Just How Important Is Leadership in Professional Services’ Success?

The proof is in the numbers
by David Hofferberth, Service Performance Insight

It’s nearly impossible to read any article on leadership and come to the conclusion that leadership does not matter. Therefore, most of us already acknowledge leadership’s importance, but few of us have been able to truly quantify its benefit.

SPI Research leadership indexLeadership 02 2014

For the past seven years, Service Performance Insight has analyzed leadership metrics in our annual Professional Services Maturity Benchmark. We ask eight core questions, which are subjective in nature yet provide significant insight into the importance of something as nebulous as leadership.

We asked professional services executives to rate the following aspects of their organization in terms of how well they operate on a 1 to 5 scale (1: not well to 5: very well). The questions include:

  1. The vision, mission and strategy of the professional services organization is well understood and clearly communicated.
  2. Employees have confidence in PS leadership.
  3. It is easy to get things done with the PSO.
  4. Goals and measurements are in alignment for the PSO.
  5. Employees have confidence in the future of the PSO.
  6. Leadership effectively communicates with employees.
  7. Leadership embraces change; we are nimble and flexible.
  8. Leadership focuses on innovation and is able to rapidly take advantage of changing market conditions.

The net result of these questions is a score ranging between eight and 40. We analyzed the results of the 2014 survey thus far with more than 100 responses and segmented the responses into those organizations that averaged at least four out of five on all questions against those averaging less than four. In other words, we put the organizations into two groups: those with strong leadership characteristics and those lacking them. Table 1 compares some of the most important key performance indicators between the two groups and how much it changed from the previous year.

Table 1: Key Performance Indicator Comparison

t1 01 2014

The table highlights some distinct advantages of strong leadership. PSOs with leaders who truly lead the organization — with high levels of communication and collaboration — grow their organizations at a much higher rate than those lacking these qualities.

With strong leadership, employees understand what’s required of them, and can go about conducting their daily business with the confidence their work meets corporate objectives. Strong leadership helps employees get on the same page working toward a common goal. With this knowledge, employees are more productive, ultimately delivering higher levels of client satisfaction and profitability to the organization.

Communication is key

While all KPIs are important, some tend to be more so than others. Table 2 shows how organizations where leadership does a good job of communicating with the workforce outperform the others. These organizations excel in the area of communicating the PSO’s vision, mission and strategy.

Table 2: KPI Comparison Between Effective Communicators and All Others

t2 01 2014

Also notable in this table is that those organizations with the strongest leadership achieve leadership KPIs better than all the others by more than 16 percent.

One area not covered is that as organizations grow in size, the effects of leadership become less statistically significant. Obviously, large organizations need strong leadership. However, communication suffers when large organizations are dispersed globally and employees have minimal exposure to the core leadership team. To compensate, leaders in large organizations must ensure their regional executives have the skills necessary to translate corporate goals and strategies to their workers, and have strong listening skills to give remote employees the feeling they’re an important part of something special.

Seven years of research has shown that executives must offer a clear and consistent strategy, backed by explicit expectations and goals that every employee can aspire to meet. The greater the clarity, the easier it is for employees to interpret the underlying meaning and then work to meet them.

Professional services remain employee-centric

The survey process results indicate the importance of continuing to strive for new and innovative solutions to problems. Innovative organizations provide employees with the confidence to know the organization will be around for many years to come, and they will be continually challenged and personally grow as the organization expands.

The broader economy, such as manufacturing and retail, may be just beginning to improve, but the professional services market has now had three consecutive years of more than 10 percent growth. This growth, while good for the bottom line of PSOs, will ultimately come at the price of higher attrition levels, as employees — with skills in demand — see a vibrant economy for themselves. Therefore, they will look to make more money and for greater challenges. This aspect of the work is another reason why leadership is vital.

Happy employees, who might otherwise believe there are other options available to them, will more than likely stay at their current organization if they are confident in its future, and see a path for them to personally develop and grow. Leaders must continue to offer that vision of the future, which excites and motivates the workforce to continue with the organization.

The importance of leadership

Leadership styles continue to be debated and analyzed for their effectiveness. Research thus far shows that leadership does matter, and it can be quantified. PS has many other attributes that allow some firms to perform better than others. This annual benchmark attempts to provide PS leaders with the insight to improve all aspects of the organization. However, there’s no doubt that success begins with leadership, and leaders must perform at high levels for the organization to succeed and move ahead.

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