Organisational alignment – ‘on-boarding’ and aligning the stars

by Nyree McKenzie

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


Manager: What can I do to get our people’s hearts, heads and souls to be 100% committed to the business?

Staff member/s: He promised me intellectual work but hasn’t delivered. I get no direction and little feedback. I have no idea where this firm is heading!

It’s referred to as the covenant. Remember the promises you both made when you offered and he/she accepted the position at your firm? And now…like a souring domestic relationship you’re both beginning to see some cracks?

Truth – your staff aren’t always the root cause problem.  Actually, they’re mostly well intentioned, and as managers or leaders we place expectations upon them but rarely recognize ourselves what the blind spots are that are actually causing the gap between what we want, and what is actually occurring.

Often what has gotten us off track is that the promise and the delivery aren’t matching up by either party.  So when hopes and desires fall short of one’s expectations, the gap widens further and we become “misaligned”.  This is when the covenant has been broken.

We have expectations. But are we there reaching out the hand to bring staff along with us?  Be honest. Are you really caring about the work of others?  No, really.  Have a hard think.  When you were a junior did you have someone senior (say, 50+) take you by the hard who really cared about your career more than you did?  Probably. Now ask a 30+ person and their eyes will likely glaze over – yet we blame this generation for lack of commitment. Reality check – are we really mentoring them sufficiently?  Do we really understand the correlation between high performance and retention?

Whilst we all know that hiring stars is a key source of competitive advantage for professional services firms, it runs deeper than that. That’s why Harvard Business School’s Jay Lorsch and practitioner Thomas J Tierney set out to learn what separates the best firms from their less-successful competitors in this talent-driven sector. Their research looked at the ways in which the best firms reduce the variance between what is said and what is done to achieve the strongest “organisational alignment”.

Lorsch and Tierney studied a diverse range of firms across law, accounting, investment banking, advertising, information technology, executive search and management consulting industries.  What they found was that strategic success is achieved by building an organization of executive-level stars whose day-to-day performance reinforces, and ultimately achieves, the goals of the business.  These outstanding firms align their stars across business lines, geographies and even generations. What was common across these successful firms were:

  • People systems: converting talent into stars, while nurturing ‘firm first’ behaviours.
  • Structure and governance: organization around partnership principles – even in a corporate environment.
  • Culture: actively managing the culture to guide and control individual behaviour.
  • Leadership: exercising effective leadership when the power to control “partner-peers” is limited.
  • Careers: aligning individual stars by helping professionals build a life, not just a resume.

What motivates professionals?

When people are engaged, or “in” they are intrinsically motivated. So how do we engage them?  Research has found that people who choose (or ‘self select’) to work in professional services, have a common motivations. They seek:

  • autonomy and minimal bureaucracy
  • intellectually challenging environments
  • absorbing and engaging work
  • to know that their opinion matters
  • to feel they “fit” in
  • pay commensurate with status and results.

Another trait of professional services professionals is that they place high value on “achievement” as a personal motivation need. The biggest challenge for the high achievement personality is that they typically fail to provide their people with direction, clear expectations, feedback, coaching/mentoring, thoughtful recognition (ie. “I heard you did a great job on bringing in that client”) and encouragement – especially when times are tough.  They tend to schedule in formal feedback sessions or send their teams to structured programs or seminars while keeping their head in their work. But if they were to simply bring what’s in the back of their mind forward and give their staff feedback as part of the day to day role such as taking their junior to a client meeting and asking them for feedback on how they thought it went – “learning on the job” and mentoring – then they are more likely see engagement and motivation from their teams.

Lessons Learned

Of course to implement the above we need to have faith that someone at the helm will keep the wheels turning.  So when these elements work together to bring the organization, skills and culture together, the ‘misalignment’ gap reduces, and people come ‘on board’.  It stands to reason, then, that the tighter the alignment, the more successful the firm is likely to be.

This is the third 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.

When professionals have to manage: what becomes of the ‘producing manager’?

Strategy in professional services firms. The hard truth.

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.