Professor Laura Empson of Cass Business School has written an interesting report on leadership within professional service firms. A small number of case studies built up with a great deal of detailed work, is given extra zip by her ability to track leadership in these organisations in the aftermath of the financial crisis. According to Empson, Managing/Senior partners discover to gain power they end up giving up power. They become more distant from clients and the day to day know how which made them great and powerful partners and they become more dependent on the continued support of their (more?) powerful colleagues. The contingent, skills based, procedural notion of leadership advanced in the report is given extra edge by the way leadership is crystallised in a range of organisations by the realisation that when bad times come, management gets serious and power has to be exercised rather more decisively. Whilst social embeddedness (the social bonds between partners) made it easier to pull together and then cut costs; we are left to wonder if social embeddedness determined who got managed out and who got to hang on. Is it easier to fire your mates, or get your mates on side and then fire your frenemies? The sense we have from the report is of a rational and sensible process managed by organic means (and in interestingly different ways in each organisation). The crystallisation also reveals hidden hierarchies in at least one firm. This could be regarded as problematic and is, for instance, noted as a potential feature in failing firms where hidden hierarchies have also been identified in ways which might rather undermine the notion and obligations of partnership.
The report is well worth a read, not least for the sometimes extraordinary quotes that Empson has garnered, put together with what I sense is a knowing but carefully balanced humour. Here’s a firm of Nicey’s (not lawyers) that suddenly become a little bit Smashy under a benevolent dictatorship. They are described in these terms by one of the interviewees:
“When I was going through the interview process I thought, this place seems like a cult. But now I have been here a while I think it is wonderful”
When this organisation hit trouble, it turned to its leader for the answers. To get the reference to the Borg, you will have to read it for yourself.