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Professor Empson reflects the power, politics and ambiguity of leadership in professional firms

The Times calls new report 'essential reading' for professional service firm leaders

There were some sharp intakes of breath and a lot of slightly nervous laughter at Cass Business School on 19 June, as Professor Laura Empson held up a mirror to professional service firms and revealed the hidden power dynamics that operated within them.

Professor Empson, Director of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms, was presenting some of the initial themes to emerge from her ESRC-funded research into leadership dynamics in professional service firms. 

In the audience were senior leaders from some of the world's leading professional service firms across a range of sectors.

These leaders would probably have claimed, along with the professionals interviewed as part of the research study, that they were successful because they were apolitical, and acted only collectively in the interests of the firm. In fact, as Professor Empson showed, politics and political action are rife in these firms.

"Professional service firms are led by consensus. The act of building consensus inevitably involves negotiation, trade-offs, and compromises," she said. "Professional service firms would grind to a halt without the effective deployment of political skills."

A key observation that seemed to resonate very strongly with the audience was that in professional service firms there is an informal power structure that coexists alongside and overlaps with the formal structure. People with very impressive-sounding job titles may not actually be those with the real influence in the firm. 

This sort of ambiguity about where the real power lies is present, albeit in slightly different forms, in all of the firms studied as part of the research. 

In one firm, the ambiguity was so great that even the senior and managing partners could not explain what the differences in their roles were. Yet, when there was a crisis, they were able to use this ambiguity to act decisively and affect a major restructuring of the partnership. "There is power in ambiguity," said Professor Empson. "If you really understand the leadership dynamics within the firm, then you are in a particularly strong position to influence them. If you don't understand them you are likely to feel frustrated and left out."

Stefan Stern, Visiting Professor of Practice at Cass and UK Director of Strategy for Edelman, interviewed Professor Empson after the presentation and asked how she was able to "get under the skin" of the firms she studied. "Individual professionals have such busy days and lives that they usually have no time to reflect. Talking to me gives them a chance to talk about very significant and sensitive issues that they can't discuss with their colleagues, and to think carefully about concerns that are profoundly important to them." 

And what are some of these significant and sensitive issues? Professor Empson's research has examined a leadership meltdown and identified the healing power of partnership, hidden hierarchies, covert leadership activities, and even a leader who acts like The Borg Queen from Star Trek. 

The Times newspaper praised the report, saying: "For anyone with aspirations to lead a professional service firm, this report is essential reading."

Who's in charge? Exploring leadership dynamics in professional service firms.

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