First published on LinkedIn July 13, 2016
To paraphrase Alan Partridge, “Lynn’s not my wife. She’s my accountant. Hard-worker, but there’s no affection.”
The work of corporate support functions has changed. This applies to accounting, human resources, learning and development, legal services, risk, IT, corporate strategy and planning, financial and systems analysis, project and change managers and more. In fact for anyone who has professional experience, limited direct authority over the use of their expertise and the desire to have some impact at an organisational level.
Regardless of Alan’s view, the traditional role of hard-working expert represents only half the story. You must be able to have that expertise listened to and used. To do this, you require a commercial ‘business-like’ mindset, a collaborative partnering approach and the skills to develop trusted adviser relationships. Dare I say it, to develop a certain affection?
The most effective way for professionals in corporate functions to gain respect, lead change and add value to their organisations is to develop these skills. I have helped the corporate functions of B2B and B2C private service sector clients and clients in the Health sector do this. Whilst each of the organisations I’ve worked with is unique, with its own unique set of circumstances, they often share similar challenges, i.e. how to:
- Find the time to cut down on doing the work in order to build relationships?
- Get business managers to take accountability for its finances, people, IT investment, etc?
- Prevent the professionals from ‘going native’?
“Knowing me, Alan Partridge; knowing you, my trusted business adviser; Aha!”
You start by adopting a new professional mindset (‘Knowing me’), and go on to develop deeper relationships (‘Knowing you’) and then consistently apply these fundamentals in your role (‘Aha!’).
Professionals are increasingly anxious within organisations. Two examples of the risks corporate functions face from their customer-facing colleagues are continual downsizing of the ‘back office’ and the democratisation of information through technology. Professionals in corporate functions must continually demonstrate their worth to the organisation. And be seen to do so.
Unfortunately, professionals have an unconscious tendency to pay more attention to their own discipline than the direct strategic goals of the organisations they work for. We call this ‘basic-assumption’ mentality. In this mode, the corporate function’s directs its behaviour at meeting the unconscious needs of its members by reducing anxiety. However, professionals have been trained to use their basic-assumption mentality in a sophisticated way that supports the organisation’s strategic objectives. This sounds confusing, so let me give a few examples
Chartered accountant firms require their junior staff to be dependent on senior staff while they are training. This approach delivers a qualified accountant who insists on being independent and behaves hierarchically to juniors. They review all their subordinates’ work and hold on to decision-making. This is the basic assumption of dependency, which is sensibly deployed to manage risk. Remember the partners of the accounting firm are personally liable and stand to lose their all their worldly possessions if things go wrong.
There is a high risk of this behaviour degenerating into an insistence for freedom for its own sake. This leads to a lack of accountability to the organisation. It can lead to a culture of subordination and hierarchical power requiring unquestioning obedience from juniors (and business managers).
The HR professional deploys collaboration with management as the best way to deliver change. We call this the basic assumption of pairing. Pairing is a psychological coping strategy where a helpless person assumes two other people will come together to create a messiah baby to save their world.
If overplayed, such a collaborative approach can lead to colluding with the business, whilst simultaneously refusing to examine whether HR interventions help or support the organisation’s strategic objectives. This can lead to a culture of ‘soft’ HR outputs without the requisite action required to make the change. For example, creating future-oriented organisational vision and values statements that end up merely as posters on the office wall.
IT professionals have the capacity for sophisticated use of the fight/flight basic assumption mentality. They sell their proposed technology solutions to clients whilst defending against alternative solutions with doomsday premonitions of catastrophic outcomes if they are not heeded.
Frustratingly often, IT projects do not deliver the purported benefits. When that happens, the fight/flight mentality degenerates into denial of responsibility, assertion that the IT professional is still right and that the business managers need to change to exploit the technology in full. Projecting responsibility in this way disables the professional/client relationship from productively devising a course of action to resolve issues. This can lead to a culture of paranoia and aggressive competitiveness. It can also lead to a preoccupation with the ‘enemy within’ as well as perceived external enemies. And it can lead to the promulgation of complex and bewildering rules to control these dangers.
Professionals really need to look at themselves and recognise the approach they are prone to taking. Only then can they choose a new professional role and identity.
When professionals have gained a deeper understanding of themselves, they can choose a productive professional identity (i.e. one of collaborative business partner). They are then better placed to notice what drives and motivates the business managers they are seeking to partner. Developing relationships is probably the most important single thing a professional can do. In this way they can avoid the dual risks of (a) being treated like a ‘pair of hands’ to do the tasks their business colleagues cannot or do not want to do and (b) being treated like a specialist expert who sits outside the workgroup and can only comment from the sidelines. Importantly, avoiding these risks actually saves time.
Not only can professionals avoid these risks, but they can transcend them to become a trusted business adviser. They do this by sitting within the workgroup and operating collaboratively (read: high support and high challenge). This allows them the opportunity to help the business take accountability.
It also allows them to develop into the strategic partner that not only turns data into insight, but also brings perspective and commerciality. This enables them to retain their professional integrity without going ‘native’.
These skills are neither magical nor mysterious, but come about by mastering the basics of ‘knowing me, knowing you’ and practising the skills needed to deepen relationships.
I often run business simulations and action learning sets with clients so they can practise and reflect on their progress in developing their collaborative partnering skills.
And so the penny finally drops. As Jim Rohn once said, “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practised every day”.
And I agree.
And even, I suspect, would Alan Partridge.
Jeremy J Lewis
 These examples have been adapted from the work of Jon Stokes (1994). The Unconscious at work in Groups and Teams: Contributions from the Work of Wilfred Bion, in Anton OBHOLZER and Vega Z. ROBERTS (Eds.) The Unconscious at Work. London, Routledge.