The seven habits of highly effective professional firms

Thirty years ago, Stephen Covey published a book that went on to be—and remains—an international bestseller. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People looks at key behaviours that range from being proactive to pursuing continuous improvement, and provides a guide for individuals who want to strengthen the impact they have and improve the way they work with others.

“Self-mastery”, as Covey would put it, remains important, but in the professional services context “firm mastery” is vital, and with clients looking for innovation and the ability to deliver multidisciplinary projects, the latter is becoming even more crucial. So what, then, would be the seven habits of the highly effective firm?

I think you’d have to start with innovation—not least because many clients do. By innovation, I don’t mean the ability to come up with off-the-wall thinking: Clients often complain that professional services firms are too rigid, that they’re only prepared to work in one way, and in this context, being innovative simply means being flexible. In addition, we all know that clients are looking for more than just advice, so I’d say the ability to add value is one of the seven habits. Experts often assume that expertise is enough but all of our research suggests that, however good a firm is at what it does, it still needs to explain the value it creates to clients. Innovation and value can’t be delivered by individuals working alone—they depend on collaboration, and the highly effective firms of the future will be those that balance their investment in recruiting the right individuals with the need to create teams capable of delivering the multidisciplinary propositions clients are looking for. Those propositions will be important because we’re rapidly moving into a world where the boundaries between traditional professional services disappear. Firms will need to distinguish between the low-cost and high-value parts of their business—and then work out how to recombine them to deliver a new generation of services, focused around a common purpose. Reshaping their businesses won’t be enough: Firms will also need to simplify them. Clients complain that professional services firms have become too complicated for their own good when they should be easy to deal with. Many of the challenges to making all this work in practice can be solved through better and more consistent account management.

All seven “habits” can be distilled down to one overarching imperative: putting your client at the heart of everything you do.