Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Are you making Rain or making Mud?

I recently spent a week in Chicago meeting with financial executives of accounting and law firms. I wasn’t surprised how the two very different professions had the same types of problems in firm and financial management. It was almost as if these organizations were having internal battles as how to move forward and most importantly in what direction. Whether you are managing a huge global firm, a local firm or even a team within the firm you are constantly being plagued with direction and momentum.

Lately there has been an explosion of articles on how firms are changing to (re)establish direction and momentum. In The Lawyer, Julie Berris reported how one global firm radically downsized their management structure by 50%, as a means of focusing skills. Their expectation was to reestablish direction and momentum. While Martha Neil writing for the ABA Journal, discussed how a New York firm had undertaken to build a roadmap to partnership and rainmaker retention, by undertaking a ‘strength’ assessment of the professionals. Even the Partner’s Report published by IOMA went so far as to outline a seven step process necessary to establish focus and direction for professional services organizations. It seems these organizations realize they need to do something to maintain their competitive advantage in the market place, however their actions seems to be focused on downsizing and skills assessments.

Interestingly enough the writings of some of the business greats really don’t fit the professional services industry, simply because of the overall dynamic and structure of these organizations. The March 2008 issue of Partner’s Report spends a considerable amount of time expounding on the unique dynamic of professional services firms. However, as I view the entire situation as an outsider I can see that structure leads to form. The lack of a concerted direction of the organization has lead and will continue to lead the professional services organization into a state of confusion. The problem, I feel, is the management of today’s organization is not synergistic.

Even within these organizations, a lack of clear direction and management causes these organizations to become more attuned to fire fighting than overall management. I feel what organizations need now is a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at their business. Organizations must start to realize that all of their issues must be resolved from within. Chawla et al, in their recent publication: Learning organizations: Developing cultures for tomorrow's workplace, states “The human factor in business is more important than ever. Organizations must be responsive to their workers.” Although I believe that organizations must be responsive to their workers, they must understand the synergy created among staff. It is this synergy that makes the difference between greatness and mediocrity.

The idea of synergy between and among staff literally drives an organization in the designated direction. One conversation I had while meeting with financial executives reinforced this concept beyond realization. This firm, a global service provider, had recently had a change in their finance team. Before the change, the team was the most revered group in the organization. They were the rainmakers! However, since the departure of a key individual, they have slipped into mediocrity, had staff turnover and the staff remaining were disgruntled. With a single change, the greatness of the department was decimated and the dynamic was seriously altered.

What really happened, was the person who left a rainmaker? Or was the new hire so dysfunctional that the entire dynamics of the department was upset. The answer, I feel, rests in the huge amount of research done in the mid-1990’s regarding the success of ‘rainmakers’. At that time, it was the fascination of many business gurus that rainmakers who left their firm became average at their new firm, how could this be? What the research revealed was there was no single rainmaker – it was the team that ‘made rain’. As we extrapolate this from our departments, to practice groups and to the organizational level it becomes self-evident that it is more in how people work together that achieves greatness than a single individual. With this, I am reminded of a story from a North-East firm who had a corporate ‘rainmaker’. This partner would bring in some of the largest clients in the world and bill in the tens of millions of dollars per year. Through an internal issue, the partner left. Once announced, everyone in the firm began to ‘run scared’. Now two decades later, the firm continues to thrive and grow. The reason, the environment allowed for the creation of a rainmaking team.

Bob Bunting, partner with Moss Adams LLP, in his article Increasing Margins, makes a powerful statement regarding people and the success of the organization. According to Bunting “…recognizing that people are probably more important now than clients – but only if your firm has the best people.” Moss-Kanter, author of Change Masters:Change Masters: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation, professes that we are at a time of most change. She contends that the most important thing leaders can do for their organizations is to recognize the value of their people and the synergy they create and avoid top down management. The role of management then becomes one of transmitting values and priorities.

With that said, for those of us who manage teams we must recognize the value of the people in the team. Work to enhance the synergy of the team, as they are the rainmakers. It is the role of management to nurture the rainmaking team, as people leave managers not jobs; the team can soon fast become mud-makers.

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