ON BECOMING EXTRAORDINARY (2020 edition)
The revised (2020) edition of On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms [ISBN 979-8657031-966] is a close-up, real-life look at the art of managing and leading professional service firms aka PSFs. The study began with an effort several years ago to consolidate my thinking on the guiding principles of elite, larger than life PSFs. Writing On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms helped me to unify my thinking about the world’s most successful PSFs. Not surprisingly, virtually all of the ideas and insights in On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms originated in my experience serving PSFs over the past 30 years. This experience has helped me to realize that leaders in PSF industries are facing challenges unlike anything they have had to deal with in recent memory. Their industries have changed dramatically, making it difficult for old approaches to work effectively. On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms is about how PSFs should be managed to cope with this new era. The goal was to write an accessible, useful, practical book full of hints, tools & tricks of the trade.
Why do some PSFs prosper in extraordinary fashion, while others fail to do so? What do these ‘special’ firms do that makes them excellent? What makes them really tick? These are challenging questions because most ‘star’ firms remain big mysteries to the general public.
The research project officially started in January 2009. The bulk of the work – the project’s preparation, interviewing, evaluation, and interpretation of the data – was completed by May 2014. The first edition of On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms was published in December 2014. The revised edition has been published in July 2020.
Defining ‘excellence’ remains as difficult as explaining the origins of the universe. Ultimately, it is a mindset that permeates an organization.
In developing my perspective on PSF excellence, I drew on the following sources of information and analysis, triangulating the data in various ways:  interviews with senior officials of PSFs,  interviews with senior officials of client organizations, primarily members of management, advisory, and supervisory boards,  secondary research and archiving material, and  interviews, email exchanges, and telephone conversations with knowledgeable outsiders [e.g., industry experts, professors, and academic subject matter experts].
During the research study, I viewed myself as a builder, piecing together many pieces of a complex puzzle into a coherent whole. I built numerous individual case studies with organizational and performance profiles, and tested the findings in discussions with PSF leaders, thought leaders, and client executives around the world. By synthesizing the findings, I identified a set of common traits, a rich body of insights and perspectives – principles of success – and a better understanding of what essentially drives excellent PSFs.
In the research study, ‘star’, ‘elite’ or ‘peak of the pyramid’ PSFs are those firms that  categorized themselves as leaders in their industries. Furthermore, in each of the eight success areas targeted in the study [i.e., people development, client development, practice development, office/firm management, reputation management, information management, innovation management and continuous performance improvement management], I identified those PSFs that had consistently outperformed their competitors according to  client executives as well as  peers.
Where does all this add up to? Based on the above criteria, that is, by combining the firm’s  leadership,  client performance, and  peer performance, my analyses led to the following selection of 116 star PSFs [categories in alphabetical order]:
- 7 Accounting firms – Baker Tilly | BDO | Deloitte | EY | Grant Thornton | KPMG | PwC
- 17 Advertising agencies, market research firms, public relations/marketing communication firms - BBDO | Brainjuicer (currently System1) | DDB | Dentsu | Edelman | Forrester | Gartner | GfK | Harris Interactive | Havas | Hill+Knowlton | International Data Corporation [IDC] | Ipsos | Nielsen | Publicis | TBWA | WPP
- 5 Executive search/assessment/leadership consulting firms - Egon Zehnder | Heidrick & Struggles | Korn Ferry | Russell Reynolds Associates | Spencer Stuart
- 4 HR consulting firms – Aon [Hewitt] | Hay Group [since 2015 part of Korn Ferry] | Mercer | Towers Watson [currently Willis Towers Watson]
- 22 Investment banks, investment advisory services firms, investment management services firms, M&A boutique firms - Bank of America [Merrill Lynch] | Barclays | BNP Paribas | Centerview Partners | China International Capital Corporation Ltd. [CICC] | Citi | Credit Suisse | Deutsche Bank | Evercore | Goldman Sachs | Greenhill & Co. | HSBC | Jefferies | J.P. Morgan | Lazard | Morgan Stanley | Nomura | Perella Weinberg Partners [PWP] | Piper Jaffray (currently Piper Sandler) | SEB | UBS | VTB Capital
- 18 Investment and private equity firms – Advent International | Apax Partners | Apollo Global Management | Bain Capital | Blackstone | Cinven | Clayton, Dubilier & Rice | CVC Capital Partners | Doughty Hanson & Co. [In 2017 the firm was rebranded from Doughty Hanson to DH Private Equity Partners [DH]] | Hellman & Friedman | Maddison Dearborn Partners [MDP] | KKR | Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Bryers [currently Kleiner Perkins] | PAI Partners | Permira | Providence | The Carlyle Group | TPG
- 10 IT consulting firms – Accenture | Atos | Capgemini | CSC/Computer Sciences Corporation [successor: DXC Technology. DXC Technology was founded in 2017 as the result of the spin-off of HP Enterprise’s Enterprise Service segment and its merger with CSC] | IBM | Infosys | Oracle | SAP | Tata Consultancy Services [TCS] | Wipro
- 18 Law firms – Allen & Overy | Baker McKenzie | Bird & Bird | Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton | Clifford Chance | Covington & Burling | Cravath, Swain & Moore | Davis Polk & Wardwell | Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer | Herbert Smith Freehills | Jones Day | Latham & Watkins | Linklaters | Simpson Thacher & Bartlett | Slaughter and May | Skadden | Sullivan & Cromwell | Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
- 15 Management consulting firms – Arthur D. Little | Bain & Company | Booz Allen Hamilton | Booz & Company [currently Strategy& part of PwC] | Boston Consulting Group | Kearney | L.E.K. Consulting | Marakon | Oliver Wyman | McKinsey & Company | Monitor [currently Monitor Deloitte] | OC&C Strategy Consultants | Roland Berger | Simon-Kucher & Partners | Stern Stewart & Co.
To establish a comprehensive database, I surveyed the 116 firms in-depth and built detailed case histories of success stories. The practices of the peak of the pyramid are streets ahead of other firms. Star PSFs outperform most manufacturing and other service firms in everything that truly counts: reputation & presence, profits & total fee level, prominence & influence. On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms describes the ways in which 116 of the world’s best-known PSFs win. Success principles aren’t just one aspect of the game; they are the game.