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Passion, People and Principles

Why Does Bad Management Thrive So Much?

post # 428 — September 6, 2007 — a Managing post

One of the things that puzzles me and fascinates me is that, according to the economics and competitive strategy I was taught, companies that do things well, are efficient and achieve high standards should (in theory) drive out their competitors who are managing poorly, fail to use resources effectively, etc.

The source of all these reflections is an email I just received from a young professional describing how his firm operates. My question is: why hasn’t this egregiously bad management been driven out competitively? How do firms like this stay in business?

Here’s the story as it was relayed to me in my correspondent’s email:


Over the last few weeks situations at my workplace have sent me down and interesting journey of thought. Specifically, I have noticed how distorted our perception can be in the accounting industry.

There was a particular engagement in my sector which was new to us this year. We had one staff member with less than a year experience, one supervisor who has been at our firm for less than 6 months, and a principal who has been with our firm for 3 years but has extensive public accounting and private industry experience. As the engagement went on it became very clear that work was not progressing at a satisfactory rate but nothing was adjusted to compensate for it.

Finally, last week, the young staff member stressed once again that he did not believe they would be able to finish the work on time. At this point the sugar hit the fan! The principal came down very hard on the staff and supervisor and stated she was “disappointed” in their inability to get the job done. For the rest of the week, the principal and another manager from our department stepped in and worked close to 20 hour days to complete the project. I should also mention that both the staff and supervisor had put in 60 hour weeks over the last 2 months attempting to meet the deadline.

I first became upset when the principal threw the staff member under the bus and failed to take any responsibility for the engagement herself. But what bothers me even more is that from the outside, the principal (and the additional manager who stepped in to help out) looks like she saved the day when in reality the engagement “failed” due to poor management throughout. Part of me realizes that my youth may cause me to overlook many aspects of the situation but I also know that this has solidified in my mind the up-hill battle that many individuals in my generation will have in public accounting.

Unfortunately, this industry will continue to reward those who sacrifice their time, their family and their lives over those who find ways to manage effectively, and become more efficient. The end result is that current senior management will label my generation as lazy and arrogant (both are partially true). If you tell me that I can achieve success, as my superiors have, by working 3,000 hours a year I would see it as a failure. If I have to work as much as someone else did 20 years ago to accomplish the same results have we really progressed at all?

I always thought that a fun experiment would be to tell someone that they only had 45 hours this week to accomplish their work. I bet we would all be surprised by the efficiencies and innovation that would come out of it. The fact that this profession will permit, and even worse, reward those who work such ridiculous hours exposes a fundamental flaw in the collective thinking of the industry. After all, we are not teaching our young staff to find better, more effective ways to do anything. But rather, we are simply showing them how to put their career before their family and personal life. We do not encourage that people take risks, try something new, or go out on a limb. We take the easy, safe route…we just work more. In the process we are rewarding many who are poor managers, poor developers and are stagnant in their own development.

Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


I’d like to hear everyone else’s thoughts: How do firms that manage this way survive? Is it simple that EVERYONE is equally bad, so there’s no penalty?


Joe Leverich said:

In our profession we have not learned many management lessons – setting the scope of an engagement – obtaining REAL milestones – supervision – brainstorming – setting or re-setting client expectations. Then we meet with our people 5 day’s before dooms day and we are surprised with the outcome or results. Until we learn to really plan – supervise the work and progress – brainstorm on the roadblocks that stop progress and COMMUNICATE with our team and the client we will keep sacraficing the wrong people!

posted on September 6, 2007

Michael Denny said:

Clients pay for results. If the project is achieved by 2 people working 40 hours a week for 4 weeks, or by 2 people working working 75 hours a week for 4 weeks, does the client really care?

This point was driven home for me recently as one of my software clients, in Canada, was acquired by a prominent Indian IT firm. They were shocked at their new parent’s abysmally bad management abilities. Their success, which has been considerable, was a simple function of throwing more people at every problem that arose. Little management. No foresight. No learning from past mistakes.

