Intangible Benefits of Collaboration – for Highly Experienced Partners

In a number of articles* we’ve explored some of the financial benefits of collaboration for individual professionals.  But in one chapter of the book, I want to recognize that highly experienced partners are likely get a number of additional benefits.  These professionals have gotten past the nerve-wracking stage when they were unsure whether collaboration would ultimately pay out.  Now that they’re reaping the return on their investment, they can focus on some of the emotional and other less tangible rewards that come from collaborating. Clearly, money is important for its purchasing power and as a status indicator.  But most professionals conform to models of normal adult development: the older and richer they get, the more likely they are to seek meaning.  And that’s where collaboration helps, too.

So far my research has uncovered these intangible benefits that highly experienced rainmakers are likely to get when they collaborate with their colleagues to serve clients.  What am I missing?

  1. Intrinsic motivation of complex work: Most professionals crave intellectual challenge; it’s part of the reason they spent years in graduate school training for a knowledge-based career. Collaborating across disciplinary boundaries allows them to move up the food chain in their clients, advising people whose challenges are increasingly complex and interesting.    As one partner said, “If I’m doing work just in my specialty, then I’m almost certainly talking to clients with a narrow scope and more limited responsibility.  Once I move into more sophisticated work, I move up toward the c-suite, and that’s when conversations get interesting.”
  2. Power dynamics: When a CEO is in crisis and he picks up the phone to seek your advice, it’s a heady experience.  Whether it’s advising the world’s business elite, winning a huge grant as the Principal Investigator in a research lab, or directing hundreds of professionals in a worldwide account team — all are sources of heightened power and prestige, and they are likely the result of a collaborative effort.
  3. Legacy: As the Chair of one major firm told me, “Some lawyers are more partner-like than others.  Just as entrepreneurs want to leave a solid business behind for their children, these partners are motivated to pass on a strong client relationship to the next generation.”  Research has found that building a legacy – that is, leveraging your achievements and values to help others succeed after you’re gone – is a prime source of enduring happiness.  By helping to institutionalize the client relationship across multiple partners, experienced rainmakers build their legacy.

* For example: https://hbr.org/2015/03/when-senior-managers-wont-collaborate

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu. And please check out prior topics in the Archive section.

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Juggling the Producer-Manager Roles

We’ve long known about the Producer-Manager Dilemma (PMD)– the challenge of leading other professionals while continuing to generate and execute work. But the problem is truly exacerbated for experienced rainmakers because the burden of both of those roles is higher, including significant leadership responsibilities and heightened administrative burdens associated with their account team(s).  For example, one law firm’s lead client partners report spending up to 700 hours per year on non-billable client development work. That figure only counted the “officially recorded” time, whereas interviews with those partners suggested their actual hours were significantly higher when considering time spent internally seeking and convincing new experts to join the team, briefing them, and so on.   [note: I drafted this material for the chapter on Collaboration for Experienced Rainmakers, which is why it’s aimed at that audience in particular; comments welcome from all Board of Contributor members regardless of your role!]

Which responsibilities tend to suffer most when the PMD hits hardest?  Almost inevitably, the leadership ones that are essential for developing and sustaining effective collaboration such as developing an innovative account strategy and communicating frequently across a wide-ranging client service team.  As one partner explained, “My biggest gap right now is finding time to develop a strategic plan about how I take my client to the next level, and how we deliver the full force of firm in ways that make sense.  I need to be more organized and planned.  But when do I find the time?  In the middle of the night??”

Experienced rainmakers can take some fundamental steps to stay focused on the most productive client and team priorities. Here are some of the approaches you can try, categorized into actions to take for better managing your client, your team, and yourself:

Manage your clients:  The core idea here is that stronger, more transparent client relationships will allow you to prioritize better and focus on areas that are truly highest value.

