'Small to Mid-Size Firms: Moving from Apprenticeship to Professional Development' from P31 Consulting, LLC

Small to Mid-Size Firms: Moving from Apprenticeship to Professional Development

Posted: May 19, 2015

A “hero model” is an apprenticeship-type model that identifies some of the firm’s top performers to be the ‘heroes’ to provide on-the-job training and coaching to employees. We have watched many clients grow significantly. It's a time of risk and opportunity. And we’ve observed that some firms do not break the cycle of apprenticeship as part of a "hero model” that they developed when they were small. 

To employees the hero model sometimes feels like a “throw them in the deep end and see how quickly they learn to swim approach.”  Employees feel this way because heroes can only effectively train and provide appropriate guidance and coaching to one or two people at the same time while still doing their day job. But they often attempt (and are expected) to develop everyone assigned to work with them making them an ineffective coach to most from the ‘trainees’ perspective.

In addition, some heroes who are great at doing work are not great at training people. Heroes usually get promoted because they do great work but they don’t necessarily make good (or even mediocre) managers because they want to remain the hero. Why? Heroes save the day. Heroes are better than the average person at getting the work done and they know it. Everyone loves a hero. Right?

As growth accelerates, the hero model often starts to break down. It cannot accommodate the number of new people brought on board, the number of projects running simultaneously and the tendency for projects to be run differently depending on who is managing them. Likewise individual development depends significantly upon the projects to which an individual is staffed. 

While some heroes are able to develop people well as success continues, most other heroes focus on the project and/or the client, leaving development up to the individual.  Projects are run the way the engagement (project) manager and/or executive has run them in the past, either at this firm or their prior firm.

This apprenticeship-type model breaks down as people work across multiple projects, which are run differently. As the firm grows, efficiencies are lost, processes are more difficult to establish or maintain, mistakes are made, client satisfaction suffers, profitability takes a hit and turnover increases. The ability of a small number of people to manage the growing firm and develop people under a hero-like apprenticeship model diminishes and growth plateaus or declines. This is a major limitation of the hero model making its design impossible to scale.

Many of our clients wait until the efficiencies are lost, quality suffers, and employee satisfaction declines to move in another direction. Even more disconcerting is when the firm leaders find themselves playing both coach and referee when they should be spending their time growing and expanding the business. Professional human resource management, an integrated performance management approach and professional training will enable organizations to continue growing, increase client satisfaction, and drive profitability. Firms have the opportunity to leverage learning across engagements, come together on common approaches and have employees “stand on the shoulders” of prior work making them more efficient and their projects more successful. They just need the right environment and professional development structure in place to enable them to learn how.

A firm with good people, intellectual capital, good client relationships, and high client needs can be successful for some time with the hero model. What firms should desire is to provide effective training and professional development, efficient systems and processes, and dependably consistent knowledge capture so that everyone can be a hero. When the client says, “Am I getting your best people?” you want to always be able to say confidently, “Yes!”

Mike Shank, PhD (mike@p31-consulting.com)

P31 Consulting designs training and professional development programs that include onboarding through management/leadership skill development for small and mid-size growing firms. Contact us to learn how we help.


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