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Passion, People and Principles

Dry Cleaning and Grocery Shopping

post # 51 — April 17, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

In my April 14 post, I argued for the efficiency of providing lower-cost people to help higher-paid people stay fully productive. Among other good comments, Josh asked me the following –

David, can this concept be taken too far? Is it appropriate to use administrative staff, or relatively low-paid resources to free up a partner’s time to the fullest extent? I know an accounting firm that encourages Senior Accountants and Partners to delegate anything and everything to the firm’s admin staff, including non-business related tasks (picking up out-of-town guests at the airport, dry-cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.). Their concept is that time saved will result in more billable hours OR a happier professional. What’s your take on this?

Josh – first of all, everything can be taken too far. Second, I do think it is a good idea for firms to provide ‘concierge’ services to busy professionals, as long as the same principles of wise delegation are applied at all levels. I would not want a trained administrative assistant – who can add a lot more value through administrative skills – being used to do grocery shopping.

The principles I argue for imply providing appropriate support all levels, not just the ‘elite’ professionals or the senior people. Special privileges for the bosses creates a very dysfunctional class system. (I’m from England – I know all about that.) But an organized, comprehensive program makes all the sense in the world to me.

Of course, the whole theory of providing good support rests on the assumption that people will use the time that is freed up to their highest and best use – and this may not always be the case.

First, people often use the ‘freed-up’ time inappropriately. More current billings may not be the missing element in the business mix. I frequently ask people why they are not executing and implementing their own plans for strategy, marketing, people development, self-development or a whole host of things. The answer comes back as a chorus – ‘Too busy!”

‘Too busy doing what?’ I ask?

It turns out that people are too busy overinvesting in making today look good (this month’s billable hours) an underinvesting in building a better tomorrow (their own ‘get better’ strategies.)

If they had more free time, they should use it BUILDING their business – finding the time to do the things they know they should be doing for the health of their careers and business and are not doing.

If more admin staff just results in more ‘billable hours’ it can be simultaneously both a benefit AND a lost opportunity.

Finally, you hint, Josh, at another very important perspective – does having more support to take care of admin or concierge needs result in HAPPIER people?

Well, fewer frustrations with admin and concierge tasks can eliminate sources of frustration (ie get rid of dis-satisfiers) and that’s no bad first step. However, they taught me in business school about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which argued that the absence of dis-satisfaction does not mean satisfaction.

Firms that think they will have HAPPIER people through these programs are fooling themselves. In fact, they can (and do) backfire if the people think that, rather than being supportive, the firm is just trying to extract the last ounce of effort from them. Many people need the break provided by walking to the dry-cleaning store, just to clear their head and can return to their work tasks a lot more focused as a result of taking a break (I’m one of those people.)

This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have support services available to me, it just means that the hope that you can eliminate ALL my down time and keep me fully operative all day long is…well, it’s nonsense. You can make me more productive, but not through support alone.

This last point allows me to stress a point where my own work has been misinterpreted and misapplied. In PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH, I was able to show statistically that firms that can energize, excite and enthuse their people make the highest profits.

However, there’s a world of difference between being energized, excited and enthused and having a ‘nice’ work environment with support services, concierge services, crèches, maternal and paternal leave policies, etc. These help make people ‘happy’ but ‘happy’ isn’t the goal – turned on is. And that requires meaningful work, challenge, a purpose, skilled managers and like-minded colleagues – none of which are provided but concierge services alone.

Yes, give me support – even for picking up dry cleaning – but it will all be a waste of time if you don’t also help me find the meaning and magic in what you want me to do with the time that has been saved.


DUST!N said:

Great observations and suggestions David. This article reminds me of a post by Douglas Rushkoff concerning a plumbing company that hired “Fun University” to add fun to their office. They implemented games like silly-string fights and goofy contests that had no relation to the business. Rushkoff mentioned these were extrinsic rewards because there apparently were no intrinsic rewards in the workplace.



“Compensation” becomes precisely that: compensation for doing something you don’t want to be doing.

posted on April 17, 2006

Rita Keller said:

David – This discussion is so valid and important in CPA firms. I find that in many local and regional firms, partners cling to manager work, managers cling to senior work and the seniors and below, some of our brightest, freshest people get a sense that there is “no where to go.”

In accounting firms, young people gain their best experience by working on engagements that stretch and challenge them. If all this work is absorbed at the higher levels, so that they can make their billable hour budget, nothing ever changes.

Accounting firms also face the “admin ratio” battle. There has always been a “rule of thumb” for admin to accounting professionals. In recent years, mostly because of technology, that ratio has changed. Successful growing firms need more technology support people, marketing directors, marketing coordinations, practice development directors, HR directors, CFOs and so on. All these people are classified as “support” and some firm leaders have difficulty grasping that their world has changed.

posted on April 18, 2006

Hugo Matislaw said:

I find the best support comes from service-oriented professionals who know that their customer’s time is precious. For instance, my dry cleaners in Los Angeles is extremely efficient. When I find a good service, I stick with it and in the long-run I am saving time and money.

posted on May 30, 2006

Alex bell said:

Great Article and suggestions and tips David.I am looking forward to continue the conversation and keep enlarging my circle of friends.


Alex Bell

posted on October 3, 2007