Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sustainability vs short term managerialism

As a professional adviser, I try to help firms improve business performance and to resolve problems. More and more, I have found a conflict between reality and aspirations. Reconciliation of that conflict comes back to one word, sustainability.

At a macro level, if the total business objectives set by all firms exceeds the possible growth rate in the economy, then some firms must fail to achieve objectives. If the gap between total firm targets and what is possible becomes large, then the shortfall between objectives and performance for most firms will also be large.

Since remuneration often depends upon achievement of immediate financial objectives, the incentive for managers to do whatever is required to get to immediate target is great. This leads to short termism. Cut now, with the costs coming later. In aggregate, this results in increasing economic instability.

Obviously, the position varies between firms.

If I am advising a start-up or a firm in a rapidly growing market place, then I provide one set of advice. If I am advising a firm that wants to increase market share and is prepared to pay the price, I provide a second type of advice. If the business is unprofitable, then that's another set of advice.

But what do I do if I am providing advice to an existing profitable business in a mature market that wants to improve performance to achieve new growth targets dictated by what is really managerial hubris? How do I say that you are doing the wrong thing? How do I say keep on going as you are, just improve at the margin?

If the reality is as it is that most businesses cannot achieve their targets, then shouldn't we be adopting a new approach? Isn't sustainability combined with incremental growth better?

Say you are a reasonably profitable law firm. What do your partners, your owners, really want?

They want to be able to get on with their professional work. They want a stable income with prospects of reasonable increase. Most don't want the prospect of big increases that risk the business.

Think how nice it would be as an adviser if your client said we want to improve what we do over time. Our focus is on business sustainability, not big targets. We want you to help make things better for clients, for partners and for our staff. We want you to give us practical suggestions to achieve this.

It would be nice, wouldn't it! 

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