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Leadership decisions: how to engage the right people


By Graeme Gordon

Senior managers within professional services should bear in mind two famous sayings when making an important decision.

President Abraham Lincoln famously said: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

Well, apart from the fact that President Lincoln was actually quoting poet John Lydgate, his words are as true today as they have ever been.

Equally useful is the old adage: “You have two ears and two eyes, but only one mouth, so use them in that percentage.”

Thus, decision-makers who want to please as many ‘stakeholders’ as practicable should engage with all key departments within the firm – and listen and take on board valuable advice.

This doesn’t just include service lines such as audit, tax and consulting, but also, and arguably more importantly, business development and marketing specialists.

Afterall, these are the people, if they are doing their job properly, with their fingers on the pulse of the profession and on the trends within the client and prospect cohorts.

It is this knowledge and vital level of understanding which will most likely be able to shape your key decisions in such a way as to maximise the benefit for the firm.

I know of one firm, by way of example, whose CEO failed to involve key specialists in the decision-making process with disastrous consequences.

When the firm started losing business, the CEO assumed, as many have in the past, that the issue was due to price. He thought he was losing business to competitors because they were undercutting him, so he did what he thought was obvious and he cut fees, even to long term clients who had no intention to leave. He could not make equivalent cuts in total overheads which meant his margins were cut dramatically and the firm folded.

In fact, if the CEO had consulted his marketing specialist, he would have realised that the reason he was losing business was actually because he was not promoting the up to date technological services his clients wanted. Thus, they did not know his firm was able to fulfil their ongoing needs, and so they went elsewhere and probably ended up paying more for these services.

I am sure I can suggest several other such instances where not consulting a marketing specialist while taking a strategic decision has proved, with hindsight, a mistake. There are many case studies where listening to marketing specialists pays off.

Just imagine if the CEO of the firm had asked the marketing head why he was losing business and listened to what they said. He would still be in an otherwise profitable business.

Leaders of firms cannot assume they know the answers. All the really effective CEOs and Managing Partners I know are excellent communicators for sure, but perhaps their greatest communication skill is to ask questions and, most importantly, listen and reflect on the answers.