Unless the work product of 320 man hours is superior to that of 600 man hours in the client’s view, what mechanism exists to force the gunt firms out of the industry? Yes I know that the excellent firms can pay their people better (same billing/320 hours) but the grunt firms will continue to co-exist beside the excellent firms.

posted on September 6, 2007

Eric Brown said:

I, like Michael Denny, have seen most of the big IT consulting firms take the “throw more bodies at the problem” approach rather than fix the problem of bad management.

A recent engagement found me in the middle of a project that was as far behind schedule as anything I’d ever seen. The answer was ‘bring in more people’….this particular company had been throwing people at this project for over a year and all they had was more people with no direction.

Its my opinion that at least in the areas that I’m experience in (IT & Telecom), the ‘major’ players are run the same way…poorly.

posted on September 6, 2007

Dean Fuhrman said:

Two things come to mind here –

1 – this kid is pretty perceptive and on to the problem, and

2 – this method of operation is the default standard for operating.

The use of the method is standard operating procedure and is so ingrained in the way people tend to operate that I fear it looks like the standard and is adopted as the way to get things done notwithstanding how ineffective it is. Many things come together to hold it together (see previous comments) and support its use. The fact that the managers in the post will be perceived as the heroes only goes to make it a more solid case.

Breaking out of this mold will be very difficult. I have however seen people who do it and do it well. And now that I think of it none of them are left in public accounting.

posted on September 6, 2007

David (Maister) said:

I do actually attempt one possible explanation about why tis bad management is perpetuated in my forthcoming book TRATEGY AND THE FAT SMOKER. The (possible) explanation is that – wait for it – in the short term, inconsiderate demanding management actually works to get things done.

I offer the analogy of looking after a baby. If the baby is about to stick its hand in a pot of boiling water, you’d probably scream and grab – a good solution for dealing with the immediate need. So, the managerial behavior gets reinforced – last time I was unreasonably demanding, more got done.

The downside will be in adverse effects in the future – but hey, tomorrow’s another day!

It’s amazing to me how many issues come down to this core dilemma of resisting the temptation to do what takes care of today, and having the courage to do what works best to get benefits tomorrow.

posted on September 6, 2007

Ed Kless said:

This IMHO is due to the fact that the billable hour is an immoral, unethical, corrupt, and degrading to professional knowledge workers.

It must be destroyed!

posted on September 6, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Ed, in MY humble opinion, you are both absolutely right and giving less attention to something equally serious.

Yes, the dangers (or, in your terms – immoral) use of billable hours as a mangement tool do deserve our condemnation. I agree.

But as I read my correpondent’s original posting, the source of the bad management in this case (and the other illustrations offered here) are not necessarily caused by that. Bad planning, bad supervision, blame-throwing and avoidance of accountability cannot ALL be attributed to one central “evil.”

Or do you (and others) actually think it actually is the one major source of bad management practices? I think it’s a major one, but a long way from the only one.

posted on September 6, 2007

Dina Beach Lynch said:

As an external Ombuds, I see the outcome of bad management daily. It drains the spirit and commitment out of the best workers and rewards poor workers who learn how to ‘game’ the system and do just enough to survive. Progessive companies and firms understand that an effective manager is responsible both for the outcome but also for how the outcome is achieved.

Instead of placing blame (and thereby training others not to communicate difficulties), the managers in your scenario would have been better served by examining the expectations set, the communication vehicles used and what caused the breakdown, with their expressed goal being to find a solution that prevents the need for 20 hour days on the next project. That’s true leadership.

Small Giants by Bo Burlingham is an inspirational book about skillful leaders. The section about Danny Meyers, hospitality king, is particulary instructive about how to manage people. For anyone who wants to grow leaders- not just people-watchers- I highly recommend it.

Dina Beach Lynch

Kisima Enterprises

posted on September 6, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Dina. but can I ask you to share your experience on why managers DON’T do it, and how to bring about the change?

