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Passion, People and Principles

Is Managing Professionals Different?

post # 378 — May 18, 2007 — a Managing post

As a specialist (historically, at least) in managing professional service firms, I often get asked whether (and how) managing professionals or managing a professional firm is different from management “in general.”

(Sometimes the question is posed as how leadership of professionals differs from leadership in general.)

As time goes by, I’m increasingly coming to the belief that the differences are minor, if they exist at all. This is mostly because it’s a good idea to treat EVERYBODY as a professional.

This doesn’t always go over well. I was being considered to do some educational sessions for managers in a (super-successful) investment bank and was asked how what I would present would reflect the special nature of their people — highly intelligent, already successful, already energetic and motivated, etc.

I really stuck my foot in my mouth when I said that the key to managing ANYONE, even a secretary, was to treat them with respect, deal with them as individuals, assume that (until proven otherwise) they were intelligent and interested in excitedly pursuing a cause or vision of excellence that they could believe in, help them find the individual, personal challenge that would match their interests and passions, etc., etc.,

Apparently, I gave great offense, because the individual I was talking to replied: “What do you mean, it’s not different from managing a secretary? Our people are SPECIAL!!”

Now, I’m not so naïve as to realize that I could have phrased it better. (I often get into trouble for being blunt and refusing to play into people’s underlying assumptions. I’m a less diplomatic trusted advisor than I’d like to be.)

However, if you ignore my language skills and get to the underlying issue, there’s an important debate there. Just because someone’s a “professional” does that mean that they need to be managed in different ways, with different skills?

I’m not asking the moral question here, but the pragmatic, practical one. If you were put in charge of managing a group of “partners” (i.e. senior VPs, shareholders) would your approach to managing be different than it would be if you were in charge of a group of admin staff?

Phrase it another way: If you were going to put on a course on how to be a good manager, would you cover different material if you were training managers of senior professionals or managers of admin staff?


Lynette said:


I have experience managing both inside and outside the legal industry and I sometimes catch myself longing for the good old days. In general, I try to keep my management technique the same toward the different groups within the legal community. However, the difference lies in that the “professional” group expects to be treated/managed differently – it is definitely like herding cats every day. Managing legal professionals is more demanding because of their independent nature and in most cases, because they own the firm. Other employees, or non-owners, generally follow direction because they realize the consequences if they do not (except when they are protected by their timekeepers). There are few if any consequences for owners. So I must admit to managing professionals differently out of necessity.

I appreciate your wisdom and have referred to your books quite often. Keep up the great work!


posted on May 18, 2007

Liz Zitzow said:

I agree with Lynette.

1) You can tell a lower member of staff what to do, and s/he’ll do it. S/he doesn’t need an explanation; the very fact that you want it done is a good enough reason to do it. A professional is likely to ask “Why?”

2) If the lower member of staff doesn’t do it, then as interchangeable cogs, they have more to risk by not obeying – they might lose their job. The professional has unique knowledge that departs when s/he departs. This is a lever they apply to get corner offices, the pick of assignments; even cushy work/life balance hours if they choose. The better they are at what they do (the more unique knowledge they possess), the bigger the lever.

A lever story: I used to go to work (in the punk rock ’80s) in my black jeans, anarchy T-shirt, and dreadlocks. At a tax prep place. I was also the top sales person four years in a row and knew a lot more about tax than most of the other folks working there. One senior VP told my immediate supervisor, “You’ve got to get her to cut her hair.” My immediate supervisor said, “I’m not gonna tell her. You tell her.” No one ever dared to asked me to cut my dreads, presumably for fear that I’d walk out the door.

posted on May 18, 2007

Susan Martin said:

I too believe that you have to treat everyone as a professional and an individual.

I’ve encountered many professionals who needed lots of direction and motivation, as well as many administrative people who have needed little.

It’s so individual, that if you make assumptions, you’ll probably make mistakes, and thus create an environment that doesn’t support successful management.

posted on May 18, 2007

Erik Mazzone said:

Great question, David. I would not structure a management course differently for professionals than non-professionals.

I agree with Lynette that it is more difficult to manage lawyers than staff-level employees. I have experience managing professionals and non-professionals in a law firm setting. I always tried very hard to manage both groups in the same way. I’m quite sure I often failed in my attempt to treat both groups the equally, but I tried, all the same.

While I agree with Liz that it is easier to manage staff assertively, it doesn’t make it right (IMO) to do it. Basing management techniques used on how easily you can replace someone seems more like bullying than management to me. Not to mention with legal and other professional jobs being off-shored at an increasing rate, the designation of which types of position are fungible is changing rapidly.

posted on May 18, 2007

Amit said:

I see a few differences that may make a difference to management styles.

a) The ability to “get-it” is likely to be higher. You can make happier assumptions. You do not need to get into ridiculous detail. They’re probably better off walking within a loose structure.

b) Their egos can be very powerful motivators – but also prevent them from accepting failure. That changes the way you monitor, motivate and support.

c) Some of them trust their intellect enough to take higher risks (and abhor control systems at the same time). I’d say your risk sensing mechanisms need to be be well developed.

posted on May 18, 2007

Geoff said:


I’m inclined to answer “no” to both questions. Before addressing them from the consultant’s perspective, I’d like to turn the tables and relate what the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of my jurisdiction, who had been a highly successful lawyer, told me.

