In this post, we share the research of Amanda Goodall, a senior lecturer at London's Cass Business School. She argues that the best leaders are technical experts rather than generalist managers, and her research findings cover doctors leading hospitals, scholars/researchers leading universities, and in a sporting context, all-star basketball players and Formula 1 drivers managing teams.
Her roughly 20 minute Harvard Business Review ideacast can be found here:
Our previous article about specialist expertise (In Pursuit of Knowledge: Specialising vs Generalising as a Career Strategy) discussed the specialist vs generalist balance, arguing that managers need to be familiar with a variety of disciplines to support their team members, see opportunities across disciplines and interface with varied functions across their organisations. We also highlighted the challenges for experts in choosing what to specialise in and how to keep their expertise sharp over time. We showed how both career strategies (depth/specialism and breadth) have their place in the consulting industry as an example.
By nature, the leaders/partners at professional service (consulting) firms will have a high degree of technical expertise, for example in accounting or law, so would likely be another example of Amanda's technical expert leaders. In contrast, an example of a generalist manager mentioned in the ideacast: a politican running a university.
Amanda's research shows too that people managed by experts are much more engaged in their work than people who are managed by generalists, who might be good administrators but who can’t actually do the surgery, or shoot the three-pointer. Her research finds that whole organisations perform better when they have technical experts in leadership roles, which is positive news for experts, especially in a world where expertise is "falling out of favour" given a "movement against expertise".
In the consulting world, becoming partner is seen as “the pinnacle of a professional’s career”. Rob Thomas, in a LinkedIn article in November 2017, described it further as follows: “Making partner is about getting as far as your skills will take you, and being rewarded for it.” Rob is from Cavendish Stuart, and is an “executive search consultant specialising in partner and team acquisitions” which gives him broad understanding of the professional services market, and specific insights into the journey to becoming partner.
This post shares thoughts from Rob’s article, as well as Protagion’s experiences in working with our members from professional consulting environments, including at the Big 4 (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC) and more broadly at other major and specialist consultancies. It is intended as a resource for those who are currently working in a professional consulting firm and those who are considering moving into one (recognising that it can take many rounds of discussion, interviews and vetting to join).
The appeal of becoming partner can include:
Among potential drawbacks are:
I’m now at a stage in my own life in which it is much more important to me to pass along what I’ve learned about how to be successful than to seek more success for myself”
A fantastic sentiment from the founder and leader of one of the world’s successful investment management firms, Ray Dalio. His perspective echoes that of many of the experienced professionals who join Protagion as mentors – a number tell us they benefit by passing on their knowledge and experience, and extending their success through others.
His career and development
Ray Dalio founded Bridgewater Associates in 1975. While he describes it as a “global macro firm”, it is also a hedge fund which uses quantitative methods, focusing on allocating money to investment choices based on risk (“risk allocations”). The vast majority of their investors are reported to be institutional. Bridgewater describes itself as: “a community of people who are driven to achieve excellence in their work and their relationships through radical truth and radical transparency.”
As Ray himself learned and grew over his career, he wrote down principles which he “acquired over a lifetime of experiences, mostly from making mistakes and reflecting on them” i.e. adapting through trial and error. He is seen as a hyperrealist, preferring to work with reality as it is. He believes that a successful life is a result of three components: (i) big dreams, (ii) embracing reality, and (iii) lots of determination.
In 2005, as Bridgewater was taking on hundreds of new employees, Ray decided to codify his principles into a handbook which was distributed to all employees. The New Yorker described it as “partly a self-help book, partly a management manual, and partly a treatise on the principles of natural selection as they apply to business”.
Interestingly, in 2011, Ray relinquished his CEO title to take on the role of “mentor” at Bridgewater. The New Yorker described how Ray compared himself to Lee Kuan Yew, the long-serving Prime Minister of Singapore who handed over to a successor in 1990 but retained great influence thereafter.
Recently Ray released a 30 minute animated video of his Principles – well worth a watch.
More detail on Ray and his views
Ray is argued to have a ‘debater’ personality, implying that he’s big picture, extroverted, spontaneous and logical. Many of these elements show up in his view of the world – for example, he sees problems as puzzles, which when solved, give him principles for dealing with similar problems in the future. He says: “I learned to treat pain as a cue that a great learning opportunity is at hand”.