Below is a concise summary of a chapter from David Maister’s insightful book titled “Managing the Professional Services Firm.” This manual provides valuable guidance based on his extensive expertise in the field of professional services firms. By reading this book, you can benefit from his experience and avoid unnecessary reinvention.
THE MOTIVATION CRISIS
In today’s management landscape, professional service firms are facing new challenges when it comes to motivating their junior professionals. The traditional path to partnership, which was once a clear and predictable route for advancement, has become more uncertain. Young professionals are realising that the sacrifices they make may not be worth the ultimate goal of becoming a partner. Partners themselves are now more willing to acknowledge that the benefits of partnership don’t always outweigh the economic and psychological costs.
At the same time, clients have higher expectations and sometimes make unrealistic demands, leading to unprofessional behaviour. This shift in dynamics negatively impacts motivation among junior professionals who aspire to reach partnership. As a result, many of them are starting to explore other career opportunities that offer a clearer path to advancement.
Corporations outside of the service industry are stepping in to fill this gap left by service firms. They provide junior professionals with a sense of intrinsic value and fulfil their emotional and psychological needs in ways that service firms fail to do so. Consequently, many junior professionals are choosing to leave service firms altogether in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
With the increasing competitiveness among service firms for clients, there is a growing demand for capable young professionals to succeed the baby boom generation in key positions. A careful examination of demographic trends from the past four decades reveals that as families have become smaller, there are now fewer professionals available to assume these advanced roles. Consequently, service firms find themselves at a juncture where they must think innovatively to address this human resource challenge.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MOTIVATION IN PROFESSIONAL WORK
In order to remain competitive and productive, partners must find new and innovative ways to nurture the growth of junior professionals. It is crucial to acknowledge that motivation plays a significant role in a professional’s outlook, encompassing both internal and external factors. This interconnectedness between motivation and performance is referred to as The Motivational Spiral.
When motivation levels are high, productivity and quality also see positive impacts, ultimately resulting in success within the marketplace. Economic success then leads to financial rewards, promotions, and salary increases – all of which serve as natural motivating factors to continue the cycle. However, it is important to recognize that this spiral can work negatively as well. Low motivation has a cascading effect on the other components within The Motivational Spiral.
In order for professional firms to thrive in today’s business landscape, it is crucial to conduct a thorough assessment of their managerial structure. This evaluation should encompass every aspect of the process, including recruitment, workload distribution, performance evaluations and feedback, promotions, and the integration of outplacement services. It is also imperative for partners within these firms to assume a more defined role in mentoring junior professionals, thereby fostering a positive and motivating environment. However, this endeavour may pose unexpected challenges for some partners who, upon thoroughly assessing the firm as a whole, recognize the necessity to revitalise their supervisory skills.
MOTIVATION AND THE RECRUITING PROCESS
If the goal is to stimulate motivation within a service firm, it is crucial to consider how to achieve this. The recruitment process plays a vital role in this endeavour. Alongside education and technical attributes, characteristics such as ambition, energy, and drive should be given equal importance during the selection process. In Tracy Kidder’s book “The Soul of a New Machine,” the author highlights a recruitment technique where managers were honest and transparent about what professionals could expect in the office. This approach allowed them to filter out applicants who did not possess the desired qualities. Unfortunately, many firms misrepresent job positions to quickly fill vacancies, resulting in a negative Motivational Spiral that can be more detrimental in the long run.
To avoid these consequences, providing applicants with an accurate understanding of the position is crucial. It is more costly to hire the wrong professional than to put in additional effort during the early stages of recruitment. True professionals thrive in challenging work environments and appreciate having a significant workload; therefore, rushing the recruitment process for convenience undermines efforts to overcome motivational issues within the firm.
THE PROFESSIONAL PSYCHE
The mindset of someone in a professional career differs from other workers as they constantly seek new challenges. They dislike repetitive tasks and prefer a diverse workload. Instead of viewing challenges as obstacles, professionals see them as opportunities for personal growth, which keeps them engaged and motivated throughout the workday. Like athletes and their coaches, professionals often need regular feedback. Feedback serves as a form of validation, much like a pat on the back from a coach or earning points on a scoreboard. In addition to feedback, feeling valued in decision-making processes is crucial to keeping professionals motivated.
MOTIVATION AND SUPERVISORY STYLE
The logical progression in the ongoing process of motivating professionals in a service firm is the implementation of Motivational “Maintainers.” With a deeper comprehension of the professional mindset, this step becomes self-evident.
- Provide clear goals
- Give prompt feedback
- Reward performance quickly
- Treat them like winners
- Involve in decision-making
- Seek their opinions often
- Provide autonomy in work
- Hold accountable for results
- Tolerate impatience
- Provide varied work opportunities
- Keep them aware of upcoming challenging goals
(Source: C. Bell, “How to Create a High-Performance Training Unit,” Training, October 1980, pp. 49-52)
Despite the clear guidelines provided, many partners/managers frequently neglect these basic principles when interacting with junior professionals. Ambiguity, lack of feedback, and delayed rewards and recognition are all too common in numerous firms today.
To keep a motivated group of professionals, there is one true approach that can be summarised in two statements: “Yes, you’re good… but how good are you?” Both parts of these statements play a crucial role in maintaining a professional’s mindset of challenge. The first part emphasises the importance of treating them as winners (#4), while the second part highlights the need to keep them informed about forthcoming challenges (#11).
There is nothing more motivating for a professional than being presented with a challenge like “I bet you cannot do this.” Many partners/managers mistakenly believe they are assisting by reducing project demands. In reality, they should be setting higher expectations, approaching the situation with the mentality of a coach who pushes professionals to reach their personal best. A good coach strikes a balance between support and constructive criticism when providing feedback to their “players.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANING
Successful partners and managers have a crucial role in providing their professionals with a deep understanding of the purpose behind their work. Even the simplest tasks can be meaningful when professionals comprehend their importance within a project or for the firm as a whole, and this intrinsic motivation is invaluable. Furthermore, by considering the necessity of variety in tasks, professionals are seldom demotivated due to an abundance of work. Challenges are what drives them, and they easily grow disinterested when there is little to engage their abilities. Thus, maintaining a diverse range of stimulating tasks ensures that professionals remain motivated and dedicated to their craft.
MOTIVATION AND PROMOTION
No matter how motivated a workforce is, nothing completely takes the place of promotions. With the reality of making partner more and more elusive in many firms today, no firm can promise continued career progress for every junior professional. Understanding that part of the professional psyche is the need for career progression, the only true answer to this situation is outplacement. By offering such an opportunity, a firm can truly ask for motivation from their junior professionals with the knowledge that there is still a commitment to continuing career progression, even if it is not with their present firm. Many firms are learning that having this new feature in their managerial toolbox is a key element to filling a very significant void in their management system.
MOTIVATION AND PROMOTION
In today’s service industry, the key to long-term success lies in the ability of senior professionals to comprehend and wholeheartedly embrace the significance of motivation. The olden days’ motivational incentives are no longer effective in the present professional landscape, and it is essential for senior professionals to acknowledge this and actively address it. This understanding and proactive approach will not only attract highly qualified professionals to a company but also ensure their sustained motivation and engagement. By revamping the roles and responsibilities of senior professionals, particularly in their interactions with junior colleagues, and by providing opportunities for outplacement rather than relying solely on partnership positions, firms can foster a positive cycle of motivation and growth throughout the organisation.
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