Performance of a Professional in a Nested Structure of a Firm

Performance of a Professional in a Nested Structure of a Firm | awezzom Blog Post

Performance of a Professional in a Nested Structure of a Firm

In a professional service firm, every staff member, professional, and partner operate in a nested relational structure. The overall performance of an individual relies on its proper position at each interdependent layer, as well as on an alignment of those positions. A shift in one position (e.g., a change in group subculture) will impact structural upper and lower levels (e.g., project management flow) of an organization. While sometimes positions change, alignment should not.

In a professional service firm, every staff member, professional, and partner operate in a nested relational structure. The overall performance of an individual relies on its proper position at each interdependent layer, as well as on an alignment of those positions. A shift in one position (e.g., a change in group subculture) will impact structural upper and lower levels (e.g., project management flow) of an organization. While sometimes positions change, alignment should not.


Barbara is a senior-level professional at an accounting firm. Recently, her performance has been on decline. Problems at home, health issues, arguments with her superior, workplace gossip, work overload, inadequate pay, lack of promotion, dull work, obscure vision for the future, uncooperative colleagues, new performance appraisal system — et cetera — the root cause of low performance might’ve been triggered by a single factor. All of the above factors (and then some) might’ve been at work here just as well.

As a manager, partner, or principal — whatever your supervisory position at the firm — if you are responsible for Barbara’s performance, your job is to help her deal with those issues; where appropriate. Because hiring a new person costs at least 50% of professional’s salary, you have all the incentives you need to prop things up, and keep Barbara motivated, productive and instrumental. For the firm’s, clients’ and her own sake.

Multiple levels of analysis

Just like everyone of us is embedded in a fabric of society, in a work setting, professionals find themselves nested in different layers of the organizational structure. For example, as individuals, we belong to a family unit which is part of a local community that operates in a city that is part of a state which, in turn, is part of a country. An individual might have personal issues in his family unit, or suffer the consequences of high unemployment rates nationwide. Both factors may invoke loss in productivity. Therefore, if we are to address the underlying reasons of professional’s poor performance, we ought to examine this issue at multiple levels.

When hired, professionals are assigned to specific roles in an organization. A job title — (e.g.) senior accountant — implies potential performance issues at the level of that occupational role. Because the role itself is often nested in client projects, each client engagement is typically supervised by an equivalent of a project manager — another layer and a potential for a gap.

Apart from project assignments, professionals are often assigned to teams with their unique internal dynamics and conflicts. Teams may operate in groups. Those groups may be part of larger divisions which may have incompatible agendas. Each division (large-enough groups, too) may have its own organizational subculture which is part of the overall dominant organizational culture. Therefore, a single job permeates multiple layers; it affects and is affected by an environment pertinent to each level.

At any of the given levels, things may go awry for Barbara, negatively affecting her performance. At the level of the firm, it could be the case that organizational culture might have changed recently, perhaps, due to a recent merger. A rapid restructuring process at Barbara’s original division might have went through a radical transformation. Such events always have consequences.

Group level

Five years ago, when Barbara (as a lateral hire) joined the firm, her group operated in a flexible, dynamic environment, with lots of cohesion and tight collaboration among colleagues. Professionals had instructions, policies and guidelines, but also some leeway in problem solving.

Nowadays, after the drawn out reorganization, professionals are expected to be more competitive and individualistic. Management became more controlling and short-term oriented. The subculture (there are eight distinct types) has changed dramatically, and Barbara feels like a misfit. This may be the first reason of suboptimal performance.

Client level

Clients may have changed, too. Barbara used to work with familiar long-standing client accounts. She knew every relevant decision maker in clients’ organizations. An occasional chit-chat with a counterpart used to energize her. Today, the work has become more transactional and somewhat dull. The work is still challenging, which is important for Barbara, but it’s missing the so-cherished relationships component. This may be another contributing factor as well.

Team level

The next layer where performance might’ve been sapped is at the level of a team. Because every member of the team has an implicit or explicit role pertinent to the dynamics of the team (nine possible roles here), it is crucial for professionals to negotiate the right roles for themselves. It isn’t about a particular title, skill, knowledge, or work itself. The roles members of the team negotiate for themselves are interrelational. It could’ve been the case that Barbara’s role has changed, and she is not comfortable with her new position on the team.

In addition, a group of professionals ought to be working together toward some defined goals. Otherwise, everyone will be rowing in their own direction. For example, if Barbara is more interested in people rather than things, and is more long-term oriented, it will be challenging for her to find common grounds with competitive, disagreeable, fast-paced, individualistic professionals who seek short-term rewards and care little about any collective future.

Project management level

On yet another level, Barbara may be a tad frustrated with the project manager’s (partner’s) assignments. The work any professional is assigned to should be challenging, but not overwhelming. High degree of personal autonomy is always empowering, too. Plenty of opportunity to either cooperate or have a sense of relatedness to the stakeholders of a project is yet another boon. In addition, personal professional growth is always in high regard among ambitious professionals. Thus, if missing, this is another set of potential performance hindrances.

