Years of corporate experience informs my observation that senior professionals work very much as ‘individual experts or brands’ rather than as part of the professional service firm. Previous research underpinning the context is limited, although developing as the time for change approaches.
Putting the individual ahead of the firm in this way leads to divisiveness and competition, making the professional firms an unpleasant environment in which to work. It takes a minimum of 10 years working very long hours before a professional can be considered for junior partnership and there are no shortcuts. It is this personal investment of time and effort that focus the individual on ensuring that his/her career goals are achieved despite the amount of competition. The ‘apprentice model’ is key, starting with menial tasks and learning from role models and experience, which makes it very hard to access new and external knowledge, broader perspectives and wider learning. I also postulate that failing to learn the cultural norms (dress code, travel rituals, pastimes) is a serious mistake, and the ultimate luxuries are time and space which are ‘the privileges of rank in the corporate tribe’. I challenge that in order for firms to experience the level of respect, engagement and commitment they want to hold onto within this change, they need to build community by giving value and meaning to each member. They need to create a high sense of belonging, and recognition for contribution by individuals, to enable all to ‘support the whole tribe and not just their silo’.
The problem with this vision is that the push for professional standards and maintenance of proficiency in order to achieve professional status, does not leave much time for consideration of change. Instead this produces modern day ‘guilds’, which become closed shops, protecting the interests of individual members and status quo, rather than embracing the collective interest through change and responsiveness. This can be seen in professions such as medicine and education (Ramirez et al. 1996; Daresh,2000) when surgeons and head teachers are pushed into taking management roles, although it appears more concentrated in the legal profession where legal partners have their personal wealth invested in equity in the firm, and with larger numbers at the same hierarchical level, causing a more rigid response to change than those operating in other professions.
This style of working is causing massive pressure, especially at senior levels and this is where individual coaching can support and enable a balance. There is also a personal cost where a culture of long hours and stress is driving increasing numbers of professionals to drink and drugs both within and outside the workplace. I surmise that professional people cannot possibly acquire all the new knowledge and experience on an individual basis and have to learn to share, in order to optimize and leverage the knowledge available to the firm. This can be achieved through developing networking and relational databases and sharing understanding of market sectors and demand, all of which suggest a role for a knowledge management function within the firm whilst learning to work collaboratively and smashing the silo structures.