third part comes from a conscious effort to help them build their own contact network.

One of the key issues in my experience, and one that links with the contact network point, is to get the staff member to focus externally rather than internally. This internal focus happens in even the smallest firm, but gets worse as the firm grows. So there needs to be conscious action to overcome this. Suggestions:

  • Send the staffer as firm representative to specific conferences/meetings. Expect him/her to report back on lessons, possibilities.
  • Send the staffer on site visits. In my experience, clients are usually happy to cooperate because they know that this will help you give them better support. Again, he/she should report back in a structured way.
  • Give the staffer access to professional activities outside the practiceᅠso that they gain exposure to other professionals.

In my experience, one of the problems that arises in many firms when it comes to marketing or people development is the time focus on charge. If you only measure and assess billable hours, then marketing will be neglected.

One way of overcoming this is through the concept of effective time. Effective time can be defined as charge plus marketing and business development plus any other activities considered to be of priority at that time. It is up to the practice to decide which elements to include and how much weight to give them. Performance targets can then be based on effective time as defined rather than simply billable hours as such. This approach also makes it easier to extend the time measurement system to all classes of staff.

One thing to watch with effective time, and the same thing applies in general to all specific allocations of firm time, is to avoid micro-management via overspecification of time allocations to specific activity categories. If you do this, you will reduce flexibility and increase staff resistance.

1 comment:

project management software said...

Resource allocation is also a very important decision to be made at the time of project commencement. Proper collaboration and team work are the driving factors in making a project successful. Effective delegation helps meet project goals and deadlines.