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Growing and growing up: Growth and change in professional service firms

Through my research insights, I help senior professionals understand their firm’s path to sustainable long-term growth.

Growth and change represent perpetual preoccupations for leaders of professional service firms.

Grow too slow and you risk losing staff to the competition — grow too fast and you risk destroying the things that made your firm so good in the first place.

For the leaders who approach me for advice, this latter problem — exponential growth — is usually their particular preoccupation. They share a deep-down fear with their colleagues that, just when they are at their most successful, they may destroy the source of their success because they are unable to adapt and change fast enough.

The model of change which I have developed through my research shows how professional service firms grow through multiple stages of evolution and “revolution” (I have adapted Greiner’s generic life stages model to work in a professional context). I demonstrate how each crisis represents, not simply a stumbling block, but an opportunity for transformation.

In my keynote speeches and advisory consultations, I help professionals harness the momentum for growth, by learning how to push through the crises effectively to achieve sustained growth and effective change over the long-term.

Stages of growth in professional service firms

Stages of growth

The model I have developed identifies the stages of growth within professional service firms. It represents a roadmap that illuminates the path ahead, helping leaders to anticipate and navigate these critical junctures effectively.

Ultimately my model is not just about growing and maturing as an organization, but about what happens to power during that process – how it shifts, consolidates, and shapes the trajectory of the organization. From founder-centric beginnings, through clumsy collegiality, to the emergence of corporate structures, understanding these power dynamics is essential for achieving sustainable growth.

Founder-focused stage

Initially governance and leadership are simple. But as the organization grows, the founders hire more senior professionals who in time seek greater involvement in decision-making and a share of profits. They want enough power to control their own destiny and enough money to reward their efforts in building the business. This is the Exclusion crisis.
Key question for founders: How do you prepare yourself for the transition?
Key question for professionals: How do you persuade your founders to let go?

Founder-focused stage
Collegial stage

Collegial stage

Decision-making becomes consensus-based amongst the expanded group of professionals, typically focused on a weekly meeting of all partners or directors. As the organization grows, and more professionals are brought into equity, more people expect to be consulted about management issues. Consensus becomes harder to achieve and the Disorganization crisis looms.

Key question for leaders: Can you move beyond this phase without losing what your colleagues most value about leading the firm collectively?

Committee stage

Senior professionals create a series of committees. They recognize they can no longer be involved in all aspects of management but are not yet ready to devolve authority to a senior leadership group. The Frustration crisis emerges, as hoped-for efficiency gains fail to materialize, and management activities consume increasing amounts of time to limited effect.

Key question for leaders: Have you already outgrown your committee structure?

Committee stage
 Delegated stage

Delegated stage

Senior professionals delegate a limited amount of authority to specific individuals, whose power is contingent on retaining the support of their colleagues. The risk is that senior leadership become overly immersed in the day-to-day challenges of managing the firm and become disconnected from their colleagues. Leaders who lose their support are quickly deposed.

Key question for leaders: How do you carry your colleagues with you as you implement necessary and challenging changes?

Other specialist subjects

Laura offers advisory consultations and keynote speeches which draw upon her 30 years of academic research to help professional organizations navigate their most pressing challenges. Here is a selection of the subjects she covers.

Future of professional work

Leading collectively through uncertainty.

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Leadership and culture

Reinvigorating professionals and their organizations.

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Power of partnership

Realizing the individual and collective potential within professional service firms.

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Collective leadership

Distinctive dynamics among professionals.

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To discuss booking Laura for a keynote speech, facilitated leadership offsite,
or advisory consultation, please get in touch.