“Never take the advice of someone who has not had your kind of trouble.”
Sydney J Harris
Over the years a number of friends and colleagues have told me that there was a book in my head waiting to be written. My usual response was to enquire why on earth anyone would want to write – or, for that matter, read – yet another book about management and leadership in a professional services firm environment.
I won’t be writing a book any time soon. So why have I started this blog?
Between 1986 and 1998 my then firm was a member of an association of seven firms known as the Norton Rose M5 Group. Amongst other things, that group of firms developed and delivered, for the benefit of all members, a professional practice training and development programme. One of the components offered as part of that programme was a three day course for senior solicitors who were considered, by their firms, to be potential candidates for partnership. The objective of the course was to encourage the delegates to start to think more about ownership and management issues. Each time the course was run it was attended by twenty to twenty five solicitors drawn from the seven firms. A couple of dozen really bright, sparky lawyers.
I was one of the “tutors” for that course. Another “tutor” was my friend and then work colleague Julie Harrison (now also running her own business, Julie Harrison Consulting). The course was designed to be participative and interactive. On one occasion when Julie was running one of the modules, a lively debate developed with the delegates. One of them was, to put it kindly, unconvinced of the value of him spending his time on the course. Being a lawyer, he felt no reticence about saying what he thought. “This,” he said dismissively to Julie, “is all just common sense”. Quick as a flash she replied: “Yes, and you know the trouble with common sense don’t you? It’s not very common.”
That retort has always stayed with me. In so many ways running a professional services firm is an exercise in applied common sense. But it never ceases to surprise me how often it seems to be the case that common sense is in short supply. And yet we would all be better off were there to be more of it around.
And that, in short, is why I have started this blog.
Matters are, of course, not quite that straightforward. So in this first post I’d like to explain, in a little more detail, several of the reasons why I finally decided to go into print.
The first reason is to pass on some of my experiences.
By the time I decided to stand down as managing partner and move on to my next challenge, I’m told that I had become the longest serving managing partner of a large law firm in the UK. Seventeen years, to be precise. Five years as the managing partner of Booth & Co, six years as the managing partner of Addleshaw Booth & Co and six years as the managing partner of Addleshaw Goddard.
During that period I negotiated and executed two major successful mergers, acquired teams, twice reduced the size of our partnership, implemented redundancy programmes, used lateral hiring quite extensively to strengthen the firm, moved offices, opened and closed offices, rebranded and went through more iterations of strategic plans, business plans, budget methodology, partnership structures and profit sharing structures than I care to recall. I ran the firm through recessions and through booms. It all adds up to a vast pool of experiences. And one thing to which there are still no short cuts is the acquisition of experience.
But it is possible to share experiences. Throughout my management career I have always found that experiences have been an invaluable part of my learning and development, whether the experiences in question have been my own or those of others. So, whilst there is no “quick” way to gain experience, I hope that – through this blog – I can offer an ease of access to some of my experiences for the benefit of others.
The second reason is, frankly, promotional.
Whilst it is my desire that the content of this blog should be of practical value to the reader in its own right, I make no attempt to hide the fact that the blog is also overtly a form of “teaser”. By its very format (as to which more below) it only opens the door slightly on a range of issues and subjects. In a very short post I might cast some small light on one element of those issues or subjects, but the key to professional services firm management is in the doing, not the reading. What did I do? Why did I do it? What did I not do? What might you do?
Inherent in experience is that doing. I spent seventeen years doing. I got it right more often than not (one definition of success), but believe me I got it wrong on a number of occasions as well. Since I began my management consultancy practice in 2009 I have helped clients to learn from those experiences.
In this blog I will endeavour to address a range of issues that will be faced by those in management and leadership positions in professional services firms. I will always seek to be practical and to impart something in the post from my own experience. But there is so much more that can only be conveyed during discussion, consultation and the evolution of trusted relationships.
By the time you’ve explored this blog I hope that you will have formed a view on whether we can work together and whether my experiences might add value to your own situation. If the answer is affirmative, I look forward to working with you.
The third reason is grounded in practical reality.
This is the blog I would like to have read myself, over twenty years ago. And that is undoubtedly the over-riding reason why I have started it. There may be another blog like it somewhere, but if there is I have not seen it.
I am not an academic and this is emphatically not an academic series of posts. Rather, it is a practical series of short posts drawing on those experiences of mine, both over that period of seventeen years running professional services firms and in more recent years in advising a wide range of firms. On some subjects I could probably write the definitive manual on “how not to do it”! My hope is that the reader can learn from my experiences and my mistakes, made in practice and in real life. There is no theory in these posts, no philosophy. The content is all practical.
And it follows from that that the content of this blog is emphatically not profound. Because neither is much of our working life. I have, in my time, seen (and been part of) too many attempts to “over-engineer” or to “reinvent the wheel”. Much of the time, that which is simple and straightforward is also effective (and is simple and straightforward for a reason).
I will try to keep this blog both simple and straightforward. Practical. It will seek to deal in the application of common sense to the leadership and management of professional services firms. Because it is indeed my experience that common sense does not seem to be very common.
Two of my passions are photography and history. It is thus perhaps no surprise that, throughout my career, I have found visual images and quotations to be effective learning (or, perhaps more accurately, mental labelling) devices. I long ago lost count of the number of times that colleagues have remembered a visual image or a quotation that I have used and thus, as a result, have remembered the message that I was trying to communicate. Yet that same message, when delivered without the label, was often less well remembered. The human memory seems to me to work better when it has an appropriate “card index system” to act as a labelling and retrieval device. Quotations work in that way for me. They have worked in that way for many of my work colleagues and, in more recent years, clients. I hope that they can work in that way for the reader of this blog. All of the images on this website have a management consultancy story to tell.
I have already used my first quotation and anecdote in this blog. Each post will consist of a quotation (the label), an anecdote and a short summary of what I learned from the events described in the anecdote. All of the anecdotes are true. Some of the names have been changed.
And finally, who am I seeking to communicate with in starting this blog?
I would hope that the potential readership is wide. Certainly, I am not merely targeting senior partners or managing partners of professional services firms, be they new in the job or long in the tooth. Nor even would I limit the scope to the executive management teams in such firms. Rather, I would hope that there is something in here for every member of a professional services firm, from the senior partner to the most recently arrived junior in the post room. Because we are people businesses, and we can all learn from and give to each other. I certainly learned a huge amount from all corners of my own firm over the years. Maybe I can now give something back.
I hesitate to say that the target audience should not be limited just to professional services firms, if only because that is where I have spent my working life and, on one level, I wonder whether I can make a realistic claim to relevance in other environments. And yet all businesses are, of course, people businesses in that they are run by people. And life, and experience, does not have any inherent limitations in terms of application or relevance.
Having said all of that, I would very much doubt whether any reader will find that the entirety of this blog is of relevance to them. It does, after all, deal with applied common sense and, whilst there might not be enough of it around, I certainly make no claim to have a monopoly of it. Sometimes you might well find that what I write is what you have already thought for yourself. Equally, I would be keen to meet – not least to learn from them myself – anyone who finds that nothing at all in these posts rings any bells for them. Whether it be a few posts or the majority of the blog, though, I hope that each reader will find some relevant learning – and maybe even entertainment – somewhere. I will try to make it a light read, whilst at the same time dealing with serious issues. The world certainly does not need another dull blog! Please do dip in, hopefully learn and perhaps even laugh. The wisdom came from many sources. The errors were all my own.
And as starting this blog marks the start of the next phase of my career, do please get in touch if there is anything you’d like to discuss further having read the posts!