I think there are many good resources out there explaining the adverse effects of bad management, and providing good counsel on how to do it better. But, in my experience (and it appears that of others joining in here) knowing something is bad for us and knowing how to do it better still doesn’t seem to bring about the change. If it did, the plentiful examples of bad management wouldn’t exist.

Yet they do. Why? Is it simply lack of knowledge and understanding? Why don’t bad managers (and bad firms) seem to suffer the adverse consequences of their poor behavior? Why don’t the adverse consequences, if they exist, lead – through competition, to better managerial peformance over time?

posted on September 6, 2007

Ed Kless said:

Actually, David, I know we agree. However, to clarify, I think that poor project management, poor leadership are caused by the reliance on the billable hour/time tracking.

If timesheets were illegal, partners would have to lead, managers would have to manager, supervisors would have to … etc. In other words, and in answer to your question to Dina, the reason WHY they don’t do it is because they don’t have to because in most of the PSF world there is the belief that time=money.

Timesheets are a crutch for the leadship/management challenged.

posted on September 6, 2007

Ed Kless said:

Sorry for the multiple posts.

Getting back to another of you points, which is why don’t these firms suffer – they do and they will.

The employee turnover at these companies is awful and who ultimately suffers, the customer. It is only a matter of time before the market corrects this. I believe we are starting to see it.

posted on September 6, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Ed, can we keep knocking the ball across to each other? In accounting, law and consulting time-sheets and billable hours may be the primary problem, as you argue.

But I’ve just come back from working with some people in the insurance brokerage business, and they don’t use time sheets or billable hours at all. THEIR curse is that, in their industry, thay get paid on commissions and they use THAT system as the excuse not to manage. (WE’ll pay you your commission -go!)

There are other “brokerage” businesses that I work with (real estate, executive search) that also do not use time sheets but do use commission systems. They’re equally as bad as “billable-hour” driven systems. They’re all excuses not to actually have to talk to people about their performance!

posted on September 6, 2007

Michelle Golden said:

An amazingly insightful letter from a bright professional demonstrating good leadership intuition.

It’s a shame this person will probably become so frustrated he will leave the profession before he has a chance to be in a high enough position to fix this problem. This is a statistical fact and what we, at VeraSage see and hear everyday…I cannot count the number of firm partners who say “we don’t have anyone behind us to really lead the firm in the next generation” and it doesn’t mean there aren’t good people, but it does indicate the most courageous (least complacent) and innovative have left. They are this guy.

Or, even if he stays in the firm, somewhere around the 6th, 7th or 8th year, if he decides to take the “partner path” he may likely subconsciously pack his “change” and “better way” mentality or at least his “speaking up about it” mentality into a box and put it aside…in order succumb and adapt to the “accepted” partner behavior, emulating existing management traits so he more closely resembles the management team he’ll strive to become part of. I see this every day.

This emulation and fitting in is a natural thing…but it is SO unhealthy for the future of the professions.

I think where Ed is going is right on. To bridge the gap between Ed’s point and David’s, what I think he’s getting at is that by budgeting the firm’s future revenue on charge hour goals, and measuring charge hours daily and by project, the firm is turning its ENTIRE focus AWAY from project management IN ADVANCE.

To illustrate, when talking to any hourly biller about eliminating timesheets, a deer-in-the-headlights look accompanies the response “Well then how will we manage our people!?”

Please. Tell me how you are really “managing” people with timesheets now!? Looking at a WIP report two weeks after the job is done and either condemning someone for spending too much “time” and putting them on the spot to justify it, or by congratulating them on their “great realization.” Note that realization has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with success measures of the firm or, far more importantly, for the client. It doesn’t indicate that the job was done well, the right “things” were done, that the right level people did the work, that the client’s expectations were managed well throughout the project.

ALL of that is project management and it needs to take place with appropriate forethought BEFORE the work is done.

