Career progression: harnessing your talent

Managing talented professionals to get the best from them is a top priority.
Yet the old career ladder model is insufficient to deal with today’s demands.
Here’s an easy question: ‘In less than 20 words, explain why would a talented
professional want to be part of your firm?’ Oh, and if your answer mentions
money, it’s wrong.

Perhaps it’s not such an easy question after all. In fact, any answer you
attempt is bound to be wrong. The only people likely to know the answer are the
talented professionals you want to attract and each one will probably have a
different answer.

Price Waterhouse used to ask its young professionals: ‘what do you want to be
famous for?’ Now this is an excellent question. It implies that each person can
excel at something and it is their own responsibility to choose that something.

Of course, individual performance goals need to be aligned with the firm’s
strategic goals (because if they are not, all kinds of counter-productive
outcomes can emerge), but the goals of the individual will provide their real
motivation. The aim should therefore be to define flexible roles that fit the
needs of the firm and those of the professionals available. Career mapping and
job sculpting can help here.

Because different individuals will have different goals, the traditional
single-track ‘career ladder’ needs to be jettisoned in favour of a more
sophisticated multi-dimensional career model.

Successful professionals are expected to bring in clients, deliver services
to those clients (and in the process bill huge numbers of hours), manage client
service teams, take on part of the responsibility for managing the firm, as well
as staying at the forefront of their chosen discipline.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone to be excellent at all of this. Yet to
succeed, professionals do need to excel at something. Simply being good is not
enough to guarantee success (either for the firm or the individual). In any
case, successful people are rarely well-rounded people. They are sharp. They are
excellent at something and this excellence more than compensates for being just
average in some other respects.

So, for example: one professional might be excellent at building strong
relationships with clients and bringing in new work for the firm. Yet they may
not be the greatest at leading a team. Does that mean they cannot be successful?
Only if they are unwisely thrust into leading a practice group.

Another professional might be excellent at leading a team such that their
practice area is the most successful in the firm. Does it matter that their
technical skills are merely acceptable? Not so long as they can readily call on
experts when needed.

Yet another professional might be at the forefront in their chosen field,
having ‘written the book’ and being in great demand on the conference circuit,
so raising their firm’s profile. How important is it that they are less
effective in front of clients where their technical purity lacks a certain
pragmatic edge? Not very, provided they are not expected to front a client

Professional success can take many forms. Try not to think in terms of
single-track career ladders, but more career ‘climbing frames’ or ‘career
adventure worlds’.

Professionals should be encouraged to move around a firm, contributing to
projects that use and develop their talents, at the same time propelling them on
to personal success. In short, help people realise their dreams.

Now there is a good answer, in less than 20 words, to why a talented
professional person should want to be part of your firm.


There are perhaps three principal dimensions to these various roles expected
of professionals:

Client development

Making contacts, bringing in new clients, building client relationships and
delivering excellent service. Professionals who focus on client development
might rise to become ‘trusted advisers’. They will be excellent at winning the
trust of clients and potential clients, and bringing in new work and building
deep relationships


Attracting talented people, building a high performance team, getting the best
from people, and developing an inspiring vision. Those excellent in leadership
might rightly become ‘practice leaders’, running a practice group or office.


Developing new ideas and winning support for those ideas. Those excellent in
pioneering might become ‘thought leaders’, at the very forefront in their field.
Combining a high level of achievement in two of these dimensions offers a
further three professional roles that provide routes to professional success.

Successful roles

‘Project leaders’ who have a high standard in both pioneering and leadership
might lead a project or new initiative. In the right hands, projects can provide
a powerful vehicle for ambitious professionals to advance and offer a useful
stepping-stone for those wishing to become a practice leader.

‘Creative solutions providers’ should have a high standard in both client
service and pioneering. Whereas thought leaders take delight in
intellectualising for its own sake, the focus of the creative solutions provider
is very much on solving challenging practical client problems.

‘Client service team leaders’ require a high standard in both client service
and leadership. Whereas trusted advisers are largely outward-facing and very
close to clients, client service team leaders see their role as orchestrating
the full resources of their organisation for the benefit of the client.

Phil Gott is a conference speaker, trainer and consultant, specialising
in people and performance in professional service firms.

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