Peak Performance

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By Gerry Riskin | Mar 12, 2014

by Gerry Riskin

It’s not only about the money…

In working with hundreds of professional services firms over the last fifteen years all over the world, we have had the privilege of making a few observations that may be of value to you, especially if compensation issues are chronic in your firm.

If your firm is experiencing chronic compensation disputes and pressures, you will not be able to use the thoughts contained here to put an immediate end to the situation. That would be like saying that the remedy for a heart attack patient in intensive care is to read aloud an article on nutrition and exercise. The difference of course is between prevention and cure. This article is about prevention.

Warning — if you prejudge this is silly, touchy-feely, unrealistic and more appropriate for some cult than a business oriented high quality professional services firm then skip this at your peril. This is about hard-nosed serious business principles. This is about maximizing profitability through better performance and more client loyalty.

Okay. If you are not the leader (manager) of your firm and you agree with the sentiments expressed in this article then here’s your chance. Pass it on to your executive group to read.

If you are one of the leaders of your firm and you are wondering whether the sentiments expressed in this article are just some flavour of the month and that they bare no relation to the true feelings/views of those you manage then we encourage you to test the ideas by circulating this and asking for the following feedback: In order to assess the relevance of this to us, please rate the article by checking one of the following and returning it:

a) This article has ideas that I wish our firm would take seriously (add comments if you wish).

b) This article has no relevance to us — for heaven’s sake ignore it! In fact, don’t even survey me with articles by the same authors any more.

c) While I do not embrace the article fully, the ideas that I believe are worth seriously considering are highlighted or contained in an attached note — or both.


Different people are motivated by different things. Some are driven by money and money alone. These people are rare and for them you better have a compensation system that works for them or expect to lose them. For most, money is not the most important thing. The exception to the rule unless they are not compensated in an appropriate range in which case money will temporarily obscure other motivators.

If money isn’t the most critical factor for motivation, why does it come up so often? Because money is what dissatisfied people default to. Money is the quick fix that management often turns to.

If money doesn’t do it, or at least doesn’t do it alone, what does? Well, let’s go to plain and simple pain and pleasure. Let’s begin at the nursery when our professionals were born. I think most people have heard about the studies that demonstrated that babies that are deprived of affection (never picked up; held etc.) fare far worse than their counterparts who receive an abundance of nurturing. So, if you want the baby to thrive what do you do.

In professional firms today we need peak performance from more and more of our people. What factors lead to that peak performance? If we learn from the nurture or neglect studies about the nursery and pain vs. pleasure we might come to some intuitive conclusions. 1) Nurtured professionals will perform better than neglected ones; and 2) those whose productive behaviour is reinforced will have a greater propensity to exhibit it than those for whom such behaviour is negatively reinforced.

(I can just hear some agile critical and analytical mind thinking, But sometimes the threat of pain can be more effective than positive reinforcement. That is probably right but what do you want to do to the prison guard who threatened you into compliance and how much longer will you comply than you have to?)

Let me tell you about the firm we are looking for but have not found. In a perfect world, it is your firm. It is a firm where people are truly appreciated and that appreciation is communicated in a myriad of ways.

Here are the behaviours you can expect from those who feel underappreciated: (this is not an indictment — they probably can’t help it)

  • complaining to spouse; family; friends
  • insecurity (am I good enough? — imposter syndrome and all that)
  • frustration: damned if I do, damned if I don’t (can’t win)
  • harboring fantasies of going elsewhere (escaping)
  • avoiding certain firm personnel
  • unwittingly sabotaging projects by lacking focus
  • experiencing negative emotion or stress
  • failing to help others (coach; mentor) or go the extra mile
  • (go ahead, add to the list — what have we forgotten that applies to you?)

HERE ARE SOME OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF THAT BEHAVIOR

  • poorer client service
  • lower client satisfaction levels
  • higher client attrition
  • higher business development costs (replacing as well as adding/improving)
  • less loyalty
  • more turnover
  • higher training costs (more people for same number of jobs)
  • higher recruiting costs (perceived as less desirable place to be)
  • lower support staff satisfaction
  • higher support staff turnover
  • (you get the idea)

Why do we allow this to go on? Perhaps the basic reason lies in the fact that we are so production-oriented. There is also a very macho mentality in most firms. A real professional doesn’t wine about being taken for granted — they just get the job done. (If you can find enough people like that to fully staff your firm, go for it. We have never observed such a place.)