So, to talk about how to fix the terrible and all to common problem the young gentleman submitted, start with 2 things: 1) use After Action Reviews (read about these on VeraSage.com — just search the term in the search box) on engagements and act on appropriate items that arise which need improvement and 2) define scope thoughtfully in advance (also read Ed Kless’ post on Verasage.com about how to understand scope better) and plan your engagements better to begin with.

Not to oversimplify, but as Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind” and when it comes to performing client engagements, most firms don’t do a complete enough job of this.

posted on September 6, 2007

Ed Kless said:

David, I will stay more on topic. I do see your point. I think leadership/management is poor in most organizations, not just professional. The timesheet and the commission systems you describe are symptoms of the same problem.

I do believe the answer has to do with our old friend trust, or more specifically, lack thereof. Unfortnately, I think that most people do not have much faith in their fellow man. Most people believe the world is a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose and vice versa.

If you come from the basic belief that people are out to get you, won’t do what they are supposed to do, etc, your leadship/management style will be one that is, ultimately, destructive. (See the Ayn Rand post.)

posted on September 6, 2007

Michelle Golden said:

Ah, we crossed posts!

David, I think the commission structure (quotas, goals, quantity over quality) distracts in the other industries similarly to the way billable hours distract in accounting, law, etc. Both are INWARD looking at the company’s short-term fiscal result and not outward looking at value provision and profits through effectiveness and longevity (customer retention) but at profits through volume.

To your other Q about why businesses stay strong, evey grow, despite poor management, I, too am dismayed at why some firms have succeeded despite themselves. But I think Ed’s right and that the signs, in law and accounting anyway, are there that times they are a changin’.

Between internal and client succession problems (when a partner leaves, retention odds are much lower than, say 20 years ago). As for markets, they have changed. My grandparents never would have dreamed of changing doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants–even when they complained about them (and they did!). But now it’s much different. People job hop and buyers shop around.

So with the people crisis and no certainty of client loyalty, the pressure IS growing.

posted on September 6, 2007

Stephen Seckler said:

David, You raise a great question. If there is such a large body of knowledge about how to be a good manager, then why don’t more professionals become better managers?

I would proffer two theories. For starters, it is very hard to be a good manager. The skills required to inspire, lead, make difficult decisions, properly allocate resources, hire the “right” people, etc. are some of the hardest skills to master. In addition, mastering management skills requires a high level of social intelligence.

In many professional firms, you have very bright analytical people who are great at their craft, but somewhat lacking in their interpersonal skills. Through the Peter Principal, they rise into positions of authority where they actually lack the skills they need to succeed. Since lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc. are not taught in school how to manage, they often find themselves woefully lacking in the skills they need when they move into supervisory roles.

My second theory, which is albeit quite cynical, is that the people who are most driven to be at the top of their profession (i.e. those who rise into the highest management ranks) are often trying to make up for some deficit in their own personal upbringing. Being at the top requires a lot of personal sacrifice. Why else would anyone be willing to spend little time with their family and friends and countless hours at work? Why else would someone be willing to lead such an unbalanced life with no outside interests?

There are of course exceptions to this rule (generally individuals who do not need much sleep and are able to “do it all”). But it has been my life experience (primarily in the legal profession), that the most “successful” leaders of the profession are people who I would least like to emulate.

posted on September 6, 2007

Scot Herrick said:

Between the letter and the comments are really two different issues: the letter speaks to poor management of a PROJECT, but we’re also asked to comment on why poor management exists. I think they are two different things. Since I’ve been both project manager and manager, I can tell you the reasons for failure are very different.

Projects fail for some pretty consistent reasons:

1. Poor ability to determine the real scope of work (estimating to get the business, not do the job — and if it bills more it’s great for us!)

2. Poor definition of milestones between the work and the customer commitment

3. Inability to hold the customer accountable for their portion of the work on the project (the project will take more work by us!)

4. Inability to contain or manage scope creep in the contract (it’s more money for us!).

5. Poor measurement of the work done to meet the needed accomplishment so changes in tactics can take place early enough to still deliver on time.

