Book Review – Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas

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A book by Professor Laura Empson, OUP, 2017, reviewed by Stefan Stern

Professionals are the original knowledge workers, and were so long before that modish term first appeared. Professional service firms – accountants, lawyers, management consultancies – survive and flourish on the basis of what is contained in their people’s heads, and how well they can work together and serve their demanding clients.

It follows that leading and managing professionals is a vital task, and at times a pretty daunting one, too. If you have recruited wisely you will not be carrying many under-qualified passengers. Bluntly, you will be surrounded by smart-arses, who are, mostly, good at their job, and know that they are. And as these firms are often structured as partnerships rather than in the traditional hierarchical form of the PLC, you cannot even count on the conventional career ladder to help exert some sort of management control.

This is a subtle working environment, with hidden power relationships and unwritten rules. Only the highly-skilled should enter here and expect to survive unscathed. Luckily, we have found the ideal guide to this rarefied world…

Laura Empson, a Professor at Cass Business School in London and an acknowledged expert in this field. [Disclosure – Prof Empson is a friend of your reviewer and a colleague at Cass.]

Prof Empson’s latest book draws on interviews carried out with over 500 professionals, and benefits from the insights and experience she has gained in over two decades studying professional organisations. She also has the advantage of having worked previously in what for want of a better phrase we could call ‘the real world’ – although whether that is the right term to describe investment banking and management consultancy is a question that will have to be debated elsewhere.

The joy of this book is the rich array of telling quotations skilfully elicited by its author. As a journalist I can only envy Prof Empson’s great knack of getting very grown-up and senior people to open up and share their private thoughts.

For example, here is an exchange between the author and a partner in a law rm

Q: Does anyone have power over you?

A: Not as far as I’m concerned, no.

Q: Does anyone think they have power over you?

A: I don’t think so.

What does, rather, what can leadership mean in an environment such as this? Here is another take from a senior partner in a law firm –

“It’s not telling them what to do; it’s actually just coming up with the prompts and ideas to maximise the business and get the best out of people. So leadership sort of happens”.

Partnerships are different. They are special. The business is owned by colleagues. So what kind of leadership and management structure will make sense? Many such firms will have a two-headed leadership structure in place, with both a managing partner and a senior partner. But who’s the boss? Prof Empson does her best to find out –

Q: Who’s in charge here?

Senior Partner (Firm X): [Pause.] Well I suppose I am, I mean in a way, I mean I think, but it’s difficult to answer that question.

Q: Who’s in charge here?

Managing Partner (Firm X): Hmmm. You want one name or you want…?

Q: I just want your view of what the truth is.

Managing Partner: [Pause.] I think it’s the two of us actually. We rarely disagree. It’s instinctive.

This is a world of high fee-earners. You win credibility with your peers by being seen to be a commercial success. And yet success may lead to elevation to a senior management position which may remove you from the fee-earning world.

“Bob…made a classic mistake of cutting right back on his practice and becoming full-time management… you do lose credibility doing that. You have to be able to show you can still cut it”, says one practice head in a law firm.

Perhaps this nagging tension has something to do with the rampant insecurity found in some of these highly capable professionals. Prof Empson has popularised the concept of “insecure over-achievers” to describe these apparent winners of the professional service world.

“Our partners are looking for reassurance all the time”, one managing partner of a law firm tells her. “Some of the partners who are most clearly insecure are some of the very best people we have”.

This is a fascinating book. There is plenty more serious analysis here, and academic theory, which is worth studying at length. But it remains accessible to the lay reader. Prof Empson has shone a bright light into a previously under-explored world, and has revealed leadership and management lessons that are valuable for us all, whether we are high-powered professionals or not.


Stefan Stern is a columnist for The Financial Times, co-author (with Prof. Cary Cooper) of Myths of Management: What People get Wrong about Being the Boss (Kogan Page).

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