Strategies which have been developed by professional service firms for areas such as finance, people, marketing, brand or innovation must align with and support a firm’s overall strategy. This alignment is important for both internal (partner and staff) and external (client and other stakeholder) consumption.

Small firms might say this is only for the larger firms, who have separate marketing and HR departments and the like. I disagree. I think every firm should and can develop a strategy around each of these key areas of practice – in many cases it only needs to be a one- or two-pager. The trick then is to align them.

Ensuring that firm, people, marketing and brand strategy aligns and does not conflict is one of the biggest challenges of strategic planning. You must achieve fusion and make sure you don't end up with a strategy gap ((c) Sean Larkan image)

What do I mean by align? It is really just about ensuring:

  • other strategies and their key objectives support firm strategy and do not conflict with the main strategy – in fact they should actively support it;
  • reality must match the key objectives – are they realistic or pie-in-the-sky? (for instance it is not uncommon for firm strategies or vica versa, people strategies, to make promises in regard to people management which are clearly not supported by the other strategy);
  • it should be clear that both strategies are firmly based around the firm’s core values;
  • what you promise you will do or will deliver must be seen to happen in practice; (e.g. what you promise about people in your firm strategy must be supported by the people strategy);
  • that resources are committed to support each of the strategies;
  • as far as possible that all strategies are seen as part of the firm’s overall strategic intent, not as separate unconnected items; and
  • that leadership is committed to all strategies and has played a role, if not in formulating/settling each, at least in signing off and checking on the implementation of each.

This alignment is easier said than done:

  • invariably a firm strategy is developed in a different time-frame to other strategies and sometimes these pre-cede the firm strategy;
  • also, different personnel within the firm will be involved in developing the firm and other strategies – they need to liaise and communicate;
  • strategy exhaustion can get in the way – partners and senior management in professional service firms have only so much time and stomach for strategy formulation. Sometimes they simply do not feel they have enough time to achieve this alignment; and
  • firm leadership sometimes focuses on the firm strategy and leaves the other strategies to be driven by senior support service management. This can sometimes translate to a lack of interest by leadership and in turn a lack of commitment and will to achieve alignment.

report of a September 2011 survey conducted by executive search & consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles of managing partners of leading UK and international law firms and clients (General Counsel in this instance) provided a good example of misalignment of strategies. While talent management was clearly central to the long term success of the firms, and while the aspirations of firms were high, they didn’t meet these expectations, in their own views. Firm leaders felt they needed to improve alignment between their firm strategies and the way they were managing people. There were gaps between corporate and recruitment strategies.

I posted recently on the importance of stress-testing your strategy. This stress-testing goes a long way to ensure the robustness and viability of your strategy and also to ensure that it will be implemented.

The great thing about working to achieve fusion or alignment between different strategies is that it effectively again stress-tests each of your strategies and the process you are undertaking to finalise them. You are really ensuring that your various strategies, and the people who are accountable to enforce them, are working together to a common goal, ideally the success of the overall firm strategy.

I look forward to hearing of the experiences of others in achieving strategic alignment and fusion!

all the best, Sean, Edge International