In a project management setting, the ability to unlock each professional’s intrinsic motivation rests with two factors. First, the job should be matched to the skill and developmental needs of a professional. Second, based on the degree of decision making, familiarity of the work content, and collaboration requirements of a professional, the manager will have to assume different managerial roles.

There are ten managerial hats to wear. Each subordinate assigned to the project will require different combinations of those hats/roles from the supervisor. If manager is successful at creating the right environment, Barbara will be able to unlock self-motivation; ideally, experience the sense of flow. The more intrinsically motivated Barbara is, the less potential performance issues we ought to expect. At least, less of an internally induced ones.

Self-image level

Finally, at the bottom level of analysis we ought to consider the sense of purpose professionals strive for. As a supervisor, you should never underestimate professionals’ pursuit (and need) of personal growth. The self-image, thus the career choices, professionals have of themselves may be different. In fact, there are eight primary anchors.

For Barbara, given her longing for how things used to be in her not-so-distant job configuration, her self-image might have been that of a bridge builder (figuratively speaking), an artist with a perception of her profession as that of a lifestyle. Nowadays, she is expected to act differently: as a master, executive, and a challenger. This vivid incongruence between her self-image and job expectations may result in severe internal conflict. Hence, the poor performance.

Firm level

Given all the potential pockets of misalignment we’ve just reviewed, we may now get back to the level of an organization once again. It may be the case that due to the latest merger, the firm has changed its course. Whatever the previous direction of the firm, for Barbara it may as well feel as if the organization has lost its sense of direction.

Conversely, it could easily be the case that the firm intentionally chose a new vision for the future. And this new vision isn’t the one Barbara wants to pursue. If the goal isn’t worthwhile anymore, what’s the point of struggling with so much internal and external discord? Senior-level professionals have options.

What misalignment looks like

Meet Barbara’s colleague, Matt, who is an extremely orderly person that prefers hierarchical structure, tight control, procedures, standards, and rules. He values technical skill and function more than interpersonal relationships or collective effort. As a self-image of a career, Matt imagines himself a professional climber ascending a metaphorical Eiffel tower or mount Everest.

Placed in a group setting with dynamic, future oriented, flat-structure seeking professionals, Matt will not fit in. Those who deem themselves as (figuratively) explorers, architects, and idealists, will prefer maximum personal autonomy instead of strict rules. These folks will rely on intuitions, feelings, and perceptions. They will favor soft skills and personal relationships rather than policies, procedures, or top-down orders.

Whenever such preferences permeate all organizational levels, Matt will keep finding himself in trouble all the time. His performance will follow suit. During projects, working in a team, partaking in a collective marketing effort, even while mingling with peers — he will always be perceived as (and perceive himself) as odd. Matt’s personal preferences will go against his environment. If the firm has a group or division that shares Matt’s values, transitioning him into a new role there will benefit everyone.

This doesn’t mean that all groups, teams, and projects must consist of homogeneous, like-minded individuals. There is always a place and time for variety. However, some individual (team, group) preferences are drastically different; sometimes, quite opposite. Therefore, it makes sense to assemble teams and assign projects in a manner conducive of productivity and progress.

Putting this all together

The key point is this: the more misalignment inside the nested structure, the less performance potential. Especially if your firm went through a recent major event, such as an acquisition, a merger, a hiring spree or a reorganization. Maximized performance is attainable through the all-level alignment The best environment that invokes individuals’ finest performance is the one with a potential for an alignment across multiple levels. It is the manager’s job to create such an environment. If the performance of old-timers drops, consider this as a canary in the coal mine scenario.

A professional is likely to perform at her/his best when:

  1. her personal self-image coincides with what the organization wants for itself and its clients;
  2. project assignments unlock his intrinsic motivation, and are often self-characterized by a sense of flow;
  3. professionals feel that together with a team they are going in the same direction, in accord with personal professional agendas, as well as that of a firm;
  4. she feels excited working with clients and colleagues;
  5. the culture of his group has similar values he wholeheartedly shares;
  6. the firm is moving in a direction that she can envision, and thinks is worthwhile to pursue.

My research shows that there are typically eight mutually exclusive sets of preferences found at all nine conceptual levels of an organization:

  • individual — career goals and self-image of a professional;
  • assignments — project management of client engagements;
  • team — dynamics and self-image of a team;
  • marketing — marketing content-channels;
  • clients — buyer relationships, buyer types and pricing tactics;
  • positioning — market reputation, benefit & value communication;
  • culture — clash of subcultures in various groups;
  • structure — type of organizational structure;
  • growth — maintenance of a sustainable growth.

For each of these matters, I have developed nine proprietary models. Until published, this knowledge is available exclusively to my clients.

The awezzom question of the day:
At what levels of our organization we might have unintentionally created misalignment that saps performance?

Sergei N Freiman marketing consultant for Professional services firms

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