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Laura Empson
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New book exposes the insecurities and paradoxes of leading professionals

Professor Empson's book is the result of more than 20 years of research into professional firms and their leaders.

by Kyla Jardine (Senior Communications Officer)

The people leading the world’s most influential professional firms, such as the major accounting and consulting firms, law firms and investment banks, are constantly working to maintain an unstable equilibrium which could be thrown off balance at any time, losing them authority and potentially causing chaos, according to a new book by Professor Laura Empson.

Good leadership in professional firms is vital, but it’s also supremely difficult. You’re dealing with highly intelligent, highly driven, highly independent people who are uncomfortable with being treated like followers.

"Professionals, and the services they offer, permeate and underpin the functioning of the global economy and society, so when they go wrong it all goes very wrong indeed," said Empson.

"Good leadership in professional firms is vital, but it’s also supremely difficult. You’re dealing with highly intelligent, highly driven, highly independent people who are uncomfortable with being treated like followers and generally suspicious of colleagues who attempt to lead them. Yet somehow these professionals have to be persuaded to work together to achieve a common purpose. Professionals want autonomy, and will ignore or even depose leaders who appear to be trying to exert too much control."

Empson’s book, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas (OUP) is based on more than 20 years of academic research into professional firms. Starting with a section on Foundations of Leadership, it discusses Leadership and Individuals as well as Leadership and Organisations, and covers, among other things:

  • How ‘reluctant’ leaders are elected to their positions and the subtle manoeuvring they have to engage in just to stay there – much less achieve anything
  • What power means in a professional organisation, and how the people with the most important-sounding job titles are not necessarily the ones in charge
  • The ‘insecure overachievers’ who are attracted to working in elite firms, and why they succumb to a culture of over-work and competition that, taken to extremes, can lead to unethical behaviour, represented by a series of recent high profile scandals
  • The central role of politics in professional firms, why professionals claim they despise political behaviour, and why they don’t recognise their most successful political operators for what they are
  • The ways that professional firms turn conventional models of organisational behaviour on their heads, meaning that leadership is about trying to reconcile one paradox after another – between clarity and ambiguity, autonomy and control, action and passivity, etc.

Empson said that in her research she is trying "to discover and uncover that which is unknown, obscured, and repressed. Too often, these hidden things create confusion, inhibit communication, and provoke conflict. By revealing and explaining them I hope that I can help people recognise and cherish what is good, and challenge and change that which is bad."

Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas was launched at Cass Business School this month with a expert panel discussing the challenges of leading professional organisations.

The panellists were:

  • Stefan Stern, Visiting Professor of Practice at Cass Business School (Chair)
  • Laura Empson, Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms and Director of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms
  • Margaret Cole, Chief Risk Officer and General Counsel, Board Member, PwC
  • Sir Gerry Grimstone, Chairman, Standard Life; Deputy Chairman & Senior Independent Director, Barclays; 
    Independent Non-Executive Board Member, Deloitte NWE LLP
  • David Morley, previously Global Senior Partner, Allen & Overy

Watch the launch of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas below:

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