When professionals have to manage

By Nyree McKenzie

Heading to Harvard – Lessons Shared from Harvard Business School’s “Leading Professional Services Firms“ program.


You know the type. You probably have one in your office. Or it could well be you.  The ‘producing manager’ – he/she who is torn between doing the work, and being expected to lead. What are the likely consequences of this common dilemma?

When professionals are promoted because of their practice expertise (think the star performer who becomes partner or practice leader) it can sometimes – if not mostly – create unintentional personal and professional tension.   How?

If you are the observer you might think to yourself, “this person is a good operator, but they give no direction and are terrible with staff”.  If you are the person at the centre of this scenario you might be thinking, “I’m good at what I do but I have little time to manage the people issues”.

This situation is not uncommon across accounting, consulting, investment banking and legal sectors.  Star performers are hired and then promoted because they are proven experts in their domain jobs. They’re good at bringing in revenue and servicing clients. And now they’re possibly equity owners in the firm.

So here’s the interesting conundrum. When the producer manager finds themselves in an executive position, they are usually expected to step up to lead and manage; to develop or contribute to the firm’s strategic direction; to motivate others towards that direction; and be responsible for developing their people (recruitment, assessment and feedback, compensation, coaching and mentoring).  Added to this are business development, planning and controlling assignments as well as planning and measuring results.

It’s a big ask. And it often presents a major challenge for the professional who is torn between “doing” what they love and “leading others”.  Often they lament that they don’t have enough time to do everything. They live with ongoing guilt and feel torn or confused as to where the balance lies. Do they abandon one role for the other?  Isn’t working and bringing in revenue the lifeblood of professional services? No revenue, no clients = no business. They justify, and continue on as they do.

There are three personal solutions that the Harvard Business School teaches about how the ‘producer manager’ can better manage these challenges:

1.     Set an agenda: Create a clear idea of your long term goals to better understand what you must do to get there. Develop a screen to judge which activities are most important – which can be deferred and which do not matter, and create a means to make choices about how to spend your time.

2.     Develop networks: Talk with those with whom you have a relationship (this could be in the form of third party peer review or external coaching/mentoring) and closely manage dealings with superiors, peers and subordinates. Importantly, manage these relationships as carefully as you would your most important clients using sound communication and two-way exchanges to foster mutual trust. And while you’re travelling, use this time effectively to think about longer-term issues.

3.     Opportunistic behaviour:  Learn to combine your managerial/leadership and professional activities. For example, coach younger professionals as you meet clients and use team meetings to “sell” new strategy – this enables you to accomplish your agenda. All of these approaches will expand your available time so that you can more effectively combine and balance your managerial, leadership and professional activities.

The lessons learned

Leading professional services firms is often vastly different to traditional leadership and management because of the complex relationships and responsibilities that come with being in a largely knowledge-based industry (equity ownership adds another dimension to this).  There’s also another reason. Professionals in the consulting world do what they do because they want to practice their profession!  Their clients want that senior contact, and professionals gain credibility with other professionals and are able to stay informed and grow by virtue of their ‘hands on’ involvement with their clients and their profession.

Adding leadership to the practitioner’s role is no doubt a balancing act because there is always the temptation to focus only on the profession – it’s what you know, and the results are immediate (revenue, client gratitude).  But the reality is, if you don’t deal with the human problems across the firm, which is frustrating for the producer manager, or focus on long term results (even though progress may be vague and ambiguous), you’re going to struggle over the long term. Problems will compound and something’s going to give.

This is the first article in the series: Heading to Harvard – Lessons Shared from Harvard Business School’s “Leading Professional Services Firms“, a week-long intensive Executive Education program that provides the latest thinking on developing, governing, and growing a profitable professional services firm.

Strategy in professional services firms. The hard truth

On boarding: Aligning the stars

The opportunity would not have been made possible without the wonderful support of Queensland University of Technology’s Fostering Executive Women Program (an Alumni Group of the QUT Graduate School of Business) and the generous sponsorship from St.George Bank.