“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson “Journals” 1849
Let me start with an anecdote that actually pre-dates me becoming involved in professional services firm management.
Many years ago I acted for the General Manager of a business in an employment tribunal claim. We won. Five or six months later, my telephone rang. I answered and the voice at the other end said “I’m Fred Bloggs, do you remember me?” I did – he was the owner of the business I’d acted against in the employment tribunal. “I’ve always had a rule in my life,” he said, “when I see something that is better than what I’ve got, I acquire it. You shouldn’t have won that tribunal case. Will you act for me?”
That was the start of a ten year relationship with Fred, until his retirement from business, during the course of which I had a great deal of fun. Some of the cases I handled for him ended up in the law reports, on each occasion a source of some amusement to him. He was, by training, a mechanical engineer. In his thirties he started to buy and sell businesses. His gift was to spot businesses with excellent products and inadequate management. He bought them for a low price, installed first class management and systems and then sold them at a good profit. I learned a great deal from him.
One day, as we were walking from court back to the office, Fred said to me “Mark, you know why I keep coming back to you don’t you?” “No”, I said, “tell me.” “Well”, came the response, “all lawyers can tell me what the law is. Most of them can then set out the options open to me. Then they leave it to me. But you go a step further – you tell me which option you’d adopt if you were me, and why. That’s the only bit that’s worth paying for. It’s also the only bit I’d never sue you for.”
I’ve read many explanations of the distinction between leadership and management. The one I prefer is to the effect that leadership is about doing the right things whereas management is about doing things right. Actually, in my view there is a huge amount of leadership in management and a good deal of management in leadership. Be that as it may, one of the reasons that is my preferred definition is that it includes the word “doing” in both limbs.
I was taught at a very early stage in my training that an important part of commercial legal advice is the bit involving telling the client what you would do in their shoes. It’s part of becoming and being a trusted adviser. Yet that doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with a number of private practice professionals.
And the same applies when partners move into leadership or management roles. How often have you heard the line “I don’t think I know enough to make a decision about that”?
Leaders and managers are never perfectly informed beings. They have to make decisions daily based upon what they know. Sometimes they might well not know “enough”, or “the full picture”. In such circumstances experience and instinct are invaluable. At the heart of what I now do is “giving something back” by using my experience, to help management teams in situations in which decisions have to be made on the basis of imperfect knowledge – which is to say probably always! And for anyone who cares to consult me, my objective will always be to do what I did as a lawyer when acting for Fred Bloggs, namely to add value by telling you what I’d do if I was in your shoes.
Tony Blair apparently once said in interview that the difference between being in opposition and in government was that, whereas when in opposition he woke up in the morning thinking about what he was going to say that day, when in government he woke up in the morning thinking about what he was going to do that day.
Just as – in my opinion – the professional services advisor should in any event be telling the client what he or she would do in their shoes, so the professional services firm leader or manager frequently has to be prepared to make decisions based on the information they’ve got, not wait until they have what they want in their ideal world.
If you’re not comfortable with that, and some people aren’t, don’t agree to do the job. Life is too short to be in a role that you’re not comfortable in!
So, what are you going to do today?