A poll in a national lawyers’ magazine ranked him as the best judge in our country and I requested a meeting with him, to which he agreed. I asked why he thought he so successful. He replied that no was more surprised at his career path than he was. He went on to say that:

1. He assumed every client had troubles needing a fast and correct settlement.

2. He worked as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.

3. He charged a reasonable price especially by not taking any unfair advantage of his client’s circumstances. For example, despite the contempt of some of his competitors when they learned of it, he didn’t bill government higher fees because he supported the political party in power and they paid him in taxpayers’ dollars.

That advice is a recipe for anyone’s success, regardless of their professional credentials and kind of organization. My meeting with him reinforced my longstanding desire to treat all clients as professionals and to treat everyone with whom I come in contact as as the most important person on earth.

posted on May 18, 2007

Simon said:

I would agree with the thrust of the comments so far with regards to the substance of the management training material, but in my experience, in order to be more effective, one needs to make a substantive shift in the style of delivery for this audience.

Broad brushing the audience characteristics as highly intelligent, often arrogant, quick to (assume they) grasp the point, already enjoying significant wealth / status / respect, uncritical of selves with respect to past failures, innovation averse (but fast followers of the market leader), prizing autonomy and the absence of strong group rules, robust self image, generally fearful with respect to the future, usually very good at spotting flaws and inconsistencies at a detail level, like to test an idea with hypotheticals ab destructio, et cetera.

This gives a few critical success factors when dealing with this audience – I have discovered a few, mostly by luck and past error and I am always keen to pick up a few more. Here are mine:

  • Let them tell their favourite success stories about themselves.
  • Include footnotes and references that I would normally omit.
  • Allow a BlackBerry break – and do a “refocuser” exercise afterwards.
  • Position carefully the use of role play / simulations – many of this group will assume that as soon as they have heard something they can do it.
  • Be very careful in selecting case studies – as the group can discredit a good practice benchmarked from X Co, based on something else a different division of X Co did after the study. By way of example Andersens did some great things – but I can’t use them anymore.
  • Leave plenty of room in the dialogue for participants to make their own minds up about what will work for them – with a strong back line of “well you could just try it for a month…”
  • Identify the opinion leader in the room and work to get him (usually him I’m afraid) on side first.
  • Beware of siding with the participant who is already switched on to this material too early. They may well have already had input into their colleagues which has been at least in part unsuccessful – and you want to come from a fresh, neutral, perspective.

Of course I would also heartily add the arguments found in “Why training is (mostly) useless”.

Hope this helps – I’d love to hear more on the technique side of dealing with highly successful professionals if we get to a cnsensus that that substantive side is pretty generic.

posted on May 20, 2007

Jennifer said:

I don’t think that this is just about professionals vs non professionals, it also goes to the motivation about why peope work. I’ve found that going from a professional services firm to managing a group of professionals in house, there is real difference in ambition.

And that does mean you manage people differently. The less ambitious people aren’t necessarily less talented, but they have different views of where they are going with their lives, and will be motivated less by the idea of learning and growing, and more by enjoying their work, and having pride in a job well done. In your words, I think that there are groups of people who are less likely to be “interested in excitedly pursuing a cause or vision of excellence that they could believe in”, at least as part of their work.

Maybe I just don’t have the magic motivational touch, but I do think there is a difference, and I don’t think it’s about whether you are a professional or not, but about the choices that people make about their lives also.

posted on May 20, 2007

raven said:

In my opinion, “Why is managing non-professionals different?” would’ve been a better post, better thought process and would’ve better reflected the industry practices of today.

Most of your suggestions on managing ‘All’ employees – “treat them with respect, deal with them as individuals, assume that (until proven otherwise) they were intelligent and interested in excitedly pursuing a cause or vision of excellence that they could believe in, help them find the individual, personal challenge that would match their interests and passions, etc.” – are actually being used today … to manage professionals.

My guess is that the industry knows how to manage valuable employees, and they also realise that these employees (valuable employees / professionals) have to be made to feel special. However no one knows what special to create above all that you stated above. So they treat professionals with all these traits and downgrade the non-professionals/relatively unimportant employees – the secretaries – to a lower level of work treatment, thus ensuring that those who’re special, get special handling.

posted on May 22, 2007

barrywilkinson@wilkinsonread.co.uk said:

I do partner workshops for mid-size UK law firms.

One of our regular subject areas covers “people performance” and I pose the question “Do professionals need managing, or can we assume they are highly motivated and self sufficient?”

Often the “herding cats ” view is to the fore – but I was surprised recently by a very emphatic feedback from one group “ESPECIALLY PROFESSIONALS NEED MANAGING!!!”.

This firm has the highest growth rate in its region, and is much respected by its competitors.

Is this coincidence?

posted on May 30, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Barry – the answer to your question is “No – no coincidence!”

posted on May 30, 2007

Laura Ricci said:


My experience has been that the BEST professionals accept and relish being managed as carefully as the adminstrative staff.

The also-rans look for ego-stroking at work, and require SPECIAL treatment.

My question is, “Do you want to be gratified by genuinely being the best, or do you want to get your gratification by genuflection?”

I agree with your post. Keep going.

posted on June 3, 2007