Having been awarded the inaugural Hatch Creations executive leadership scholarship, I was fortunate enough to attend the “Leading Professional Services Firms” course at Harvard Business School (HBS).
The setting was incredibly conducive to the six days of intensive study that lay ahead; not just the incredible premises that conveyed such a rich history, but to be in the company of professionals from around the globe was truly inspiring. Group discussion was a consistent element throughout the week, which I found highly valuable in the exchange of ideas of perspectives.
The content was broken down into various themes pertinent to professional services, culminating in a cohesive view of effective leadership for consulting firms in the 2018 market.
Our first day involved a case study focused on a manager, who, like many in the field, found himself managing people under pressure. With the case study touching on a variety of possible issues common to a consulting firm, everyone in the room could identify and the door was open to plenty of discussion. The case highlighted some of the human challenges of working in a high-performance environment where individuals personalities and motivations can clash and cause conflict, which can potentially distract and derail a consulting firm if not recognised and managed. As a group we analysed the challenges and established a short, medium and long-term plan to manage change within the firm.
Strategy & the Future
Following a presentation on “the curse of knowledge’, we were encouraged to look at the merits of inexperience when learning and how critical it is that transference of skills and expertise via mentoring considers the novice viewpoint as a positive.
We then moved on to discuss various company’s strategies which lead to some debate about the merits and disadvantages of each model; their respective sustainability as well as the suitability of their structure. I found this session to be highly engaging and it restored some faith in decision making within high pressure corporate environments for me!
The Future of Talent
With a sharp focus on the people side of professional services firms, we looked at several cases that brought this element into the spotlight. One case, on the surface quite simple, was around an individual’s performance review and possible promotion. Whilst the employee in question had a great track record of success, some of his behaviour didn’t align with the company’s stated values.
The discussion that followed was quite polarising for the group; some people thought he should be rewarded and promoted on the basis he was doing what he was asked to do, whilst others felt strongly that he shouldn’t be and perhaps shouldn’t be kept in the business at all. Ultimately the discussion turned to performance evaluations and the challenges that come with tough conversations. Too often, a manager’s response is perceived as positive when in fact it is the manager not being honest about the employee’s performance. This creates a self-perpetuating issue where the staff member ultimately becomes misaligned with the company’s values and expectations. The key message here was, as a manager, don’t let others pay for your sins.
Individual and Organisational Change
As part of the course, we attended an Analytics and Machine Learning round table, looking at how businesses can create value through analytics and advanced technologies such as machine learning. There is a fair bit of evidence now to show that companies with superior data and analytics capabilities do better than their competitors who don’t invest in these areas. One of the main take-aways for me was around the reduced likelihood for jobs to be replaced where creativity, judgement or empathy are needed, whereas components that utilise skills such as analysis of data and reading documents (both of which are common tasks in consultancies) are likely be disrupted. We were left to consider our own companies in this regard - do we excel in components that can’t be replaced, or can they be easily replicated? It certainly left me thinking about what kinds of services customers will value in the future as we continue to commoditise some of the more repetitive comprehension tasks consultants can sometimes fulfil.
We then looked at service excellence and creating differentiation to the extreme. We were challenged to look at the elements of our offering where we can add the most impact in the view of the client and how to build a high-performance team which is focused on service excellence. Some of these ideas resonated with my natural view of the world, and have had me thinking about which elements can translate into our next stages of growth at Chamonix. I also took away some valuable learnings from this session around mentorship in professional service firms; that above all, it should be organic, self-reinforcing and self-sustaining.
Leading Internally & Externally
The presentation on ‘Managing the High Intensity Workplace’ was a session that the participants could relate to. The high intensity workplace requires people to be fully available and committed 24/7, always on, and to work as much as needed. People in high intensity workplaces often find themselves in a culture where they need to prioritise work over all other aspects of life and we talked through the three strategies commonly used by people to deal with these situations and the importance of leadership in creating collective changes to work structures.
We explored the concept of creating the right conditions for teamwork and reviewed an interesting case based on a Japanese company experiencing funding cutbacks and the impact this had on its employees left having to ‘do more with less’. An interesting observation the group made from the case is that when customers can see the efforts being undertaken to create value for them, they tend to value the effort more. Equally when the staff see the difference they are making in peoples’ lives, they tend to put in additional effort to make sure that the outcome is achieved.
By the final day of the course, it’s fair to say that the energy required to digest the wealth of ideas being thrown at us was taking its toll. In our penultimate session on managing change in professional service firms, we looked at why a change in mindset is more important than the processes that are changing.
The final session was aptly titled “Pulling the Week Together” and was quite an emotional session, challenging us as leaders to be responsible and caring towards younger generations and to build mentoring and honesty into what we do while leading.
The calibre of both the faculty and the other participants was simply outstanding. With a wealth of experience in professional services and consulting firms, I gained invaluable insights into the most cutting-edge concepts in our industry, took on practical views on businesses like ours from people who have worked at the peak of consulting globally for decades. Importantly, with new found perspective, I was challenged to reflect on our own business and the exciting path that lies ahead.