The only answer for these things is to throw more bodies at the project to complete it — and everyone loses as is so eloquently described by our fearless letter writer.

Poor management outside of projects, on the other hand, is also significant, but the failure of management is a different set of causes:

1. The manager is forced to be a “working” manager and consequently is treated like an individual contributor with management responsibilities as the night job for the ten people working for the manager.

2. Managers do not know how to measure the work being done by their people resulting in highly variable hours of work a week given to their people and people who do not understand what is important in their position because there is no measurement feedback to know you are doing a good job.

3. Managers do not connect the work their people do with the critical needs of their customers to the people that work for the manager — there is no relevance in the work

4. Managers do not get to know their employee’s interests outside of work and become anonomous within the organization.

5. Managers do not hold their employees accountable for the work; including the manager’s manager.

There are probably other reasons, of course. But what a waste, huh?

posted on September 7, 2007

Tom Hood, CPA said:

David, I am reminded of a quote of yours that I use from an article you did for FastCompany. It goes like this, “Those people talk about having a strategy with a longer-term view, but the operational reality is vastly different. They want the money right now. In practice, cash is everything… < ?xml:namespace prefix =" o" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"" />

What’s missing are whole firms that are built on discipline and strategy.”

call it leadership or ad management, but it all starts at the top. Firms that have not had the discipline to really focus on who they are and what they stand for (Vision/purpose/Strategy) and the discipline to align all of their partners and managers to that purpose are doomed to slowly and painfully come apart in the long-term. The problem is that the Profession is so full of cash in the short-term that many will survive longer than we all would like to think.

The reason we do not have good leadership in many CPA firms is that they have never invested in training & developing those leaders or even supervisors! My recent work with our own New/Young Professionals group has them crying out for training – skills like leadership, conflict management, dealing with different generations are all skills they have identified that they need. This type of training and approach is yet another example of a “system” that should be aligned with the firm purpose & strategy.

I would submit that if the firm in question had a strong purpose & strategy (beyond just making money) and its partners and managers were in alignment – those behaviors would show up as problems and be dealt with.

I agree with many of the other comments here and many have practical tools and techniques that should all be under the strategy umbrella.

See my post titled, ” Somethings Gotta Give” for some more illumination of this issue…

Keep ranting!!!

posted on September 7, 2007

Susan Sinclair said:

There are some very good points made in the original letter and subsequent comments.

As Ed Klass points out, turnover and, indeed, the ability to attract people in the first place, is becoming a major concern for these firms. They are driven wholly by generous partner profit targets and these will not be generated without the correct proportions of staff billing for their long hours worked. Therefore, in the long term, they are likely to have to either adapt or be driven out of the market.

In the short term, good people and project management skills do not form a material basis for reward. Those who succeed and progress learn quickly that the current key measurables in playing the game are as follows;

1. Be seen to win business (this is not always compatibe with realistic fee quotes)

2. Once the business is won, deliver on target and with as high a recovery as possible.

3. Manage perceptions – Make sure your role in success is recogised and any negative aspects are blamed on someone else

The people resonsible for managing the projects are likely to have a number of tasks to juggle as well as their own PR and so will generally have to prioritise emergencies – hence the 20 hour days in the lead up to target completion date. Similarly, its easier to get extra help in an emergency, although the extra hands may not always be the best for the task.

This system is illogical as well as distasteful and so not sustainable longer term.

