From collegiate to collaborative

Joel returns to Dialogue with From collegiate to collaborative, an outstanding post adding to the growing understanding of how better collaboration creates competitive advantage.

With increasing competition from freelancers, boutiques and solo specialists, most professional service firms are realising that their primary source of competitive advantage is the ‘collective’. By winning and delivering together, they can offer things the one-person bands can’t. The edge is not from economies of scale, but rather in more holistic advice and lower client transactions cost. The value proposition is not cross-selling but integrated cross-practice problem-solving.

So why not just do it

The biggest constraint to collaboration is that autonomy is an intrinsic motivator for many professionals (see the work of Larry Richards and Dan Pink). Your firm is full of Frank Sinatras looking to do it my way. It’s messy and clunky to collaborate, especially with other smart independently-minded sceptics. For many, the perceived loss of control is too great.

Source: fotolia 

Most firms have built their measurement and reward systems around the individual. A partner’s personal financial contribution is often the #1 criterion used to determine reward and progression. It’s going to be pretty hard to be deeply collaborative as a firm when what really counts is scoring well on individual performance reports.

A vast majority of client relationships start out as one-to-one engagements. The partner that wins the initial work tends to keep on going and develops strong personal relationships with key buyers and influencers. Whilst these personal bonds are great, they can become to define the overall relationship and limit others stepping into the frame and joining the club as equals.

Some firms are in indeed challenged by very high variability in technical ability and inconsistent service standards. When you are to be judged by your weakest link, there is often a strong reticence to involve or trust others that are perceived to be less capable.

Seven areas to work on

If you’re keen to deal with these constraints and move from being a nice group of colleagues to a deeply collaborative one-firm firm, then your list of priorities should include some or all of the following:

Address the sceptics

Your firm will most likely have its fair share of soloists, deal junkies and control freaks. Getting the majority on the collaboration bus is crucial to realise your firm’s potential. Providing objective research evidence for collaboration (see Heidi Gardner’s work) and actively addressing concerns is a good pace to start to winning hearts and minds, or at least just minds.

Set the right signals

Firm leaders need to set the right measures, incentives and sanctions to facilitate teamwork across the firm. While it’s tricky, it’s not impossible. Magic Circle firm, Linklaters, is just one recent example of a firm attempting to adjust their partner compensation model to enable deeper collaboration.

Develop your boundary-spanners

The Client Relationship Partner (CRP) role is the most important boundary-spanning position in your firm. CRPs lead the community of practitioners servicing the client over time. The financial returns expected from collaboration will be a function of CRPs’ empowerment, energy and capability. Many firms are now running strategic account leadership programs for just this purpose.

Create the right technology platform

Technology can assist in connecting your partners with the right opportunities and knowledge. It can also help mitigate the many barriers to collaboration. Software products like Performance LeaderObjective Manager and Trello have been used very effectively for sharing client knowledge and collaborative planning and execution.

Revamp client governance

Many firms introduce a key client program and then shift into “set and forget” mode. Ongoing client governance is crucial to driving a client-centric strategy. This includes inter-alia, [i] making the behavioural expectations shockingly clear; [ii] redeploying resources to accelerate the growth of strategic clients; [iii] supporting the apostles and tackling the recalcitrants; [iv] tweaking the client portfolio, and [v] providing guidance and injecting fresh ideas on key client strategy.

Drive consistency

As stated above, variable quality in advice and service makes it really hard to go to market with a compelling one-firm value proposition. The key here is to listen to your clients, find the weakest links and act promptly, fairly and forcefully.

Live your values

If your firm’s values reflect something about respect, integrity, teamwork, service excellence, or similar ideas, then there’s enough ammunition here to start and win the battle. It’s really up to the firm’s leaders as to take up the fight and ensure the firm’s values move beyond wall decorations and screensavers.


joel-compressedJoel Barolsky is Managing Director of Barolsky Advisors and Senior Fellow of The University of Melbourne. He has worked with over 100 of Australia and New Zealand’s top professional service firms as a strategy advisor and facilitator. Joel is the lead author of the 2015 and 2016 Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Melbourne Law School State of the Legal Market Report.  He was a Principal of Beaton Research + Consulting for many years. For further details go to

Joel’s post first appeared on Relationship Capital, 14 July 2017, and is re-posted on Dialogue with Joel’s kind permission.

Read more on this topic

7 key enablers of smart collaboration by Joel Barolsky 

How to fail at collaboration by Pam Woldow

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