What does good advice firm leadership look like?


I was at a conference a couple of months ago where one of the speakers highlighted the most critical factor for business success as leadership. A few weeks later I heard another speaker talking about the need to “re-learn” leadership. But what does leadership look like? More importantly, what does best in class leadership look like? A simple question, yes, but needless to say no simple answer.

Forbes lists honesty, commitment and confidence as some of the outstanding qualities of a good leader, with exemplary ones also possessing creativity, a positive attitude and strong intuition. Psychology Today, meanwhile, states authentic leadership has four characteristics: idealised influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration. Frankly, I am not sure what this looks like in practice.

I actually spent quite a lot of time trying to understand exactly what good leadership looks like but little I read resonated with my experience, which has included working with a few woeful leaders and several excellent ones.

I was particularly interested in leadership within professional services firms and recently received an internal EY slide deck on this very topic. I have to say I found it very interesting and inspiring.

The EY approach defined four dimensions of leadership: client leadership, team leadership, business leadership and personal leadership. The vast majority of this thinking is highly relevant to the leaders of financial advice firms of all shapes and sizes.

Of course, EY is mainly selling professional services to large financial organisations, whereas advisers are mainly selling professional services to individuals and smaller organisations. Equally, EY is a global organisation with over 230,000 employees, whereas most advice firms are relatively small owner-managed businesses. However, I believe there are far more similarities with the models than there are differences.

So I have taken the liberty of plagiarising the document. I have made a few changes to reflect adviser language but it is 95 per cent intact. It seems to me to be both relevant and practical.Let’s start with the qualities involved in each dimension.

Client leadership

  • Connected: Brings the right teams to clients with the right people doing the right things, building trust and enriching relationships.
  • Responsive: Is proactive, constantly visible and always timely.
  • Insightful: Shares experience and points of view with clients tailored to their specific situation in order to advance their thinking.

Team leadership

  • Shared vision: Articulates a clear vision that engages and inspires everyone.
  • Right mix: Selects, respects and develops a diverse mix of talent with the right skills at the right time.
  • Quality results: Sets the high standards expected of our profession and enables each individual and team to deliver quality results.

Business leadership

  • Business acumen: Applies financial, operational and risk insights to make business decisions in a dynamic market.
  • Business development: Leverages the firm’s strengths to responsibly achieve growth.
  • Innovation: Collaborates widely within the firm and externally to bring new ideas, talent and services to build a better business.

Personal leadership

  • Presence: Communicates with confidence, humility and integrity to build trust and support others.
  • Vitality: Actively maintains personal well-being, energy and enthusiasm.
  • Agility: Exhibits curiosity and self-awareness to adapt behaviour and connect in diverse contexts.

Of course, it is one thing to define these roles and another to actually deliver. This brings us to the questions about competencies. I am going to focus on just a few of the questions for each dimension of leadership. And it is here I think you might recognise some more similarities.

Client leadership

  • Do I focus on understanding clients’ needs and expectations to provide value?
  • Do I navigate the whole of the firm to bring the most appropriate resources to the client?
  • Do I ask insightful questions to expand the conversation around client needs and opportunities?

Team leadership

  • Do I set the tone on quality and hold others accountable to deliver highest quality results?
  • Do I recognise and reward exceptional contributions to enhance motivation?
  • Do I coach and develop team members to build their capability?

Business leadership

  • Do I explore trends and new ideas to improve the current state?
  • Do I evolve and execute strategy in response to market, regulatory and stakeholder trends?
  • Do I optimise our business processes to drive sustainable growth?

Personal leadership

  • Do I manage my commitments to achieve work/life balance?
  • Do I always observe, listen and ask questions to understand the situation?
  • Do I communicate with authenticity and passion to build trust?

In a market that is becoming increasingly dynamic and where regulation around customer outcomes, governance and so on is more challenging, effective leadership must be of paramount importance. Hopefully, answering some of these questions might be helpful.

Malcolm Kerr is senior adviser at EY