Research

Who's in charge? Exploring leadership dynamics in professional service firms

This research represents a ground-breaking, in-depth study into leadership dynamics in professional service firms. It aims to:

  • Identify who the leaders of professional service firms really are
  • Examine how they exert influence over their peers
  • Analyse how they enact and resolve complex internal power dynamics

This initial report for practitioners presents emerging themes from the research - data collection and analysis are continuing.

Chapter 2, Conceptualising leadership in professional service firms, presents a new way of thinking about leadership in this context. It outlines the distinctive challenges of leading professionals, highlights the paucity of research in this area, and presents a framework for conceptualising leadership in professional service firms: the Leadership Constellation.

Chapter 3, Research study, presents a brief overview of the firms studied and describes how the research was conducted.

Chapter 4, Ambiguous authority and hidden hierarchy, explains how leaders of a professional service firm have been able to act decisively to restructure their partnership, in spite of lacking the formal authority to do so. In the process, a hidden hierarchy is revealed within the highly ambiguous authority structure.

Chapter 5, When everyone and no one is a leader, identifies how members of a professional service firm have developed strong social control mechanisms which enable them to act as if everyone is a leader, and to enjoy high levels of personal autonomy. But when faced with a cost-cutting crisis, the Chairman emerges as clearly 'in charge'.

Chapter 6, Leadership meltdown, explains how the distractions of integrating a series of international mergers put severe strain on leadership dynamics within a professional service firm. The Chairman and the CEO find their positions undermined by powerful practice heads. The Chairmanship election exacerbates but ultimately also resolves the leadership crisis.

Chapter 7, Leading without appearing to do so, shows how management professionals (e.g. CFO accountants) can become highly influential within the leadership of professional service firms, whilst remaining outside the partnership.

The concluding chapter, Emerging themes, focuses on three core themes emerging from the ongoing study:

Power in Ambiguity - How ambiguous authority can be a source of power for those with the interpersonal and political skills to understand and exploit it.

Significance of Social Embeddedness - How the trust that develops among professionals can both help and hinder effective leadership dynamics - and how social control systems can 'manufacture' trust in the absence of social embeddedness.

Prevalence of Politics - How politics and political action are rife in professional service firms, though leaders need to maintain the illusion that they are apolitical - which is in itself the act of a highly skilled politician.

In conclusion the report identifies what makes an effective leader in a professional service firm and poses some questions to consider about leadership in your firm.

The report is available to download from the link below. If you would like to discuss the report, please contact Laura Empson. Laura discusses the research in a recent edition of Cass Talks.

This research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain.

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