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.


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).


4 thoughts on “Juggling the Producer-Manager Roles

  1. Hello, Heidi … I read the latest piece quickly but had several top-o’-the-head thoughts I want to pass along while they’re in my head. There’s some really interesting information and research in your latest distribution but it seems to go in several directions at once: At one level, you’re writing about managing clients; at another point, you seem to “drift” into a range of EQ and psychological issues; then you go back into client collaboration. I wonder if there needs to be more of a differentiation or separation between the three prongs of this section? Also, if you’re going into the “where do I find the time?” discussion, would there be any value of writing about what affect this drain – if that’s what it is – has on members of a team, whether they’re inside the firm or at the client. After all, if the leader doesn’t know if s/he is on foot or on horseback due to overwork or being stretched in so many directions, it seems to me that this is bound to have a negative effect on those on a team or in a group. If I have any more thoughts following a more careful reading, I`ll be sure to pass them along.

    Regards, Jim James C. Bliwas Helping firms practice leaner law without dieting™ 416 560 1458

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    Date: Mon, 20 Jul 2015 15:14:04 +0000 To: james.bliwas@hotmail.com


  2. Thanks, Jim. You’re right – probably too much crammed in this single heading. I’ll look forward to any specific ideas you have about these areas, then will work on restructuring them into more discrete sections. So please do let me know if you have examples, ideas, best practices and I’ll take it from there.


  3. Hi Heidi,

    The issues you raise in this piece are significant, and are in my opinion one of the most significant in terms of holding “us” back from reaching the highest level of achievement in our management roles to the same extent many of us are use to experiencing in our technical roles. The key question I have as a reader of this section however is “I know and understand what you are telling me and what I have to do to fix it”….BUT how do I fix this? The points you have raised on how you manage this are all great but unless we can all find effective methodologies for holding ourselves to account how do we make these changes permanent?

    Unfortunately I don’t have an answer on this, but in my experience having a way of ‘marking & measuring’ your success in achieving these techniques is critical, and for myself, having those who mentor me, or those to whom I report to having a ‘broken record’ nagging role I tend to find it is easy to slip back into those old habits.

    Keep the good commentary coming.


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