Article:

Why human capital is shaping professional services firms

10 March 2017

Tony Young , Partner, Business Services |

One of the most important challenges for professional services firms today is to have empowered teams, driven by good leadership to create high employee engagement and retention. The best firms are developing specialist service offerings with defined roles, skills and project templates.

During my time at the Harvard Business School, I met people who worked in a cross-section of industries, with sectors ranging from legal, accounting, architecture, engineering and construction, representing everything from large international networks like Big 4 accounting firms through to niche boutique firms. I do a lot work with clients across these different professions, so being able to sit down and gain a greater understanding of what makes them tick, and the challenges they will face in the coming years, was extremely valuable.

All of the sessions were excellent and focused on topics such as strategy and leadership; the increasing digitisation and commoditisation of services; flat economic growth in some countries and continuous learning. One standout session – led by Senior Fellow Thomas DeLong - touched on an issue essential for most successful firms. He asked "What are the peculiar motivations and concerns for professional people in these firms?" It was not only a thought provoking question, but generated engaging and useful conversation at a time when firms in all industries are becoming increasingly challenged with finding and retaining talent. We learnt that, not surprisingly, there are common areas that need to be addressed in order to develop the best professional services firms:

  • Confidence in leadership - open, honest and transparent communication
  • A great place to work – looking at innovative ways to help overworked staff maintain a work-life balance and creating open, team-centric firms
  • Growth opportunities – providing a workplace that offers continuous career, skills and knowledge growth.

Thomas’s session had the most benefit for me, as it approached the issue of the personal drivers and motivators for people in these firms, and actually challenged us as attendees and leaders to look at how we engage with our work and our colleagues as it is the firms’ people who comprise the essence of the firm. Most importantly, it touched on many of the pressures graduates feel when they first begin working for these firms. Thomas wants younger members of these firms to be authentic and to realise “they don't have to be their CV everyday”. They are human beings that can't sustainably act as infallible encyclopaedias for whichever industry they work in. His point was that there are too many professional people who lead stressful lives because they struggle to meet their own standards for perfection.

In the coming weeks I hope to share with you further learnings from my time at the Harvard Business School around how people and technology can work together to deliver great outcomes.