Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Raising one's eyes unto the hills



I don't know about you, but sometimes I get very jaded in a professional sense. When I do, I go to Gordon Smith's photo blog.

Gordon's photos are from my home area. This one shows wattles in flower.

Wattle also known as mimosa is Australia's national flower. I really love the colour.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Managing the Professional Services Firm - stocktake of posts

From time to time I do stocktakes, pulling together past posts. These get submerged. It is also more difficult to edit posts that may be a fair bit back in the past.

Given all this, I am in the process of updating past stocktakes and then bringing them to the front of the blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Common Management Problems - responsibility without authority

This post continues my common management problem series with a look at a very common problem, responsibility without authority.

This one can be simply stated. You ask someone to do something, make them responsible for delivery, but then do not give them the authority to carry out the task properly.

This all sounds so simple to fix, yet the reality appears to be that this is one of the most common of common management problems.

In many cases, it is simply a matter of personality or approach - we want to micro-manage. Equally often, organisational structures simply do not allow proper delegation.

If the problem is the first, then it's up to us. If the problem is the second and the structures cannot be changed, then the only solution is to reduce the scope of formal responsibility so that it fits with actual authority.

Previous posts

Those interested can find a full list of the posts in this series here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Managing the professional services firm - what do people want to know 1

I do try to monitor what people search on in coming to this blog because it gives clues as to things I should write about. However, my free stats package limits the data to the last 100 posts. So what where the most popular entry pages for the last 100 visitors?

The largest number of visitors by far (23) came to the blog front page. This includes regular visitors plus those searching on "managing the professional services firm" - a Google search on "managing the professional services firm" presently brings this blog up as number three.

Then at 14 visitors comes Designing a simple performance appraisal system - sample policy statement. Performance appraisal is a continuing interest - Designing a Good Performance Appraisal System attracted a further 3 visitors.

Chris Marston's 4C's of Value Pricing attracted 6 visitors. Searching around, value pricing continues as a hot topic in professional services, especially law.

This was followed by two posts, each on 5 visitors. Common Management Problems - the over-enthusiastic boss is as the title says. The common management problems series is intended to provide simple practical advice, so I am always pleased to see it score well.

Law, Life Style and Legal Salaries in Australia also came in with 5 visitors. Graduate Starting Salaries in Australia came in with 4, reflecting continuing interest in how much people are paid!

There were 3 other posts on 4 visitors.

Performance Measurement - Profit Per Equity Partner (PEP) deals with a topic that continues to be popular within the professional services blogosphere.

Causes of project failures - responsibility without authority is, like common management problems, one of a series intended to provide practical management advice. This issue - responsibility without authority - is one that worries many staff.

Corporatisation, Keddies and professional ethics is a short comment post with links to various stories dealing with the problems faced by this Australian law firm.

Then came two posts on 3 visitors.

I have already mentioned Designing a Good Performance Appraisal System. Also on 3 visitors was Problems with Performance Pay, an introduction to the problems that can be created in this area.

In all, quite an interesting set of posts with a particular nuts and bolts management focus.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Blogging Perspectives - the need for persistence

This seems to have been a difficult year from a blogging perspective.

At the start of this year my own posting became very irregular, with just one post in January, none in February, five in March, then a long break to July. Looking around, I am not alone.

Just to take three examples on my regular visit list: Chris Marston hasn't posted since February, David Maister stopped posting in June for at least a long break, while the Juris blog morepartnerincome also appears to have entered a state of suspended animation in June.

Maintaining a blog can be hard work, especially when busy. Further, as postings become irregular it actually becomes harder to post because the ideas generated through the act of posting drop away. Think of a blog as a professional conversation; the pauses in the conversation increase until the conversation stutters into silence.

Most regularly maintained professional blogs have at least a few regular readers. Some rely on feeds, others simply visit. Depending in part on the frequency of posting, some visit once a week, some just drop in from time to time.

