HERDING CATS: Leading a Professional Services Firm

Figuring that I was old enough to have learned something in founding and running a PR firm for 30+ years – but not so old that I had forgotten it all – the three Managing Directors of our firm asked me to develop a number of staff training courses dubbed Bliss University.  The specific courses were chosen by a staff vote at our annual company offsite meeting in January, and include:

  • 35 YEARS OF BLISSPR – War Stories & Lessons Learned
  • FINDING THE WIZARD OF OZ – Public Relations Demystified
  • DRIVING THE GROWTH ENGINE – How to Develop New Business
  • HOW TO CREATE THOUGHT LEADERSHIP – Online, Offline, Integrated

Abby Carr, Meg Wildrick and Elizabeth Sosnow take turns in giving the courses with me.  The title of this blog, “Herding Cats,” was the subject of the fifth course, and they thought some of the highlights might be useful to our readers.

First, what’s different about leading a professional service firm?  The obvious answer is that our primary assets – people – go down the elevators every night.  They are fluid, not fixed.  Since our firm deals with very smart people in management consulting, law, accounting, executive search, asset management, insurance and other professional and financial services, our people have to be smart.  And, because our clients occasionally have healthy egos, our people have to have healthy egos too.

In short, the leader of a professional firm cannot treat people the way one might treat a machine that manufactures widgets.  Machines don’t ask “why?”  Our people almost always do, which means you should give them the answers before they ask the question.  Leadership becomes much more an exercise in developing consensus, as anyone who has been in any kind of successful partnership (e.g., marriage) can readily attest.

Second, as a recent president said, there’s the “vision thing.”  Now let me go on record and say that I am not a big believer in VISION STATEMENTS and MISSION STATEMENTS.  I think too often they waste hours of executive time – and lots of dollars – to produce something that is designed not to offend and is thoroughly non-differentiable from the competition.

But leaders do need vision lest they sound Alice in Wonderland, to whom the Cheshire Cat said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can get you there.”  Or worse they can sound like a long forgotten “leader” in the French Revolution, who John F. Kennedy famously quoted as saying: “there go my people; I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”

Your people need better, and you need not hire consultants or establish task forces to figure it out.  I do not believe a vision needs to be grand – our vision in our early years was survival.  Once we got some critical mass, the vision had three primary components.  We wanted:

  1. Measured growth.  You have to grow to create opportunities for your people, but you want to grow at a pace you can manage, one that will not burn you out or your people.
  2. A great place to work.  Check.  We have been voted that in the Holmes Report four of the last six years.
  3. To enable individuals to grow – including the management team – which has been together now roughly 20 years.

Our vision was achievable, a critical characteristic, and we communicated it regularly and measured ourselves against it.

We’ll offer some other thoughts on a leading a professional firm in the weeks ahead.  Meanwhile, what do you think are the critical elements?  What do you think of vision and mission statements?

To reach John:

Phone:  212.840.0444
Email: john@blisspr.com
LinkedIn:  John Bliss