That said, in defence of all us middle aged hard workers, sometimes, as in life, the best planned projects run into problems and require super human efforts to get them back on track. These can be the projects that are the most satisfying (and fun)

posted on September 7, 2007

Wally Bock said:

There are multiple reasons why bad management practices remain even though, in theory, we know what the good ones are. Here are a few I haven’t seen so far. We don’t select people for supervisory positions based on their aptitude or desire to do the specific work of supervision. We generally select them because they’re good at something else and you have to do supervision if you seek preferment. We don’t offer much training at all on how to do the management/supervision part of the job. We don’t define the supervisor’s job as both accomplishing and mission and caring for the people. And if we evaluate performance at all, it’s usually only on the mission part.

posted on September 9, 2007

James Cherkoff said:

“If you tell me that I can achieve success, as my superiors have, by working 3,000 hours a year I would see it as a failure.” I think this is view expressed by your reader is very widespread among the latest generations to enter the workplace. It’s very challenging for corps and consultancies because it rejects an outlook of ‘prosperity above all’.

posted on September 10, 2007

Ed Kless said:

…and that value (either to the customer or to the firm) is equal to time spent.

Thanks, James.

posted on September 10, 2007

Bill Peper said:

I agree that this fact pattern presents a number of compelling issues. As a big fan of David’s work and this blog since its inception, I must admit to being puzzled that the questions and conclusions that sprang to my mind are very different than David’s original post and those posited in the subsequent entries. My first thoughts were: “What bad management?” and “I wouldn’t want those two employees or the writer of the e-mail working with me if a big project came along.”

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Admittedly, I know little about public accounting. I assume that the contracted work is similar to completing pre-trial preparations for significant litigation matters. I worked on several large cases as an associate/grunt immediately after graduating from law school.

I have reread the original e-mail, and it is still hard for me to understand what actions the principal did (or failed to do) that constituted “awful” or “bad” management.” Based on my read of the situation, I would tend to attribute the lion’s share of the “fault” on the employees and not the principal.

The possible criticisms of the principal seem to be:

  • Not outsourcing the work to accountants more familiar with the industry — who likely would have worked for less money, worked longer hours, and produced a better work product.
  • Selecting these two employees for the assignment;
  • Failing to inspire these employees to work the number of hours required to finish the project; and
  • Wrongly assuming that her direct reports would put in the hours required to complete the project.

The firm finished the work on time, albeit with a push at the end from high-level managers who worked 20 hours a day for a few days. It seems to me that the firm did a very good job at estimating how long the project would take — especially for a large project in a new area. The employees on the project came within a few dozen hours of completion while working far fewer hours than I would have expected considering the looming deadline.

If the employees lacked the tools to complete the project, that would be bad management. If two employees working intensely 80 hours a week for the entire term of the assignment could not have finished the project under any circumstances, that would constitute bad management. The two employees involved knew about the deadline and should have understood the expectations of the firm. They did not get the job done despite having the ability to do so. Is this the fault of the principal or the two employees primarily?

Why did the employees wait until two months before the deadline to bump their hours to 60 hours/week if it appeared that the project possible could not be finished on time? Why 60 hours/week if the project required 65 or 70 hours/week to be finished on time? At 65 hours/week for those two months, they would have had an extra 90 hours of work on the project (5 extra hours/week for both * 9 weeks) and likely have finished early without upsetting the principal.

Working those extra five hours a week would have benefited their careers significantly, but they choose not to do so. The choice to work less than required to finish the project had consequences. What happened was exactly what those employees should have expected in light of their actions. My eight-year-old son is in the process of learning this valuable lesson, and these employees should have mastered it by this point. I would bet confidently that these employees would have worked more hours and completed the task sooner had they been working for a flat fee or as independent contractors under the exact same conditions.

In a sadistic way, I would love to have attended the status conferences with the principal during the assignment. I shutter to think of my first managing partner’s reaction if another associate attorney and I told him that we would not be able to finish essential trial preparations several months down the road because we only work 45 hours a week typically, and never more than 60 hours under any circumstances. Twenty years later I can still imagine vividly his face turning bright red.

How taking the steps necessary to finish the client’s assignment on time constituted throwing the two employees involved “under the bus” is mystifying. The reality is that these employees had the responsibility for the project and failed to finish it on time. Why she, and not the employees, is the “bad guy” is unclear. Should she have to dispatch additional staff so that these employees can work a straight 40 hour week?

