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News & opinion

18 AUG 2019

Find space to think

Insights into the future of the profession paints a familiar picture of a sector on the brink of upheaval. Big data, artificial intelligence, the internet of things: new technologies are emerging at breakneck speed and presenting both major challenges and exciting opportunities.

If you're leading a firm of Chartered Surveyors you might think that the answer to surviving this rapid change is to rush to action – ideally to get ahead of the curve but at least to keep up with your competitors. The message from our academics at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, however, is "slow down and find space to think".

The CEO Report (2015, in collaboration with Heidrick and Struggles) is based on interviews with more than 150 chief executives who are all to some extent struggling with how to manage their organisations in a volatile and uncertain environment.

The research shows that while it may feel as if "the world" is changing faster than ever before, this does not mean that your business is changing at the same pace – or even that parts of your profession are. In fact, if you look closely, you can see that some areas are seeing no change at all.

Will the effects be felt mainly in the business model, strategy, or operations of the business? Technical changes like this are important but not deeply disruptive, says Dr Michael Smets, one of the authors of the report. But other changes are more profound and foundational, challenging the organisation's mission and core values.

This distinction can be difficult for professional firms and individual professionals, who are used to thinking about challenges in terms of their own technical expertise. New technologies may appear to be simply ways to speed up aspects of professional work, improve communication, or automate the boring tasks that nobody wants to do. But in fact, through doing this they are likely to lead to a fundamental transformation of organisations and professions.

How leaders think about the pace of change also affects how they go about acquiring the necessary skills within the organisation to survive and thrive in the new environment. The choice is ultimately "make or buy": do you develop skills in-house or change your skill-set through recruitment? This is a tough nut to crack for any organisation but particularly so for professional firms. Professional organisations have traditionally been dominated by a professional workforce. Law firms house lawyers; accounting firms house auditors; chartered surveying firms are full of Chartered Surveyors. Whether developing skills in-house or recruiting new staff, leaders may find that they are posing a fundamental challenge to the firm's identity, governance, regulation, and professional jurisdiction.

Misunderstanding the pace of change may seduce leaders unnecessarily to rush change in some aspects and misjudge the urgency of change in others. It is more important to pay attention to the impact – both in scope and depth – that external pressures will generate

Dr Michael Smets

New hires with new skills will initially be misfits in a professional firm. They don't have "turf" and possibly not even credibility, because their expertise has not traditionally been valued by the profession – it hasn't even existed. If they are introducing new technology to the organisation they will be changing or disrupting how others do their work. As Smets puts it: "You have a new workforce without turf or legitimacy trying to change how the organisation operates. That's not going to be easy!"

Not only that, he says, but if you're leading a professional firm, all your existing performance, promotion, remuneration, and career systems are going to be geared towards the professionals in the firm, and they're not going to fit your new recruits and their skills.

Finally, you will be asking existing leaders, who have almost certainly progressed through the firm on the basis of their own professional expertise, to lead a new group of staff with an unfamiliar skill-set. That is, you will be asking them to lead people who know substantially more than they do – and if we're talking digital, that really does mean substantially more. Most experts –who are quite frankly used to thinking of themselves as the smartest person in the room – are going to be deeply uncomfortable with that situation.

So is the answer to develop new expertise in-house? Smets agrees that this approach is likely to be slower, but 'embedding it is quicker as new experts can draw on their existing credibility'. His research with Namrata Malhotra (Imperial College London) and Tim Morris (Oxford Saïd) on career pathing and innovation capacity suggests that technical experts below the partner level can play a critical role. They help to connect the old and the new, providing the connectivity and credibility that newcomers lack.

What does this mean for leaders and leadership development?

First, it is important to accept that, like all change, technological change is a leadership issue. You cannot devolve it to a group of people in the firm (either new hires or trained up staff) with "digital" in their job titles and then sit back and expect that everything will go swimmingly.

From a firm perspective, introducing new technologies requires new people, and new people need new career structures. New career structures require new incentives, which in turn change the identity of the firm and even of the profession. Looking outside, new technologies are likely to blur the boundaries between surveying and related professions. As the RICS member report says, "the way in which real estate is owned, traded and managed is ... changing": one interviewee describes a new breed of property companies who are beating Chartered Surveyors at their own game. Obviously, that can be an opportunity as much as a challenge. It demands, says Oxford Saïd's Professor Tim Morris, "having a strong sense of what sort of jurisdictional strategy they want to pursue in the context of technology. Knowing what they do and what others don't do is going to be more important than ever".

So the leadership challenge goes far beyond what you might think of as standard change or transformational leadership. It requires openness to the possibilities of technology and the "savviness" to spot them, even when you do not have technical expertise yourself. It requires a broad vision, able to switch your focus continually between the concerns of your own firm and the present, and the future of your profession and even beyond the existing boundaries of your profession. But most of all it requires a deep humanity and sensitivity to the people you are leading, both traditionally-trained professionals and the new breed of experts.

How do you develop these skills for yourself and within your firm? A useful approach might involve developing a high-level awareness of the potential and potential pitfalls of new technologies. Importantly, this should be combined with a profound exploration of what leadership means in your firm and in this new environment. The approach we take at Oxford, for example, is based on reflection and conversation. Whether online or on-campus, you are exposed to a wide range of leadership ideas that you examine and apply in discussion with tutors and your peers from other sectors. It's not a question of how to do leadership or adopting a one-size-fits-all model: it's about helping you to navigate the currents of change while supporting and influencing the people and communities within your firm and beyond. And that is what leadership is all about.

Caroline Williams is Director of Open Programmes at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

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"The competition that kills you, doesn’t look like you." Richard Susskind