Freeing Yourself from the Hero Trap

Nearly every good story has a hero. They are made into role models. They protect others, save lives, or win big games. They carry others to victory and are idolized by those around them. Studies suggest that heroes in the traditional sense embody charisma, make bold moves, and attract attention.

Often embedded Professional Services (PS) groups have people they look to as heroes – those experts in the products and how to make them work.  In the early days of a PS organization, heroes may be critical to grow and sustain the business.  They consistently are able to make unhappy customers happy or come in at the eleventh hour and get it done. They often become the names customers want back again and again.

However, what makes a hero an asset in the early stages of your business can prove to be a detriment to your business as it matures. The business becomes reliant on the few experts and it interferes with how the PS business optimally operates.

Unlike most businesses that perform through functional organizations where the organization chart drives the business– specialists in different organizations – sales, R&D, etc., the PS business is a much more integrated business that adapts itself to different customer situations and projects.  Therefore, it drives its business through what’s called the staffing model.  PS success requires a strict protocol of how work is done and the ability to assemble and deploy teams of different levels of expertise at times of need.

Reliance on heroes distorts the staffing model. The target leverage model for any PS business is a pyramid.   The benefits of this model include:

  • Margin Enhancement: In a pyramid staffing model, leverage is created by having lower-cost employees doing more of the work that is led and reviewed by more senior talent who can then be more available to support higher-level customer relationships, issues, topics, etc.  Further, it allows senior resources to work on more customer accounts.  This drives greater margins for the business.
  • Scalable: Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) — think heroes –  serve as adjunct guides, sharing their insights with project teams. In addition, the pyramid facilitates (and requires) coaching people as they move up through the pyramid – the following example levels are for explanation only:
    1. Level 1 – Learning how to meet the rigors of work in a PS organization.  This includes quality and timeliness.  Also, learning the interplay inherent in the business – how to take assignments, how to keep others apprised, how to get help, and when not to get help.  Finally, developing knowledge of the practice, offers, and products.
    2. Level 2– Running a project and coaching less experienced people.  Also, developing a leverageable expertise in one or more offers and/or products.
    3. Level 3 – Managing multi-projects or a program.  Coaching those managing projects – providing forest through the trees perspective and other experience and advice.  Also, assisting leaders at the customer to understand what is important – dealing with issues, leading customers to understanding the future vision and outcomes of the effort, getting buy-in, and maintaining commitment and momentum.
    4. Level 4 – Driving Customer success. Managing service line or practice P/Ls.  Dealing with senior members of Customer organizations.
  • Risk Reduction: Because knowledge and skills are transferred throughout the organization, the business reduces the risk of “being held hostage” by any individuals; individual knowledge becomes team knowledge.
  • Enabling High-Quality Work– The nature of the pyramid forces improvement and expansion of ability to move up in the organization by dispersing expertise and building experience throughout the team.  Thereby, naturally enabling an ever-improving organization. Historically this was referred to as “up or out.”

A hero-led model, however, is a diamond-shaped staffing model.  Hero dependence limits growth because a proper project structure has not been created – when heroes are the center of project structure by nature, they limit how much can be done.  Other limitations of the diamond-shaped model include:

  • High Cost: Due to heroes’ niche expertise, they command high salaries, but you need more of them to create a well-rounded team.  Typically, the heroes will also end up taking on work that is not at the “top of their license,” further increasing costs.
  • Hard to Scale: Hiring more individual contributor SMEs does not readily allow for transferring specialized skillsets to other less experienced employees, thereby constraining team leverage across more customers.
  • High-risk: Lack of knowledge transfer may result in experienced SMEs holding the business “hostage,” as they independently possess unique skills and knowledge integral to the business’s operations.

Breaking the Model

How can you shift out of this hero-dominated culture? The following six key activities will help you break the cycle:

  1. Break out of the “hero ecosystems” – Rather than having projects revolve around the heroes, position them as adjuncts and diffuse their expertise to the rest of the teams.
  2. Emphasize repeatability – Standardize your portfolio by creating boundaries around the things you sell, the scope of your offers, and the skills and capabilities required for each offer. Create a central knowledge management repository and build consistent training programs to ensure that all employees have access to the information and training they need to carry out each offer repeatedly and consistently.
  3. Track and measure project success – If you are rewarding people or teams based on pieces of the big picture, you’re likely sub-optimizing the project as a whole. Therefore, it’s important to monitor key indicators like realization, margin, customer satisfaction, utilization, etc. that present a holistic view of the project. Tracking the performance of individuals and project types (against standardized expectations) will allow you to hold your team accountable for consistency and repeatability. This will enable you to anticipate challenges and coach and guide your projects proactively.
  4. Set Expectations Early in the Deal Cycle– Don’t get yourself in trouble by taking on risky, unapproved deals. Instate a regular deal review process to ensure that people are selling only the standardized deals, or that exceptions are appropriate for firm growth and sustainability objectives.
  5. Reward your unsung heroes– In this new model, it’s critical to look past acts of heroism and reward teams and individuals for collaboration, standardization, development of others, and managing to PS norms. This entails promoting those who exhibit these behaviors and redesigning the incentive program to reward these behaviors.
  6. Train and develop your people – Cement a culture of encouraging and enabling others. Limit your reliance on heroes and focus the development on the skillsets of other employees. Build out robust technical, domain, and intimacy (PS) skillsets that yield well-rounded personnel.

In summary, a PS business that strives to be truly meaningful to the broader company must break out of the “hero” model and move to the pyramid staffing model.  This may seem difficult and even a little dangerous, but with deliberate steps and perseverance, it can be achieved.


Written by: Dean McMann

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About the Author: Dean McMann is a Founding Partner at McMann & Ransford with 35+ years of experience in consulting and professional services.  He is a sought-after expert and speaker on topics of: B2B differentiation, professional services best practices, and overcoming commoditization.  In addition to his extensive experience in the Professional Services space, Dean also serves on the board of various non-profit organizations.


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