Why accountants and lawyers can't lead...


We've all heard people say it - accountants and lawyers (and engineers, IT professionals and HR professionals etc.) make lousy leaders. People point to professional service firms (particularly those with a partnership structure) and provide example after example of downtrodden workers, bizarre partner behaviour, unclear and competing objectives, high staff turnover rates, excessive workloads, a lack of appreciation and civility, and frequent burnouts among managers and partners. The simple explanation provided by many is that the capabilities that get you promoted to management in these firms are about technical skills, generating revenue and looking after clients, and not about managing people effectively - so the managers lack the capabilities and motivation to be effective as leaders. The simple answer given to this problem - "start selecting managers and partners based on people management capabilities" - surely that's the answer... well, yes and no.

Having worked with a broad range of professional service firms and hundreds of managers, I'm yet to meet a person who sets out to be a bad manager. Sure, some people prioritise their role of 'people manager' a little lower than other accountabilities, but not one has failed to see that being an effective people manager is an important part of their role. I believe the vast majority of managers want to do a good job and set out with good intentions. In addition, many professional service firms have indeed invested in developing people management capability and started to build assessment of people management into performance evaluations for managers and partners. Firms are helping their managers to develop their skills and providing coaching and support to become more effective. And yet, the problems remain - many professional firms still have working environments that range from frustrating to toxic. So what's really wrong, and what can we do about it?

One of the foundations of psychology is that behaviour is determined by a combination of the person AND their environment. Despite Kurt Lewin publishing that formula way back in 1936, it's still tempting to first blame the individual without looking at their environment. Let's take a moment to consider the environment in most professional service firms. Partners typically take on a combination of business leadership, client leadership, technical leadership and people leadership accountabilities. There's typically not a formal people-management structure in place, so those in the middle end up with three or more 'managing partners' who allocate them work. This creates problems with clarity, work allocation, performance management and a whole host of other areas.

For those stuck in the middle, the path from team leader to partner is typically 10 to 15 years. These roles are often not rewarding. People 'hang on' to become partner, provided they don't become disillusioned or burnt out in the mean time. Those in the middle are often held accountable for the performance of those below them in the structure, without having the full authority to act as a true manager. Firms have recognised these issues, and have put in place lots of work-arounds such as appointing mentors or allocating clients to teams. However these short-term fixes don't address the underlying issues.

Here are some tips for how professional service firms can address these common challenges:
  1. Distinguish between accountabilities for client leadership, technical leadership, people leadership and business leadership. Individual partners and senior managers can realistically focus on two of these accountabilities, and not all four. Continuing to expect individual leaders to deliver across these four accountability areas equally is a recipe for disaster. 
  2. Create clearer 'streams' of work and career paths around these accountabilities. There are likely to be two or three combinations of accountabilities at the partner level that people can work towards.
  3. Provide the opportunity for partners and senior managers to explore what they find motivating and identify what combination of accountabilities would be most suited to them - what they would find most energising.
  4. Determine a 'people management' structure. An organisational chart that shows who reports to whom. Provide clarity around who is accountable for managing the performance of each employee within the firm.
  5. Work through scenarios - any new structure will have issues, so it's best to work through these before putting the new structure into place - how is work allocated, who makes remuneration review decisions, how are promotions determined etc.

Why can't accountants and lawyers lead? I'd argue that the structure and roles in many professional service firms are what gets in the way. Get the structure and roles right, continue providing leadership development support and leadership (and business performance) will improve.