I recently had a bracing experience at one of HBS’ Executive Education programs: Leading Professional Services Firms. After a week at Hawes Hall, I walked away with greater clarity about the stresses, tensions and challenges I’ve been living with for the past two decades as a “producing manager” – someone who is motivated both to produce great work for clients and lead and manage teams.

There’s nothing like Harvard’s case method where real cases are explored, discussed and debated – often passionately, and always with a desire for the ever elusive “answer” – to challenge assumptions, provoke second-guessing, and invite curiosity. My absolute certainty (how I love to judge) about a course of action was shaken as we peeled back the layers for each case. Often there was no definitive answer. Instead, there were principles that we were asked to think about as we prepared to debate our point of views. It was invigorating, exciting and always a bit unsettling.

Each case we reviewed presented us with complex human beings facing a range of management and personal life challenges – from Cambridge Consulting Group’s Bob Anderson, who was on a flight reflecting on his abilities as a manager, to Charlotte Beers, “the daughter of a cowboy” who took over as CEO of Ogilvy & Mather to chart a new course for the firm. And yet, as different as the cases (and the individuals) were from each other, for me, it was the challenge of “alignment” – personal and professional – that was the “connective tissue” linking all of the cases we studied and one that Jay W. Lorsch (Faculty Chair) and Thomas J. Tierney tackle in their book, Aligning the Stars: How To Succeed When Professionals Drive Results.

I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately because it’s my strong opinion that without keeping both personal and professional alignment top of mind, we run the risk of running our firms and ourselves as captains of ships without rudders. And in firms like ours that prosper when our clients value our work, we sometimes forget the needs of the people doing the work. We sometimes assume that our teams know where they’re going, how the choices they make as leaders are consistent with the strategy of the firm (or not), and what role they play in staying the course. So, I’ve asked myself the following questions which will serve as guiding principles – a self-imposed checks and balance of sorts — as I explore the never-ending process of contributing to a more aligned organization, and a more aligned manager (me). And I hope they may be of use to you as well:

  1. Do I communicate my firm’s goals and strategies effectively and consistently? Frankly, I’ve read many different takes on the definition of “strategy,” and the one I find most clear and compelling is the definition in Aligning the Stars and attributed to Ken Andrews:  “Andrews defined strategy as a stream of decisions made over time, which reflects the goals of the firm and the means by which the firm achieves those goals.” A stream of decisions means that strategy is about those everyday choices we make about the clients we serve; the investments we make; the people we hire and those we might encourage to pursue other opportunities; and whether or not we put the interests of the firm above all else. How do I communicate our firm strategy? Where am I when I do so?
  2. Am I clear about the choices I advocate and those that I don’t and why? As my Harvard instructors pointed out, clarity on strategy is important because it informs both what we will and will not do as a firm. Is my firm’s strategy really informing these decisions? Is strategy just something that sits in a brochure or an Internet site, sadly waiting to be picked up, engaged with and used as an afterthought in marketing materials? Or do I live my firm’s strategy every day by making choices that align with where we want to go and how we want go get there?
  3. How do I communicate a difference of opinion, especially in stressful, high-stakes conversations? Let’s face it, when you get a bunch of type-A people in a room who need ego stroking to discuss goals and strategy (I’m one of them), not everyone will see it the same way as you. And you probably won’t like everyone in the room either. For this reason, how I communicate a different point of view is important.  And not communicating at all – especially when it’s a difficult and challenging conversation – is not an option. Not communicating is passive communication and potentially passive-aggressive communication, which neither helps you nor your firm struggle through difficult topics to get to the right place or, at least, a better one. It is leadership’s responsibility – my responsibility – to create an environment where especially the most difficult, controversial conversations can take place and where positive aggression – in the sense of active disagreement expressed constructively and respectfully – is invited.
  4. Do I triangulate? We’re all guilty of this. Here’s how this goes: I didn’t like the exchange I had recently with one of my colleagues. I didn’t like what he said or how he said it. And frankly, I thought he was rude. Instead of addressing this directly with him, I start complaining to another colleague. Not helpful. Triangulation is a symptom of a larger problem that has to do with culture. “Nice” cultures are not optimized for great performance. Transparent and accountable cultures are. While we don’t need to work every day “speaking the truth” at every moment in time (I encourage you to look at Bridgewater as a fascinating and provocative “speak the truth at all costs” model), we do need to be mindful when communicating on tough issues, including performance.
  5. Am I acting in ways that will strengthen my organization for future generations? In our business, we compete with one another, with competitors and, often, with ourselves. I thrive in competitive environments. I believe healthy competition creates an edge, an energy and even a purposeful direction that can feed innovation, improve quality of service and contribute to ever-increasing performance standards. But competition can sometimes get in the way of acting on behalf of the larger whole if left unchecked. Leaders need to strike that right balance and help create a culture that invites competition – in service of the whole.
  6. How do I correct behaviors that are contrary to a “one firm” state of mind? I’m not so sure professional services firms do this very well. We almost expect that all leaders have the ability to self-correct. However, this is very difficult to do in a global firm where markets differ in size and relative importance to the firm; global client leaders, practices and geographies are often competing for resources; and pressure to deliver both top- and bottom-line results might incentivize behaviors that contribute to “strategic drift.” Do we have a leadership culture that feels safe enough to allow for peer-led corrections? If not, what might that look like? Do I have the courage – like the partners at Pentagram, the world-class design firm, who come to the table prepared to show their work and ready to accept criticism – to stand up, show my work and invite different points of view, discussion and debate?

Many of the managers I got to know at Harvard through the cases – all achievement-oriented, complex and nuanced people just trying to get it right – reflected many of my own doubts, fears, challenges and aspirations. Each one, a hero/demon of sorts, had something to teach, mostly at those points in their impressive careers when they failed or were faced with the seemingly impossible task of herding cats – or as “Chairman Jay” would say, “herding lions and tigers who have claws and teeth.” And when they failed, they picked up and started again. When a strategy meeting designed to create consensus, alignment, and direction went south, they went back and gave it another shot or two or three.

As I write this, I’m thinking about my first evening at HBS’s Executive Education program. I walked into Hawes Hall 101 and looked for my name, which was placed at the front and center of the lecture hall – a bit intimidating. And then the question from the prof: “So, what do you think of Bob Anderson? Does he have a problem?” And what I was thinking was, I am Bob Anderson (in part).  In fact, I am a bit like many of the human beings brought to life in the cases I’ve read. And yes, I have many challenges given what I am compelled (and privileged) to do every day – produce and manage. But I will try and try again until I get it just right.

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Nelson Fernandez

Nelson Fernandez, executive director and managing director of APCO Worldwide's New York office, provides counsel to APCO clients on corporate communication, corporate giving, issues and crisis management, and media training. Read More