Unique Aspects of Leadership in Professional Services

(Week 3)

Leader follower relationships are paramount to professional services firms like Bain. Since work is completed in very structured teams, the working norms and relationships between leaders and followers are critical to the successful organization and completion of work. These dynamics are further complicated by the complexity of work and need for virtual teamwork, as well as the speed with which the project takes place and the snap decisions that need to be made.


The organization structures work with each of its clients into “cases” which are completed by one or more “case teams.” These case teams usually consist of a couple of Partners (10+ years experience), a Manager (7+ years experience), two consultants (4-6 years experience), two associates (1-3 years experience), and an intern in my case. Typically, Partners have limited touch points with the team, and interact primarily with senior level leadership at the client and the Manager. The Manager acts as the leader of the case team, with teamlets being made up of a consultant and an associate, respectively. Communication takes place in weekly team meetings on a high level, but frequently on a daily basis. Employees typically communicate most directly with their direct supervisors, but ad-hoc meetings and virtual check-ins are called with larger groups when necessary.


Work is directed through a combination of self-direction and direction coming from leadership on the team. High level direction for the day’s tasks typically come from the Manager of the team (after consulting with Partners and the client). This high level direction is typically extrapolated on in meetings among teamlets or with direct supervisors, in which the more detailed plan for the work takes place. From here, a good deal of self-direction comes in as your work is largely dictated by your own judgement and critical thinking. The feedback loop then opens back up as comments are made on completed work and supervisors advise further work and changes to existing work.


Similarly to the direction of work, decision making follows a combination of centralized versus decentralized decisions. The high-level design decisions which engagements follow comes in a centralized manner from Partners and Managers. The decisions of what information will be used to satisfy these overall design decisions, however, are made in a more decentralized manner among less senior members of the team with feedback from the Manager. As an intern, there is mostly centralized decision making coming down to me, but that is to be expected. There certainly is a rapidly increasing amount of decentralized decision making that occurs as more experience is gained.


Leadership styles are variable by manager and partner, and also largely dictated by client culture and the scope of the project. That being said, team structure, direction of work, and decision making follow a pretty well defined playbook. This standardization allows for consistency in the way that projects are managed, but certainly does lead to a bit of bureaucracy in decision making, which is both a positive and a negative depending on how much input you may like to have in a decision.


One thought on “Unique Aspects of Leadership in Professional Services

  • July 11, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    Very thoughtful and thorough reflection. There is clearly a good bit of structure involved and in varying levels (at various times) a certain degree of hierarchy at play. But it seems in the day-to-day work, autonomy of individuals or ‘teamlets’ (love that expression) is the norm. I’ll be interested to learn more about leadership styles of managers/partners as you continue (if not just in terms of one or two individuals with which you work on case teams this summer.

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