David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Stress at the Top

post # 72 — May 10, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an old friend and client who works at an international accounting firm, and who has been charged with providing “Human Resource support” not to the employees, but to the top level of the organization – the partners or senior professionals.

This is a healthy initiative. As he points out, there may be a lot of talk about the need for good management of lower-level employees, but the life of senior professionals in most sectors has been revolutionized. The world’s gone crazy around them – increasing client demands, new technologies, the need for greater concern about how junior people inside the organization are managed. Some sectors like accounting also have a new regulatory environment to contend with.

This reminds me of a speech I gave a while ago, where I was asked to talk about improving the morale of junior people in order to prevent increasingly high levels of staff turnover amid the war for talent. Early in my presentation, a partner in the audience raised his hand and said “Forget about discussing THEIR morale as employees – what about discussing OUR morale as partners?”

He had an excellent point. The traditional model of the professional business was to say to the juniors “Work hard and, one day, you too can have the life of the partners.” Needless to say, if the juniors look at the partners’ lives and don’t like what they see, this is less than fully motivating, and they are not going to hang around for very long!

The efforts that my friend’s firm are making to help their senior professionals succeed and manage the new stressful world can be divided into two groups.

First, there are what I call “off-line” support ideas. These include sabbaticals, leadership development processes and an interesting and innovative “comprehensive medical and lifestyle evaluation” service to help senior professionals find and deal with health issues before they are serious or even symptomatic. Apparently, they find solvable undiagnosed issues in 20% of the evaluations.

The second set of ideas for reducing partner stress is to go back to basics and start managing senior professionals differently through different approaches for normal “on-line” regular, managing. (In other words, start managing them instead of just administering a profit-and-loss scorecard)

This involves getting practice leaders, department heads, and office heads to engage more in one-or-one coaching, helping senior people to find out what activities turn them on, then helping them get rid of activities that do not and get more of the activities that do. Companies and firms have to start HELPING people succeed, not just demanding that they do.

It also means re-examining the way the firm uses metrics so they don’t (as is traditional in firms like these) keep holding all senior people accountable for being good at everything, but are able to create super-successful teams by allowing individuals to pursue their interests and make a contribution in a specialized role that, through team management, is integrated into the overall needs of the organization through effective team leadership.

Needless to say, firms find it a lot easier to throw money and time at the “off-line” support initiatives than they do at holding accountable those with managerial responsibility to start being effective at managing. But the effectiveness would come with precisely the reverse priority.

If the CEO or Managing Partner started asking the office heads regularly “What’s Jimmy doing to develop his career? What are his challenges and problems? What have you done as office head to help him?” then the office heads would start getting the message that a new regime really existed, and that they probably would have to start changing THEIR behavior if they wanted to keep their role as practice managers and leaders.

Done this way, things would change fast. However, without this change in managerial behavior (not just speeches) from the top, I have deep a skepticism that change can be brought about through off-line support initiatives.

If management wants other people to change, then management needs to figure out how they personally need to change in order to elicit the new desired behaviors from others. Change only happens if the people at the top change. We keep asking too much of those in support roles – they cannot patch over bad practices by line management.


Jol Hunter said:

Thanks for the note, David. I agree with your comments. 3 thoughts….1-In our discussion you also identified the challenge of aligning compensation with partners highest and best use. This will require that criteria for compensation be weighed differently amongst partners. Secondly, you encouraged a process of listening to partners in this program and to be careful not to assume that national office has all the answers. Thirdly, I would be very pleased to correspond with any firms who are attempting of considering attempting something similar. All the best, Jol jhunter@grantthornton.ca

posted on May 10, 2006

crizza on Reduce Stress said:

I really appreciate your thoughts. I have found that dealing with Human Resource Support to the top level of the organization can be so stressful it can really make you crazy. Just reading how other people deal with their situations helps me deal with my problems. I agree with you that you are dealing not only to the top level but also to all people in that management. And can be stressful to manage with the whole management. Thanks for this post…

posted on July 20, 2007