ON BECOMING EXTRAORDINARY
‘On Becoming Extraordinary – Star Professional Service Firms’ [ISBN 978 908 107 7651] 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’ [in short: OBE] helped me to unify my thinking about the world’s most successful PSFs. Not surprisingly, virtually all of the ideas and insights in OBE originated in my experience serving PSFs over the past 25 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. OBE is about how PSFs should be managed to cope with this new era. The goal of OBE 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.
Defining ‘excellence’ remains as difficult as explaining the origins of the universe. It is not something you can simply invoke or turn on or off. 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 identified those firms 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
- 17 Advertising agencies, market research firms, public relations/marketing communication firms
- 5 Executive search/assessment/leadership consulting firms
- 4 HR consulting firms
- 22 Investment banks, investment advisory services firms, investment management services firms, M&A boutique firms
- 18 Investment firms, private equity firms
- 10 IT consulting firms
- 18 Law firms
- 15 Management consulting firms
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. OBE 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.