Is the only way to get ahead in a professional services career to work longer hours, asks Stuart J. Barnett.
Despite the considerable efforts of HR departments to change the culture, and some significant inroads to a more flexible work environment, the billable hour model has the tendency to disincentivise efficiency and encourage a culture of being married to your work.
While different business models and increased fixed price agreements are being flirted with, negotiating the reality of clocking up the hours is an essential part of any successful career.
The trap, however, is that it is easy to become too focused on the hours worked and not the quality of those hours or your longer-term strategy. Work becomes a treadmill that sucks you in one end and, if you survive the battering, you get pushed out at the other end – if you don’t get dumped out along the way.
The key is to have a strategy that puts your career longevity and mental and physical wellbeing first, while still facing the commercial reality of the professional services firm. No easy task.
One way to wade through the endless busyness is to focus each day and each week on your Most Important Task (MIT), and if not complete it, at least make a consistent and persistent effort to give it priority.
1. Finding your MIT
Your MIT is the one that will have the biggest impact in moving you toward your long-term career goals. This necessitates having some clarity around what your career goals are, and needs to be an active choice, your choice, not just being part of a machine that, if you survive, will push you to the top.
So what is your career goal? Is it to make partner? Have you already made partner and need to start thinking about what’s next? Is your goal to be a technician? Is it simply to be able to have a career and a life?
Whatever your goal, the key is to determine which task is most likely to move you towards that goal and then make it a priority.
2. Be strategic and realistic
Aspirational goals are fantastic, but it is also important to be strategic and come to terms with the commercial imperative, culture and politics of your firm.
Delusion is wonderful bliss, but doesn’t tend to do much for your career.
If you want to move up the ranks or take your partnership to the next level then your MIT is likely to involve business development. Sure, you have to be an exceptional practitioner, but it is bringing in new clients that will really make the difference in your career.
If you’re are a technician with no aspiration for the stresses and strains of partnership, then what are the political and cultural impacts of your decision to stop climbing the ladder? What are the tasks you need to focus on that will enable you to maintain your position as a technician and not only do the work that you enjoy the most, but also ensure that the firm appreciates your value?
If your focus is on lifestyle, then what is it you need to do to achieve the desired outcome? Maybe it’s building relationships with your colleagues so you can arrange to pick the kids up from school and still be seen as committed to work.
3. Routinise your MIT
I love the Oscar Wilde quote “There is a fatality about all good resolutions. They are invariably made too soon”. It’s so true. That’s why you have to get your MIT into your routine. Set aside a period of time in your diary each week to work on your MIT. First thing Monday morning is a great time. Sit down and work out your MIT for the week, then each day have an MIT that links back to the weekly MIT. Some days it’s going to be hard to make any significant headway, but still ask the question 'What is one thing I can do to help move forward?'.
If a day or week goes by and you’ve lost touch with your MIT, simply start again. Refocus, refresh and have another go at it.
The reason focusing on your MIT is so effective is because it helps you start to take control, rather than simply getting pulled into the situation where your work sets the agenda for you. With so much on your plate, it is easy to start treading water just to deal with daily demands, but making your MIT a priority can start you towards achieving your goals without having to resort to putting in longer hours.
Stuart J. Barnett is a thought partner and executive coach who works with senior lawyers and high-performing teams.