  1. Agree and manage task expectations: First, invest enough time to make sure you and your client both understand the remit. Setting explicit objectives can save enormous time and re-work later, and documenting them gives you an easy way to onboard newcomers to the team.  Keep the client informed at all times about the team’s progress, with both with good news and bad.  One seasoned partner says that many of his responses to client emails are simply two words: “On it.”  Even this super brief response tells clients that he received the instruction, and they know he’ll follow up when he has a question or can provide more details about progress.  Document progress so that the client feels empowered and in control.  Be upfront when problems arise; the earlier you can say, “We’ve spotted an issue but know how to resolve it,” the more the clients will trust you.  Finally, be honest from the get-go about your firm’s team’s capabilities; it’s far better to turn down work than erode trust.  Although it feels like pure “management,” effective goal-setting will surely enhance your production.
  2. Know the individual client’s priorities, preferences and fears. Clients expect you to be sensitive to how they like things done, especially their communication tendencies (Do they favor short, frequent email updates or more comprehensive memos? Do they ever listen to voicemail? Do they hate to be interrupted during their kids’ bedtime routine, but always tune in again at 9pm?).  Most seasoned rainmakers say they know all of this about their key clients, but the client executives I interview often complain about a mismatch.  At a deeper level, do you know what your key client’s professional ambition is, and what it would take for her to achieve it? When you focus what the client truly wants, you can make sure your own agenda is truly value-add and not self-aggrandizing.  Partners often justify their focus on client-facing activities at the expense of internal leadership ones by saying, “The client expects to see me.”  This is certainly true in some circumstances, but not all.  Or if you’re the only one the client will see, then you’ve probably failed either to introduce the right people into the account or to help the client see their value.  Focusing on who and what matters to the client will free up time and help mitigate the PDM tensions.
  3. Involve the client to co-create solutions: Decades of psychological and organizational research show that people are more committed to ideas and solutions when they’ve been involved in their development. Surprisingly, people who receive bad outcomes but believe the process was fair may end up more satisfied with the event that their colleagues who got favorable outcomes from an unfair process.  Clearly, this doesn’t give you license to give clients mediocre outcomes, but it does suggest that on the rare instance that your work is not truly stellar, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt if they’ve helped to co-create the path.  This principle means that you need to involve the client in all critical decision making, giving them real options and not just conclusions you already developed. Even if your team is tasked with developing a solution on its own, keep the client closely informed, create opportunities for them to ask questions, and provide reassurance about their fears and insecurities.  By getting the client “on side,” co-creation may also relieve some of the “us-versus-them” mentality that creates stress; you’re more likely to make sound producer-manager decisions when facing lower pressure.

Manage your teamYou can create more time for your own highest-value activities if you invest in properly equipping and leading your account team.

  • Super-charge the team through delegation.  The most motivated, engaged and productive teams are ones where members strongly agree with this statement: “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”  Seek an optimal match between a professional’s capabilities and their task so that they are challenged but not overwhelmed.  Off-loading some important work to a more junior colleague may feel risky – and it will be, if you fail to monitor and coach that person appropriately –but delegation of this sort is powerful because it not only frees up your time but also motivates the team to perform better.  Plus you will increase a junior’s skills so that they can increasingly serve as your back-up, and you’ll gain their loyalty, too.
  • Hold frequent check-ins with team members to spot issues and course-correct early. Deloitte recently launched an overhaul of their performance management system, which calls for team leaders to check in with members weekly.  They report, “We’ve learned that the best way to ensure frequency is to have check-ins be initiated by the team member—who more often than not is eager for the guidance and attention they provide—rather than by the team leader. ” Further, you might first imagine that only juniors would crave these conversations whereas partners would see them as meddling, right?

My research suggests, however, that partners will welcome a three-minute phone call with the account team leader that focuses on two issues: (1) updates about the client situation or other parts of the team that affect their deliverable, (2) the chance to ask clarifying questions that will save time.  In many firms, however, people are not used to asking for input, perhaps because they believe the firm’s “entrepreneurial” culture expects them to exhibit supreme independence; your job as a leader is to carve out time to check in with people and expose your willingness to provide non-judgmental help until those behaviors become routine in your team.   Your time invested in short, frequent check-ins will allow you to be a more effective producer.

