Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
- Helen Keller

Professional Services: Grounded Leadership


As the snow and high winds batter the North of England I am reminded of using the Angel of the North (height 20m and foundation 21m) as a metaphor for grounded leadership.

A grounded leader is mentally and emotionally stable, makes practical and realistic decisions, is calm in a crisis, and unpretentious despite great results and recognition.

The Storm

The UK’s professional and business services sector is a global success story enjoying 7 years of consecutive growth. In 2016, the sector contributed £1,376 billion to the UK economy (Source: ONS). In addition to the blue chips, there are 30,000 medium-size professional services companies.

Despite revenue growth many key indicators are in decline: new client revenue, the size of sales pipelines, backlog, and bid-to-win ratios. At the same time, firms are experiencing significantly higher employee attrition. Much of this weakening is due to significant changes happening in the professional services industry. For example, moving from big long-term projects to smaller projects, the emergence of alternate revenue streams such as research and reports, mergers and acquisitions and hiring more freelancers. (Source: 2017 Professional Services Maturity Benchmark Report)

A culture of ambiguous authority within professional services is shaped by:

  • informal power structures
  • leadership dynamics that are disrupted by long-standing relationships, and
  • a complex political landscape.

Leaders must be individually effective, and set egos aside to work collaboratively as a leadership team, to respond effectively to the pace of change. (Source Cass business school)

A Quick Fix

The pace and scale of change in the digital age can feel overwhelming sometimes and I just want to hide.  Other times, I remember that I am a resourceful human being and I enthusiastically lean in to the challenges and opportunities of the day.  The good news is we can all choose our mood, moment to moment, with self-awareness and a simple state-change activity.  Giving ourselves a quick pep talk, recalling vividly a time when we felt highly capable, can be helpful in the moment to get us back in the game.

Solution: Staying Grounded

However, if we want to feel grounded and show up consistently as leaders then we need to do the deep inner work that creates unshakeable foundations. It is not always easy exploring the core of our character, what has shaped us and the standard we set for ourselves; but our courage grows with each step towards our own personal truth. The process of self-discovery requires us to answer some “bloody hard questions”. Questions that invite us to revisit and reshape the values and beliefs that drive our day-to-day behaviour, i.e. the way we ‘show up’ as leaders. We all know rhetoric is cheap; our actions always speak louder than words.  

Capability matters in leadership too, but skills are easy to learn, it is our character that determines how effectively we put those skills into practice.

(stretching the metaphor…) The rewards of doing the groundwork and discovering your character as a leader far exceed the effort of digging. 

The Opportunity

Two areas of opportunity where leaders make a critical difference in professional services are:

  • Focus on people engagement: People are a firm’s most important asset, and people don’t leave firms they leave poor managers. Losing key people immediately impacts revenue and customer satisfaction. Having continuous feedback and engagement loops builds performance and loyalty.
  • Focus on strategic clarity: Harnessing the talent within your firm requires a clearly communicated vision and strategy, standards and accountability. When everyone is prioritising different activities the lack of coherence impacts service delivery. Clear and consistent targets align efforts and promote progress.

The Prize

How we show up as leaders is critical because in these complex, uncertain and changing times employees look to leaders to provide a sense of emotional certainty, so they feel safe enough to create, change and innovate.

The Professional Services Maturity Benchmark 2017 report shows that as the leadership dimensions improve, so do all major key performance metrics including: confidence in leadership, confidence in the future, clarity of vision and strategy, revenue per person, utilization, project margin and on-time project completion.

Your Quest

  1. What challenges and opportunities do you see in professional services?
  2. What are your touch points? What aspects of your character as a leader do you return to when you need to feel that inner certainty to get back out there and lead? (here are a few to get you started: courage, humility, self-assurance, compassion, resilience)


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June 09, 2018

Right on the nail as usual! Great article!


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