The attitude I sense from the e-mail’s author is petulant. He wants the firm to find clients, discover breakthrough processes, teach them to him, make his life easier, and allow him to enjoy a higher quality of life and more free time — presumably with no cut in pay. Unfortunately that is not how life works. If he accepts the firm’s job, he needs to adhere to the firm’s expectations for employees — including the necessity of working long hours. If the writer hangs out a shingle at some point, he likely will long for those 60-hour work weeks. Our scribe is not entitled to a job on his terms. I am positive that there are others out there who would fill his job if he won’t work under the firm’s conditions.

The writer needs to discover those breakthrough processes that revolutionize the professional industry and obtain a patent. Law firms and public accounting firms would love to innovate and become significantly more efficient in providing and gain an incredible competitive advantage. Many brilliant minds have pondered this question at length, and the answers are not easy. It is easy to articulate a problem. Does anyone following this discussion really expect this writer to commit the time and energy necessary to revolutionize the industry? I think he is much more likely to finish his career years from now still whining about how unfair the system is for accountants.

I agree that good management is practically non-existent in most professional firms. Excellent management requires focused effort; a skill set that is rarely innate and even more rarely taught effectively; the ability to see beyond one’s self interests; and excellent interpersonal skills. The relative deficiency of professionals comes, I suspect, as they are required to continue with high levels of day-to-day work to bring in addition to supervisory responsibilities.

Malpractice lawsuits and the aversion of clients to let firms “innovate and try something new” on their matters put a high price on innovation within our commercial environment. Flat fee arrangements and strict cost controls are prevalent, at least within the legal industry. The legal field has changed drastically since I entered the field 20 years ago.

Our scribe seems to think that accounting firms should not reward employees in direct proportion to the value brought to the firm. Unfortunately for him, that is not how life works. Furthr, my experience is that the work product of those who work longer hours tends to be better as they have the luxury of eating some time and polishing the work more before it is submitted. Those young professionals I have encountered who master the “Fred Flintstone Exit” [sliding off the dinosaur directly into the car as soon as the whistle blows] tend to disappoint superiors much more often than those more committed to the job.

I admit that I am “old school.” and less sympathetic than most to the young professional’s observations. As I read the e-mail, I could help but contrast the writer with my Dad. At the writer’s age, Dad served as a master sergeant in the < ?xml:namespace prefix =" st1" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags"" />Philippines during WWII leading hundreds in hand-to-hand combat and facing enemy fire. My guess is that Dad worked more hours, bore more responsibility than the young professional who inspired this blog, and had a less pleasant work environment.

I know I sound like a bitter curmudgeon, but I have worked directly with young lawyers graduating from a prestigious law school. I also walked away from practicing law because I did not want to pay the price in terms of quality of life. My subsequent experiences in academia, the non-profit sector, and the corporate world teach that there are very few professions that provide a significant income and blissful working conditions for those entering the work force. That is a painful reality, but the earlier one accepts that premise, the better — at least in my opinion. While not fun, working 3,000 hours in a year is hardly donating a kidney or caring for the dying on the streets of Calcutta.

posted on September 13, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Bill, welcome back. I’ve missed you – and your wise, trenchant, observations.

posted on September 14, 2007

Arnoud said:

To me the situation described in the e-mail is a good example of not acheiving something yourself and then blaming someone else for taking action. I cannot judge if the fault for the situation is with management or not. But I also think it is not important who is actually to blame. The key point is here who resolves the situation. People who can overcome obstacles and resolve difficult situations are simply more happy people. And happy people attract other people. That is also why they do not see their efforts to achieve their success as a sacrifice they make. People who can resolve situations end up in management and that is a good thing.

I do not say there is no bad management or managers. But how management handled this situation does not sound like bad management to me.

What would be effective in this situation is to thank your managers for resolving the situation and sit down with them to discuss how to prevent such a situation from happening again. And be open and critical about your own role as well. It would be very strange if you would not get the same openness from your management.

posted on September 14, 2007

david foster said:

I suspect that there are many people in management roles at professional services firms who have never really conceptualized themselves as manager–they still think of themselves as accountants, or lawyers, or whatever–and have never devoted sustained and serious thought to the managment role and what it means.