  • Empower the team to use each other – and all the firm’s resources. If asked to draw a diagram of your team’s communication patterns, what would it look like?  Many account leaders simply sketch a classic “organization chart” with boxes and arrows cascading downward from them.  Others’ drawing resembles a wagon wheel, with them as the center hub and team members as spokes.  The most effective ones will be a network diagram:  the lines connect not only to the center, but also to each other, usually in some sort of clusters – signaling that team members seek and provide help amongst themselves, freeing up the leader (you!) to focus on strategic issues and the highest-value communication.

Also make sure the team is aware of external resources and comfortable using them.  For example, many firms have under-utilized communication specialists who could be a great sounding board when associates are writing the first draft of a client presentation.  And industry experts whose input would cut hours off a research project.  And many others.  To get the most out of your team, you need to role model these behaviors.  Too many rainmakers treat professional support staff like second-class citizens, making it unlikely that their team will respect and draw on those people.  The more you help your team effectively use resources, the more time you gain to focus on high-value strategic leadership, which will translate into greater production.

Manage yourself

  • Set an agenda that reflects your critical business objectives on both the client- and team-building fronts. Use a trusted colleague or mentor to help you sense-check your priorities; the best ones will help you uncover your blind spots. Decide what actions absolutely must get done in order to accomplish your objectives.  Then prioritize your own actions ruthlessly and realistically.  Delegate where possible, especially the things that are good “stretch opportunities” for your team (Are you sensing a theme here?  Do you do it well?).
    • Stick to your agenda. It’s natural for the best intentioned plan to slip, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed.  Two tactics can really help. First, keep a written plan, ideally with the main priorities chunked into visual blocks for easy recognition.  Review this plan each morning and re-commit to critical ones.  Second, tackle the most important (not necessarily most urgent) jobs when you are fresh, before distractions hit.  Ideally, turn off your email and other devices while you’re focused on concentration-hungry tasks.  For example, when I’m working on this book, I set my email with an automatic reply that says, “I have email turned off this morning to focus on writing my book manuscript.  Pease excuse the delay in my response until I check email [at a certain time]. In case of an emergency, please call me on ….” If you warn senders not to expect an instant reply, you can buy yourself some time – especially because some issues get miraculously resolved while you’re offline.  Having your phone number on your automatic response signals that you’re willing to be responsive, but this way people need to think twice about whether their request truly needs immediate attention.
    • Don’t confuse admin with producing. Those of us who cherish the act of crossing an item off a to-do list must be especially vigilant about devoting time to tasks that feel like an accomplishment but are merely easily-quantifiable gains.
  • Mentally reframe activities. for those tasks that feel like a drag on your ability to produce, reconsider how they actually enhance your business-development potential. For example, the senior associate you coach today may well unearth use those skills to identify a sales opportunity.  At Deloitte, they stress the inter-linkage between performance management activities and a manager’s core job:  “Our design calls for every team leader to check in with each team member once a week. For us, these check-ins are not in addition to the work of a team leader; they are the work of a team leader.” (see https://hbr.org/2015/04/reinventing-performance-management)
  • Build a support network of people who know your goals and will give you the tough messages when you’re going off track.   The best network will include people at all ranks – superiors, peers and subordinates – because each group will have unique insights about how you’re spending your time.  Be proactive in seeking their inputs at least once per quarter; put a recurring appointment on your calendar to reach out to them.  Make sure you don’t shoot the messenger when they do point out your slippages.  And be prepared to add value to them, too.
  • Stay fueled. When you’re tired, hungry or dehydrated it’s much easier to make the wrong decisions.  Your brain burns up to a third of all calories you take in; how do you expect to avoid brain-fog if you skip meals or eat junk?   Brain scans show how much your grey matter switches off when dehydrated (like after a trans-Atlantic flight), so small steps like drinking lots of water are actually indispensable ways to tackle PMD challenges. And you should consider sleep not a luxury but rather an essential success ingredient because mental agility, focus, clarity, creativity and memory all improve with proper rest (and suffer without it). Peak mental performance is essential for getting your producer responsibilities done superbly and efficiently, freeing up more time for essential leadership activities.