As posting becomes less regular or even stops, regular visits decline. People still drop in from time to time to check, but finding nothing new, they stop coming. Search engine traffic continues, although this too declines with time as newer content comes to dominate.

I noticed all this on this blog during the low post period. My own flow of ideas declined. The number of repeat visitors dropped right away. Then search engine related traffic started to fall.

One of the points I try to make about the role of blogging in a professional services environment is that the reason for blogging must be clearly defined. In my case, blogging is central to my continuing professional development. It forces me to articulate ideas, to search for new material. This is especially important if, like me, you are often working in a degree of isolation from day-to-day professional interaction.

All writers, bloggers included, mine their own experiences. In writing, we capture and present ideas and lessons from those experiences. From a purely personal perspective, blogging has been invaluable as a device that allows me to stand-back from and reflect on my professional work.

All this explains why I have resumed active posting on this blog. However, resumption of the blogging conversation has been harder than expected because the pauses in the conversation had become so long.

To manage this, I have chosen to back-fill. By this I simply mean that I am adding posts from a past point (in my case from the 1 July post - Break in posting) to create momentum and discussion, if only with myself!

I mention this because it explains the gaps between the dates on the post (in this case 9 August) and the actual publication dates (23 August) that some readers have noticed. I have to say that while the re-starting process has been difficult, it has also been invaluable because of the way it has encouraged me to revisit previous thinking.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Cadwalader Caned - strategic lessons

Bruce MacEwen had an absolutely fascinating post on the troubles of the US law firm Cadwalader.

The short story is that the firm achieved five year's rapid growth reaching profits per partner of $US2.9 million. In doing so, the firm focused on one main market area, structured finance. To Chairman Bob Link, profits were all.

The collapse in the US financial markets badly affected the firm. Their attempts to build alternative practice areas failed. Now the firm has been forced into dramatic retreat.

I will leave you to read Bruce's story. I do not think that the firm's problems were in any way linked to corporate approaches as Bruce seemed to imply at one point in his post, but to greed combined with strategic mistakes.

There is nothing wrong necessarily with a focus on one market area, nor indeed with dependence on a small number of clients so long as you recognise and compensate for the risks involved. However, the problem is that when you are on a roll you become blinded to those risks.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Social change, demographic change and the professions

I have written a fair bit on this blog about the impact of demographic and social change on the professions. I will add links to some of these later at the end of this post.

Recently there have been a number of small incidents that show just how hard this is starting to bite.

At a function at Sydney university I chatted to some senior academics in dentistry about the current shortage of dentists in Australia. We need to expand dental training, but it is almost impossible to find the dental academics required to maintain current training levels, let alone expand numbers. Those still in the academy are getting older, adding to long term problems.

A little later, I had a similar conversation with a group of doctors. They belong to a network in one of Sydney's more affluent areas, the type of area traditionally attractive to doctors for life style reasons. They, too, talked about the difficulties of finding new doctors for the network. They also talked about the impact of social change on the workforce.

The feminisation of the professional workforce has been a long standing trend. Women's need to balance career, family and children affects the way they work. Put simply, over time you need more professionals to do the same volume of work.

Men are not immune to this trend. They, too, are demanding greater working flexibility and are less prepared to make the specific long term commitments that used to be a feature of most professions. Again, you need more professionals to do the same volume of work.

The impact of these trends varies across the professions and from firm to firm. However, all are experiencing the double whammy of demographic and social change.

There is, I think, now clear evidence that firms are responding to these trends in their approaches to people management. However, my feeling is that those approaches are still too fragmented and do not adequately address the impact of the changes on the very design of work and of organisations themselves.

In a sense, we are trying to manage people in ways that will allow us to continue to do the same things. We have yet to come to grips with the idea that the things we do will have to change as well.

Somewhat later

In opening this post, I said that I would provide a list of previous posts at the end. Somewhat belatedly, I have now begun this.