NEW YORK — In her new book, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas (Oxford University Press, 2017), Prof. Laura Empson sets out to study the unique aspects of leadership in professional services firms. It’s an area, Empson says, that has been underexplored in conventional literature.
Speaking at a Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute event, “Leadership in Professional Service Firms”, Empson, a professor at the Cass Business School in London, discussed the three themes that run throughout her book: “the power, the politics and the prima donnas.” Empson’s research was the result of more than 750 hours of interviews with leaders at top global professional services firms, including law firm partners.
Among the key points in her research, Empson concludes that power in professional services firms “belongs to people who control access to key resources.”
“In a professional services firm, the key resources are valuable client relationships, particularly important specialist expertise or a particularly strong reputation in the marketplace,” Empson said at the event. “And the professionals who possess these resources have enormous influence… within the organization, even if they don’t have any formal authority.”
Empson also posits that leadership in professional services firms needs to be conceptualized as a “collective.” “If it feels lonely at the top for you, it’s probably because you’re not doing it right,” she said. “You have failed to fully grasp the power of collective leadership.”
While Empson never asked those she interviewed about the organizational politics, she said the idea often came up. She came to conclude that professionals appear to have a “crude conceptualization of Machiavellian politics” and tend to view politics as a negative within the firm. “But actually, politics is the life blood of professional organizations,” she said. “They need politics to function.”
To be successful in a professional services firm, Empson suggests, requires being “highly politically skilled.”
In her book, Empson also explores the so-called prima donnas at professional services firms. While prima donnas are generally associated with a difficult temperament, they are also people of “great skill and renown,” and Empson argues they should not be dismissed. Instead, she has studied what drives prima donnas — not surprisingly, chief among their motivators is insecurity.
Empson argues that elite professional services firms deliberately seek out to recruit “insecure overachievers.” Specifically, Empson’s research has led her to conclude that firms look for a particular psychological profile of professionals who are highly skilled but, at the same time, in need of ongoing validation.
Empson says her book is not meant to provide the answer to the leadership issues in professional services organizations but rather pave the way for asking the right questions and sparking more rigorous thinking on the topic.
Perspective in Practice
During a panel discussion that followed, David Greenwald, chairman of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, and Horacio Gutierrez, general counsel of Spotify, shared their views on Empson’s research.
Greenwald recounted his experience when he was brought in as a “change agent” after spending two decades in-house at Goldman Sachs. “I needed to regain the skills of persuasion,” he said, adding he soon learned that bigger changes at the firm were much easier to implement than small ones.
From the client’s perspective, Gutierrez said he generally makes law firm hiring decisions based on individual attorneys and their specific teams, so the dynamics outlined by Empson are “not really that visible.” At the same time, Gutierrez said, diversity as well as the element of a healthy organization is important.
“I do care who’s doing the work for us,” he said. Gutierrez said he is seeking a trusted adviser and someone who doesn’t seek to monopolize the relationship, but rather is able to function as “concierge” to serve the needs of the client.