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What are your best practices in handling the Producer-Manager Dilemma? Any tools, resources, or tactics you’d recommend, or someone you’ve seen handle it brilliantly?  Is any of the advice above off-base in your arena? If some of it is too context-specific, what nuances should I consider? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right (or scroll down).

Developing a high-functioning account leadership team

For some account teams, rallying a set of committed, accountable members may be the easy part, whereas coordinating amongst the team leaders themselves is the real challenge. The late Professor J. Richard Hackman, former Chair of Harvard University’s social psychology department, and Dr. Ruth Wageman, also a prolific scholar of teamwork, have conducted extensive studies of executive teams in both corporate and non-profit organizations.  Their work identified some characteristics, which are equally applicable to leadership teams for key accounts, that explain some of the difficulties these teams face:

“For all members of such teams, the team role is the second—and lower-priority—job. Typically ill-composed, these teams suffer from amorphous purposes that result in a default task strategy of mere information-sharing. Interpersonal dynamics within the team often reflect the tendency of members to seek greater status and recognition, as well as to personally lead rather than to share leadership. These motives, moreover, are reinforced by reward systems that measure and celebrate individual leadership accomplishments.”

These dynamics are probably exacerbated in professional service firms, where partners are often expected to treat each other as pure equals, such that even the “leader” title doesn’t really give anyone the belief in his right to clearly direct his peers.  Fortunately, some clear steps can help overcome these inefficiencies:

  • Create a clearly bounded group with an explicit, shared purpose. Start by defining what the leadership team needs to accomplish, which is more than the sum of individual contributions. For example, the leaders collectively might decide to target a certain level of revenue or profitability growth or aim for new types of work that require cross-practice efforts.  Because pursuit of these objectives probably requires trade-offs of time, attention and resources from both the professional providers and the client, such decisions belong to the leadership team.  Once it’s clear what goals the team aims for, then determine which of the possible candidates have both the capabilities and the desire to contribute to the leadership team.  Too often, account team leaders are designated by default: the rainmakers with the biggest books.  But the best leadership teams are deliberately designed to include members with both aptitude and appetite; each is necessary but not sufficient.  Defining who has a formal leadership role on an account team – and who doesn’t – can be emotionally and politically charged. The firm leaders should make it clear that account team leadership is earned not only by producing, but also by exhibiting the right leadership behaviors and dedicating sufficient energy to leading.  High-producers who are not on the formal leadership team may be secretly relieved to have fewer administrative burdens, but their ego will need to be managed so that they still feel like valued contributors in other ways.
  • Agree a set of clear roles and responsibilities. Because the way you divide responsibilities directly effects your client interactions, your choices might well be constrained or in influenced by client preferences. For example, some clients demand a regional and practice group client team structure that mirrors their own team, such as a local account leader in each main market. In contrast, other clients are prescriptive only on outcomes – as in, “Make sure we’re fully informed and always know who’s accountable for what.”  When clients insist on a single point of accountability, otherwise known as the “one throat to choke” model, then the account leadership team needs to reflect this structure.
  • Many professionals avoid a candid discussion of responsibilities, either because they don’t see the value or because they are sensitive about stepping on a peer’s autonomy.  But both concerns are misguided: without role clarity, the leadership team is likely to have higher rework and more dropped balls, and making assumptions about another’s duties and accountability is less, not more, respectful of them as a professional.
  • Finally, make sure that each leadership team member understands that his or her role is both to guide the whole account and to lead the lead efforts from the sub-teams – for example, their region or department.  Just as a main task for your client’s CEO is keeping each divisional or functional leader focused on delivering their own constituency’s number and  on the success of the whole organization, your job as a member of the account leadership team is to help each member see both their collective and narrower ones.  Research shows that members who perceive their roles in this fashion are considerably more likely in decision-making processes to develop shared criteria for a decisions that maximize collective outcomes, and they are more willing to make choices that trade off local for enterprise-wide benefits.
  • Articulate explicit, shared team standards and ways of working that minimize politics. Transparent communication between team leaders is essential.  Each member has a role to play in helping the team to feel as if even the toughest, most awkward situations are discussable. Oftentimes, the items that need to be considered are those that create tensions between an individual leader’s “own” constituency and those of the broad team. For example, Alejandro, Stephanie and Peter were co-leaders of a major client team at a regional accounting firm in the US.  They’d followed the first two principles closely, and were well-equipped with an agreed strategy to grow their team’s profits by 15% in a year and a clear understanding of how each of them would contribute in their own departments of audit, tax, and risk advisory.  Despite early progress toward their target, both Stephanie and Peter grew worried that Alejandro was using his time with the client’s Board ineffectively by focusing too narrowly on audit results. They thought he could instead be using his influence to cement their firm’s reputation for more strategic advisory work, and they were frustrated that he hadn’t opened up more c-suite doors for their groups.  Their own department heads were expecting them to demonstrate the ability to penetrate more senior levels at clients, and this should have been a great opportunity.  As their frustrations started to boil over, both leaders opted out of more and more team phone calls rather than address the issues directly; because of Alejandro’s seniority in their firm, both Stephanie and Peter feared risking a confrontation with him. An external facilitator helped the team identify underlying dynamics and hold a non-threatening conversation about them.  It turns out that Alejandro was equally frustrated with the situation, feeling as if his co-leaders were failing to take enough initiative in the account.  The team developed clear guidelines for how to bring up those sorts of issues going forward, with a clear spot on the agenda reserved for the topic, “How does this new initiative affect your group and your personal priorities?” This example is consistent with research on top management teams in major companies, which has found that outstanding teams are significantly more likely to place members’ individual concerns on the table and to engage in open discussions about the trade-offs and synergies between members’ different sets of responsibilities such as their own department versus the account team as a whole.
  • Coach each other. Create the expectation –not just a tolerance –for active, constructive, timely feedback among account team leaders.  As a team member, you can start this process by requesting critiques from your peers on specific events, such as a pitch meeting you all attended.  Ask for a concrete suggestion, such as “What was the one thing you saw me do that was most effective, and tell me one way that I could do better next time.”  It’s best to warn people that you’re going to  ask them, so that during the meeting they can devote at least a small portion of their attention to the topic.
  • Line up support for the leadership team.  Together the co-leaders should identify the main areas where they could use additional help, and then think broadly about where to source it.   One of the ironies of many professional service firms is that that they exemplify what economists would call a “market that fails to clear.”  That is, there exists both excess demand (overburdened leaders who need help juggling numerous responsibilities) and excess supply (professionals who want greater responsibility so that they can grow and demonstrate skills).  Delegating work to up-and-coming professionals is clearly an important piece of the puzzle, and account team leaders should actively manage the pipeline of future leaders to ensure that they are each optimally challenged.  This step requires frequent, albeit often brief, conversations among leaders to ensure that they are not over-burdening any given associate and are spreading the work effectively.  But co-leaders should also consider how they can tap into business support professionals or other typically back-office staff in addition to client-facing professionals.

What other actions do you take to make your account leadership team high-functioning?  Have you tried any of the tactics above and found them to be off base?  Are there certain situations (or kinds of people) for whom another approach would work better? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

Reference: Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A. , Burruss, J. A., & Hackman, J. R. (2008). Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.