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Passion, People and Principles

The Shoemaker’s Children

post # 32 — March 20, 2006 — a Managing, Strategy post

Accoring to the old proverb, the shoemakers’ children always go without shoes.

Accounting firms fail to have effective job-costing systems to track the use of their resources, law firm partnerships do not have up-to-date partnership agreements, management consultants keep appointing people to managerial roles who cannot manage and don’t want to. And of course, Advertising and PR people are really bad about creating favorouble public impressions about their agencies and their professions.

So why is this so common? The most common hypothesis is that professional providers get paid to apply their skills to client work, and they are unpaid when they have to apply them to their own affairs – and the individuals would always prefer to do paid work!

But I suspect something more profound is going on. I’m not sure what it is, and would love input from the readers out there.

There are times when I get the impression that professionals are only too well aware of the limitations of what their craft can actually accoplish, and they sell to clients things they actually don’t think would be benficial for themselves – or at least they would not be willing to do themselves.

In part it’s because of a belief that “we’re different from our clients”, but it’s also in some way a hidden skepticism about the value of their own services.

Why don’t advertsing agencies advertise? Other business-to-business services like Accenture do – what does Y&R know that Accenture does not? (Or vice-versa?)

Most large management consulting firms reject the concept that their group leaders should spend their time managing, instead preferring them to be big business getters. But that’s not the advice they give their clients.

Business School academics are always preaching the need for buisnesses to be client-centric and responsive to markets, but how many actually redesign what they do around the needs of their students or employers? Universities are designed to meet the needs of the providers (the faculty) not their markets.

If any of this is true (and fair), then why does it happen? Why is it so easy to see the fleck of dust in the other person’s eye, while ignoring the plank in our own?


Rolf said:

David et al,

funny enough, I have seen the opposite at a large furniture retailer, being really

busy to get everything right internally, while there is plenty to be done for their customers first. E.g. communicating with great means training programs while customer facing communication was in shambles. You would question priorities.

N.B. enjoyed your seminar at AIM and didn’t take the rudeness to personal

posted on March 21, 2006

Gareth Garvey said:


Here are a few thoughts, some of which you have touched on.

Implementing a solution for a group of people who see themselves as experts is always a challenge, particularly if you have to live with them afterwards. The bar is thus raised and the chances of ‘failure’ increases. Volunteers are hard to find.

To compound this, internal work is often seen as second class work and should be avoided. For some reasin consultants feel internal projects do not look good on the C.V.

The performance measures and reward systems are not tailored to internal work. (and there are lots of stories about people who have been overtaken or not recieved a bonus while working on this sort of project)

In the cae of IT solutions in a firm that does a lot of system implementation integration and , there will likely be camps of expertise that are pasionate about a particular software solution, even though the firm as a whole wishes to be seen as independent. Dealing with this can take a lot of effort and give rise to a lot of emotion. The initialive remains in the “too difficult” tray

It may be that consultants, because of their area of expertise, are much more aware of the limitations of their work.

posted on March 21, 2006

Suzanne Lowe said:

David: you are correct in identifying “the Shoemaker’s children” as a continuing problem in professional service firms. I think we must be careful, however, not to fall into the trap of assuming that the reasons for this situation are all negative ones. Many would have us believe that these professionals “don’t care,” “are too selfish,” or as you wondered, that they harbor “a hidden skepticism about the value of their own services.” I don’t believe that people are that bad, weak, stupid, or what-have-you.

To be sure, these professionals do have the capacity to design the internal management processes and assign the appropriate people to make their firms more efficient and effective. I think, instead, that this “Shoemaker’s children” situation occurs because of a fundamental human condition: we all like to move from being “doers” to being “thinkers.” Simply put, professionals like to focus on other people’s problems because that’s where the fun is. That’s where the brain inevitably goes.

Everyone knows how much I’ve harped on the importance of professional service firms building market-driven infrastructures. I think “the Shoemaker’s children” will be a continuing problem until professional service firms understand that there is real “fun” in competing effectively in the marketplace.

As for the future, I think we will always see examples of “the Shoemaker’s children.” But those of us who observe the professional services industry can already see that there are firms out there that have discovered the thrill of consistently, efficiently, effectively beating their rivals in the marketplace. I think there will be more of them, and their examples will be obvious.

posted on March 22, 2006

Brad Farris said:

When a professional firm does decide to use their expertise on their own house there is a difference. Many clients come to a professional with a hope, or dream that this professional will fix my problems. Often throwing some additional problems into the mix that the professional has never planned on working with (scope creep). When we operate on ourselves we have no such illusions. In fact, we have a dread seeing all the pitfalls and hard work that the client usually offloads onto us. This may be what you meant by “skepticism about the value of their own services.” I don’t think that they are discounting the value, they may just have a more realistic view than their clients do.


(1) Clock Makers and Time Tellers are borrowed from Collins & Porras “Built to Last” Time telling activities are those that feed us today. Clock Building activities are building a system that will feed our firm forever.

posted on March 23, 2006

Dean Fuhrman said:

I think the reasons are bound up in human nature. But … who really knows?

I point you to your article “Stragegy and the Fat Smoker” for many of the same reasons noted there regarding strategy apply to the day-to-day blocking and tackling tactics for a professional service firm’s internal operations (in fact these internal workings issues are most likely bound up in some way with the overall entity strategy): “The primary reason we do not work at areas in which we know we need to improve is that the rewards (and pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get there are immediate.” As the others who have commented have noted: who would volunteer for this?

In observing my own world of work, I find it interesting to note that what gets done over other things most of the time comes down to someone’s decision on what has priority. We have moved mountains in short order to fulfill some priorities all the while important, potentially earth shattering matters go unattended, unnoticed. So if the internal matters don’t have the right person’s priorty, then it is likely to be on the backburner for lack of interest, direct or indirect (ie, if the right people aren’t interested, then neither am I).

I have often wondered if an expert’s expertise and daily application thereof distorts his/her perception of reality in a way that makes those issues you speak of nearly impossible to see with enough clarity to act upon. And it is not easy to bring in an outsider to assist … what plumber calls another plumber for his clogged drain?

posted on March 25, 2006

Jim Bennett said:

A couple of reasons that come to mind, which admittedly may apply more to small firms –

1) We think we can keep it all in our heads, since we deal with these issues all the time. So, we don’t formalize it as we would advise our clients to do.

2) A variation on the above may be that we like to keep it in our heads. Formalizing it may give the perception that we don’t have all the answers!

As a CPA, I’ve found that doctors can be some of my most difficult clients. They are so used to being the person with all the answers that they just can’t open up sometimes and take advice.

3) I know personally that when my wife asks me to work on the accounting for her business on my off time that it’s pretty hard to get motivated.

posted on March 28, 2006