We have been working with professional services firms for over ten years and during that time have anecdotally noticed the focus on technical expertise. Although this technical expertise has clear benefits for clients, we have also noticed, that there is less focus on development from a leadership perspective, which in many firms is seen as less important. From a talent pipeline perspective this has often resulted in highly talented and successful individuals not progressing into key leadership roles, not because they do not have the ability to do so, but because they have not had the opportunity to develop these skills or have not had the feedback to help them prioritise them as a development area.
Recently we decided to test this anecdotal experience with some data. We looked at data that we held for lawyers (a profession where technical ability is very prized) against a wide range of people with similar levels of experience who worked in industry. The ability to lead and manage people did indeed differentiate the successful lawyers from the less successful lawyers (in terms of future promotion to Partner) as it did the people working in a corporate environment. However, the difference in people management skills between those lawyers that were promoted and those that were not was smaller than between those promoted and not promoted in a corporate environment, and overall, those in a corporate environment were better at people management than the group of lawyers.
This is the first piece of more rigorous evidence we have to support our anecdotal observations, and it raises the question as to how generalizable this finding is for other technical roles such as engineers, actuaries, accountants, medical consultants to name but a few? Whatever the answer is to that question, the best lawyers are those that have the soft skills to lead and manage people, with underlying behaviours and skills such as ‘building relationships’, ‘questioning and listening’, ‘coaching skills’. These fundamental skills also overlap with skills such as ‘influencing’, ‘business development’ and ‘building relationships’. What this means in reality is that highly gifted and successful lawyers are promoted into senior leadership roles with a set of leadership skills that do not match their technical capabilities.
Why is this important? In our opinion they relate to longer term metrics in organisations such as engagement and motivation, and diversity related issues such as inclusion, attraction and promotion of underrepresented groups. What this means in practice is that these skills need to be considered in people development at a much earlier stage than they currently are. Certainly, for lawyers and, very possibly in other roles where technical ability is highly prized.