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Politics - the hushed reality of leading autonomous followers

Professor Laura Empson on politics and power in professional service firms.

"Ultimately, professional firms are rife with politics. Many professionals, while denying any sense of themselves as political animals, are, in fact, highly politicised".

So stated Professor Laura Empson, Director of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms, last week, as she launched her new report for practitioners: Reluctant leaders and autonomous followers - Leadership Tactics in Professional Service Firms.

Conventional, hierarchical, models of leadership don't easily apply to professional firms where power is widely distributed. This is nicely illustrated in the following exchange from a research interview:

Empson: "Does anyone have power over you?"
Partner: "Not as far as I'm concerned, no."
Empson: "Does anyone think they have power over you?"
Partner: "I don't think so."

According to Empson, in professional service firms:

"Power, in general, belongs to people who control access to key resources. In professional service firms, the key resources are major client relationships, valuable specialist expertise, and a strong reputation. Individuals who possess these resources may delegate authority to a managing or senior partner but may withdraw it at any time, formally, by deposing him, or informally, by ignoring him."

Empson identified three key leadership tactics which senior professionals in this environment need to deploy:

  • Gaining and retaining legitimacy to lead through market success - proven success as a professional is a requirement for being accepted as a leader
  • Enabling autonomy whilst maintaining control - giving individual professionals independence but balancing this with the needs of the overall partnership
  • Interacting politically whilst appearing apolitical - effective leaders understand intuitively that all political dealings must be covertly handled.

Outlining four key qualities found in politicians - social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking abilities and apparent sincerity - Empson explained that:

"Leaders in professional firms must be supremely effective politicians. As with the best politicians their skill comes from persuading their colleagues, their electorate, that they are not pursing their own self-interest. Instead they persuade them that they are genuinely motivated by the desire to improve the situation of the people around them."

The report is the result of a three-year ESRC-funded research project. Empson conducted over 100 interviews in 16 countries with senior employees of three world-leading professional service firms.

Professor Empson was presenting the work to a packed auditorium of senior professional service firm practitioners, journalists and MBA students.

Following the presentation she was joined on-stage by Cass Visiting Professor and Financial Times columnist Stefan Stern. Stern led a lively discussion on the research with Empson and two leading figures from the professional service world:

  • Mike Cullen, Global Managing Partner (People), EY
  • David Morley, Worldwide Senior Partner, Allen & Overy
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