Brand and leadership behaviours

Brand strategy can be a disarmingly effective way for management teams of professional service firms to get into the middle of those ‘lagging’ leadership behaviours that are holding the firm back. A brand-led approach can create good collective momentum towards changing them — without the inherent disruption and conflict of so-called ‘change management’ programmes.

The times, they are a-changing

Change management is all the rage at the moment, but management consultants — who are generally logical, rational, data-driven types — tend to see the world of work through their models and spreadsheets. They believe in the power of data to shine a light on the path to behavioural enlightenment; “as you can see from this chart, if you all do X then you’ll make more money and be happy.”

People are complex, sometimes contradictory, often irrational and always wary of change.

Most leaders of professional service firms already have a pretty good idea what changes in behaviours among the officer classes would increase effectiveness, profitability and service to clients.

Most partners and senior managers in the firm also know this.

However, changing individual behaviours for the collective greater good in professional service firms is notoriously hard.

That’s because people are involved, and people are complex, sometimes contradictory, often irrational and always wary of change.

One of the biggest challenges to changing behaviours in an elite professional service firm is that many of the most productive and smart people think that they have somehow managed to sneak under the radar; they’ve avoided being found out as someone who knows nothing and is incompetent. So, they fear — against all the evidence of their career progress thus-far — that by raising themselves to the challenge of new behaviours they might also increase the chances of being ‘discovered’ as an imposter.

A good story, well told

The magic of branding as an alternative approach to changing leadership behaviours is that it uses the power of narrative and storytelling to articulate and identify the specific changes needed and then the power of collective appreciation of the brand strategy to engage and motivate people to act.

Before you can turn to leadership behaviour change, you first have to define the brand ambition and strategy for the firm.

That’s a crtical step, of course, and covered in other articles. But, for the sake of focusing this one, let’s assume that you’ve already done that.

Then, turning to the partners and senior managers it’s not such a big deal to say, “We all agree that this is where we want to go and where we think we can go with our firm’s strategy and brand. This brand promise that we’ve defined for our clients involves a degree of stretch, and so we need to change some behaviours to achieve it — to be ‘at our best’ more of the time than we are today.”

Firms can’t change human nature, but they can work with it.

Now I don’t want to sound naive about it. These people are not kindergarten children. They are sophisticated professionals who are already behaving in an ‘optimal’ way, just that it’s an optimal way from their perspective. There could be systemic issues that need addressing to remove genuine obstacles and hopefully produce incentives for individuals to change their attitudes and behaviours. Comp is the obvious one — no point asking people to act collectively if they are paid individually, or asking them to collaborate across geographic borders if they are assessed and measured on what happens within those borders.

The partner thinks, “I have a choice, carry on focusing on my local/individual revenue target, that has been stamped on my forehead by the management committee, or take a risk by devoting more time and focus to these new things that may or may not work, and almost certainly won’t produce tangible results that show my personal contribution.” “So, yes like a good citizen I will help out, but only once I’ve hit my annual targets — so on about December the 12th maybe.”

Firms can’t change human nature, but they can work with it. Reassure people, be conscious of the rhetoric emerging from the centre about tangible targets and revenues, which can loom large compared with relatively intangible and even potentially inconsequential behaviours.

Clear as a bell

What you need to do is think hard and honestly about the behavioural issues that stand between you and the brand ambition — being ‘at your best’ more of the time — and then carving out a handful (3–5) behavioural themes that articulate the challenge. These should be articulated in language that is as clear and unambiguous as possible. “We have an obligation to decent” (McKinsey), “We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients” (Goldman Sachs). “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” (Ritz Carlton, a different kind of service business but lovely). “We don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company” (Apple).

Then, once these themes are agreed and you’ve found the most compelling language to capture them, given this is leadership development, it’s not appropriate to conduct mass communications — but instead used as a stimulus for leadership conversations and discussions. Typically a firm will use this kind of content at an off-site conference where all the partners and other senior managers get together to discuss the firm’s direction and strategy.

So next time the topic of those pesky perennial partner behaviours comes up around the management committee table, turn to the CMO for a change for her thoughts.

Branding for professional service firms | Founder & CEO at Principia Brand Consultants