Communication in professional service firms can to be sporadic, badly organised and effectively delivered. Communications strategies need to be carefully planned and executed in line with the firm’s strategic objectives. Methods of delivery will of course vary but need to distinguish between the four different types of communications typically found in professional service firms.
1. Educational and Informative Messages – getting information flowing easily
Informative or educational communications may be self-evident but there are nevertheless three important benefits of getting the process right. First, the enhancement of the information flow aids decision-making at every level so that lines of accountability become clearer and fewer decisions become second guessed. As a simple example, I have recently been involved in helping a firm establish and communicate role descriptions for its lawyers at every level. Part of this exercise is to make expectations clear and to empower individuals to attain an agreed level of self-sufficiency and decision-making authority in their day to day work. Speedy information also enables the firm’s professional and support staff to understand the bottom line effect and strategic implications both of their daily work and the firm’s management decisions. For example, communications aimed to help the firm improve its working capital by speeding up its cash collection need to be consistent, repetitive and well-targeted. Third, good communication of the firm’s strategic objectives makes it possible for every member of the firm to understand and measure the key drivers of the firm’s success. If, for example, it is important for the firm to improve its revenues by gaining more clients, then key communication messages can encourage individual and team participation in focussed business development and promotional activities.
2. Ecological Initiatives – Improving the Working Environment
Every firm has its own ecology or working environment. It is sometimes suggested that leaders cannot manage culture but that culture is more likely to manage them. However, an open and honest communication methodology helps to establish the integrity of the firm’s leadership and their ‘covenant’ with their people. At least some of the firm’s communications should be aimed at sustaining the firm’s values and promoting a better place to work. Equally, they should be aimed to reduce levels of paranoia and tension that can often be found when communications appear to lack honesty or transparency or simply do not happen. As examples, trainee dinners and gatherings to welcome new starters are often used to make new or young lawyers feel at home and integrated. Christmas parties and social gatherings help to promote a friendly and collegial culture. Some firms also have secure internal social networking sites to promote discussion and interactivity – these sites also enable information exchange within the firm about forthcoming developments. Furthermore, a better organised communications process can help to break down the barriers between office and departments, by promoting a one-firm purpose which helps to get people to work better together
3. Persuasive Approaches – selling not telling
Many communication methods seek to persuade or influence changes in attitudes, amplify positive behaviours or persuade weaker individuals to take action in line with firm disciplines or processes – for example to improve time-recording or to make better efforts to manage their financial administration. Old style office manuals may have given way in many cases to the firm’s intranet, but whilst such manuals help to set the firm’s work parameters and to explain the firm’s disciplines, they do little to persuade people to move. The point here is that people are best managed one at a time, so that a written communication from the firm’s leaders will generally have little effect and group meetings can allow individuals to keep their heads down and ignore the message. However, group meetings can be useful to build enthusiasm, to build on shared attitudes or to influence and encourage peer group behaviour.
4. Coercive Communications – getting a compliance discipline
If persuasive communications are aimed to ‘sell’ a message to the audience, then coercive communications seek instead to ‘tell’. Coercion can be explicit or implicit. Coercive communications are most often used where speed is essential and the firm’s leaders hold considerable power to enforce compliance and overcome resistance. These are ”Shape up or Ship out” tactics.
One of the most frequent complaints heard within professional service firms is that the firm’s leaders communicate poorly or ineffectively. Sometimes this appears to be a cultural issue. One partner recently complained of a culture of secrecy within his firm. He told me that “many of the minutes just say ‘as discussed’. Furthermore I often don’t know when executive meetings are going to take place and what the agenda is.” In another firm, a partner told me that the Managing Partner was so unresponsive to emails that partners had stopped communicating with him.
It is often rightly said that culture trumps systems every time, but it seems clear that many firms should spend more time on putting in some processes and in designing better communications and two-way information flows. The overall objective must be to engage and motivate the firm’s people to deliver the firm’s strategy, not just to try to engender a happier atmosphere or a nicer place to work.
This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine and is reproduced with their permission