On the other hand, there are also severe management problems in many non-PS, and many executives in these companies have had considerable formal management training. Perhaps part of the problem in these cases is that much academic coursework on “management” has little to do with the actual practice of the art.

posted on September 14, 2007

Ted Harro said:


My two cents on your original question -why doesn’t the competitive market weed out poorly managed firms, especially since professional firms are the most talent-dependent businesses in the market?

I think the market DOES weed them out – eventually. But it takes a surprisingly long time (from our very short, limited perspective). I was part of a firm that was pretty poorly managed and there has been an exodus of talent in the past ten years. I thought the company would die several years ago, but they’re able to hang on based on a long-term (though flagging) brand in their market, some tried and true services, and the retention of A FEW of their good people. But without big changes, I’m convinced the organization will get weeded out because the talent cupboard is just about bare.

I see this in other firms I know today. I know of firms where their biggest constraint for growth and long-term viability is their inability to recruit the top graduates of B-schools. This leads to burnout among their current staffs and partners, which in turn leads to turnover there OR over-tired managers/partners who have a hard time mustering the energy to manage well. It hasn’t caught up to their short-term metrics yet (e.g. profit per partner), but it’s only a matter of time…

As my wise mother-in-law says, “It takes old people (and companies) a long time to die.” I suppose the corollary is that they can sometimes be revived, but only with great effort and great management.

posted on September 14, 2007

Scot Herrick said:

To those who are claim that the person writing the letter is either not getting the job done or is attempting to blame others: the situation is still bad management, regardless of whether or not our letter writer is is causing the issue or not (it’s usually a bit of both in my experience…).

The reason it is bad management is that there clearly were no controls or monitoring in place to determine if the work was tracking on time and on budget. Instead, we have the last minute flurry of activity to finish the project.

One can argue the heroics, but I don’t think I’m seeing anything in this scenario where management had a clue before the end that things were in trouble. And reliance on those working the project to tell them what is going on is important, but should not be the only way one can determine if the work is getting done to the plan.

Part of management of a project is the ability to monitor the progress to the objectives and/or plan. There doesn’t appear to be monitoring going on in this case and that’s bad management.

posted on September 14, 2007

Paul Menefee said:

Perhaps it could be as simple as what is being measured as value is not the micro-handling of this situation but rather that the project was delivered on time and accurate. And poor management of daily activities take longer to rise to the surface of upper management. The principle in this email obviously was not engaged in the daily activities but was waiting for the “win”. We tend to be rewarded for the intangibles in business, such as returning clients, greater earnings or new innovative products or services. I’ve seen a lot of people promoted on the basis of their business output and not on the intangibles of social engagement, integrity and character. It will take time for small flaws in these areas to become an issue, especially if the problem persists up the management tree.

posted on September 18, 2007

Shaun Kieran said:

Like Bill Peper, I tend toward the slightly ornery, contrarian take that a lot of people are whining these days rather than buckling down, but as I feel it through I get concerned that we’re sliding past each other — again. Workaholism has cultural implications in a lot of directions.

I’ve known “old school” nose-to-the grindstone types who are admirable in every way. Not only is their work ethic strong, the work product itself is consistently excellent — plus they’re also good citizens, good parents, etc.

But that’s only true of some. Others who always work long hours can be obsessive-compulsive, angry, arrogant, money driven, anxiety laden, not great colleagues, inept parents, or derelict spouses. I concede that sometimes the work product is excellent, but not always.

There’s a final sort in every subgroup that reveals exemplary traits worth emulating – or not.

The supervisor in the anecdote needed to be more on top of the situation, addressing impending deadlines sooner, not embarrass anyone publicly, – and then, yes, make a clear-eyed decision whether the effort and quality of work adds up to a good fit between the individual and the organization.

posted on November 16, 2007