Developing a ‘ladder to leadership’ in professional services

Written by Fiona Packman, Egon Zehnder

PROFESSIONAL services sector partners frequently have compelling skills in leading relationships with clients – a form of leadership by example in which superb service delivery predominates. However, leading an organisation is a different challenge; particularly one with the flat management structure common in the sector.

Leaders in professional services such as accountancy therefore require a particular skillset. Chief executives in such roles must be able to build consensus for strategic change with a range of client-facing partners, while retaining a lucid focus on service delivery.

The need for leaders who embody this nuanced combination of collegiality and clear-sightedness means that accountancy firms face unique challenges when recruiting and developing leaders. Promoting people from within – to ensure that the new leader is immersed in their company’s prevailing culture and ethos – is not always a guarantee of success.

It is therefore crucial that businesses take the opportunity to step back and review what kind of leader they need to shape their future, and how they can develop a pathway for potential leaders within the company. Accountancy firms, after all, have an enviable opportunity to draw from the experience of partners to really understand what the organisation needs from a leader.

With many of those who started out as graduates in accountancy firms developing their careers in the same place, the ladder from graduate to the C-suite holds plenty of opportunities for skills to flourish and develop; yet too often partners are understandably focused on delivering for their clients, rather than developing their own leadership attributes.

It is hugely important as a result that accountancy firms and other professional services firms use a potential model to identify which individuals have the right skills against the key competencies required. At Egon Zehnder we have developed a scientifically-based model for measuring potential. The focus of this ‘ladder to leadership’ should be on four key themes:

Curiosity:  Future leaders must be curious about the world around them, and interested in how and why their organisation and sector is changing. They need to be curious about themselves and keen to adapt; seeking feedback, new experiences and learning new approaches to tackling both established and emerging challenges.

Insight: Individuals must be able to use their innate curiosity to analyse information gathered from various sources to shape strategies and direction of work.

Engagement: Individuals with leadership potential must be able to demonstrate that they can positively engage with and influence internal and external stakeholders. They need to share persuasive vision as well as have the ability to inspire others.

Determination:  Future leaders must be able to navigate obstacles and drive results.

Economic uncertainty, political upheaval and an increasingly demanding 24/7 global business climate are putting pressure on even experienced leaders, and emerging leaders will need to successfully navigate their companies through some unpredictable times ahead.

Businesses should, as a result, take time to consider how leadership potential can be nurtured in order to let fresh skillsets shine. Accountancy firms need to invest in partners early. Identifying the potential of future leaders and developing their skills now will ensure businesses strongly position themselves for the future.

Related reading