Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Professional Services Management and the Dangers of Elitism

In my last review on blog posts of interest I mentioned a quote provided on Dennis Howlett's AccMan blog, finishing As Dennis said, "Hmm…not so sure about that."

The quote itself seems unexceptionable enough on the surface. Dennis notes that John Bailey, KPMG’s UK director of Coaching, was reported as saying that the onus is on a particular individual to develop talented people:

“This helps people to experience feeling well-managed, in terms of being treated in a way that helps them to maximise their performance and fulfil their career aspirations”

I do not have the full context, so should not comment on the specifics. However, the concern that the comment triggered in my mind was simply the dangers of elitism.

I often hear firms say that we try to recruit the best. I also see firms emphasising the weight that they place on the development of their best people. I see firms struggling in the marketplace to attract the cream of talent.

Leave aside the problems associated with making a reasonable margin on the work of such highly paid and mobile professionals. Bruce MacEwen has dealt with this in his writing on the salaries paid to associates in US law firms (here for example). The fact is that for nearly all firms in all segments of professional services this type of elitist approach is neither possible nor sensible. In fact, it can be downright dangerous.

In saying this I am not saying that firms should be satisfied with mediocrity. I feel just the opposite. Nor am I saying that there is not a place for special recruitment and training programs. These have their place. What I am saying is that the approach to people management and performance improvement needs to focus on all people in the firm, not just the selected few.

I do not remember of the top of my head - indeed I have a mental blank - who first used the phrase ordinary people doing extraordinary things. However, a simple web search shows that the phrase has become extraordinarily widely spread across a variety of areas.

The point of the phrase is that extraordinary results come from extraordinary performance of all people in the firm, not just the few. A firm that can energize its total staff will nearly always do better than that relying on on a selected elite.

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