The 5 Leadership Styles of the Most Successful Founders of Professional Service Firms…and the One to Avoid

5 people with different leadership styles

The 5 Leadership Styles of the Most Successful Founders of Professional Service Firms…and the One to Avoid

5 people with different leadership styles

From the time you start working, you can’t help but notice that one executive’s approach to leadership can be much different from another’s. There are many reasons and backstories for this phenomenon. However, now that you’re the one in charge, you’ll want to gain a deeper understanding of the most prevalent types of leadership in business to see where you fit in — or want to fit in. One place to gain knowledge in this arena is by joining Collective 54 and chatting with our members.

Collective 54 is a mastermind community for leaders of thriving boutique professional service firms. Because we are hyper-niched into a single industry (professional services), segment (boutiques), and type of individual (founders), Collective 54 has become a wonderful laboratory, producing insights based on real and recent experience. We learn from our members constantly.

Part of our offering is benchmarking data. Members can see how they are doing on certain metrics compared to their peers in the community. In addition to providing members with insight into their own businesses, this provides insight into the broader industry as well— such as which members are leading the pack in their firm’s niche.

The 5 Leadership Styles of Successful Professional Firm Leaders

One recent industry insight we’ve learned is that there are five leadership styles being used by successful members. The founders that fall neatly into one or more of these leadership categories are doing very well, according to our benchmark data. The following are each of the five leadership styles and some of the successful members that embody them.

1. The Capability Seducer

This leader becomes known as “The Person” to work for in their niche. Skilled people possessing unique capabilities flock to the Capability Seducer.

What makes a founder a Capability Seducer? These founders look for expertise everywhere. They ignore conventional practices like CVs, degrees, job histories, etc. They find trapped and hidden genius in the most unlikely places. And they have an almost sixth sense in spotting a person’s native capability (e.g., something they do exceptionally well and easily that is in high demand). Often, these individuals are unaware that what they are good at is in high demand. Thus, the Capability Seducer becomes a matchmaker, connecting the hidden talent with the opportunity.

As you might suspect, Capability Seducers are fantastic at removing obstacles. For example, one Collective 54 member is empowering stay-at-home moms to have rewarding careers. She didn’t care that these brilliant, hard-working women were at home raising their kids. Instead, she leaned into their natural, nurturing, and motherly instincts to drive unsurpassed client support. This has resulted in remarkable client satisfaction and a stellar repeat purchase rate. Listen to her story.

2. The Emancipator

The Emancipator frees employees from the soul-crushing work environment of big corporate America, where they exist under constant restraints. These employees are capable of so much more than their jobs in corporate America allow them to contribute, and the Emancipator knows it.

An Emancipator creates elbow room for their employees to thrive. This is not done by accident. It is deliberate. It shows up most often in the work assignment process. Emancipators build slack into each project and encourage employees to lean into it and contribute.

Of course, this privilege does not come without conditions. For example, the Emancipator defines a standard and demands people live up to it. But they do not create stress because they do not hold anyone accountable for something out of their control.

Most compelling of all the traits of the Emancipator leadership style is that they fail often, early, cheap, and fast. It is because of this they rapidly move along the learning curve and out-hustle their competitors. For example, we have an Emancipator member who liberated a group of accountants from cubicle farms and built a fast-growing firm specializing in QOEs. Hear his story.

3. The Defier

The Defier constantly tests and stretches her employees. They believe people grow by being challenged and that firms grow by never being content. They’re often heard saying, “Grow through what you are going through.” Their teaching style is Socratic, never providing the answer but rather just the provocative question, allowing the employee to discover the answer on his or her own.

The Defier does two things over and over again. First, they lay down a huge “stretch challenge” and make it concrete, tangible, and measurable. They assign ownership of the challenge to their high-potential employees, allowing them to be in the hot seat.

Secondly, they generate a belief in their high-potential employees that the impossible is possible. The stretch assignment has a plan, timeline, deliverables, milestones, a budget, and resources. The Defier sends the message: “I defy you to pull this off.” For example, we have a member who retired from the Navy, lost his leg, overcame an addiction to prescription pain pills, and went from $0 to $22 million in roughly 10 years. Hear his Defier story.

4. The Head Bumper

The Head Bumper believes any problem can be solved if enough heads are put on it, i.e., “let’s bump heads on this.” They like to argue point/counter-point style. Working for The Head Bumper can feel like working in a courtroom whereby two sides argue an issue with a judge handling procedure and a jury issuing a verdict. This style of leader believes that no one has all the answers.

The Head Bumper makes 10 decisions before most of us have had our first cup of coffee and runs a fast firm. This is because The Head Bumper is a fast framer. They quickly frame up the decision to be made, the options to choose from, whose input is needed, and how the decision shall be made (as in by majority, consensus, etc.). The Head Bumper sparks a robust debate and calls on everyone to provide input. They delete opinions and listen only to facts. They overweight input from those most educated on a topic. And they have an uncanny knack for balancing rigor and creating a safe place to bang heads.

This leader doesn’t care who won or lost the argument, only that a sound decision was made. We have a member who does this for a living. He provides chiefs of staff to CEOs to act as a force multiplier… and bang heads. Listen to his story.

5. The Sponsor

The Sponsor is the opposite of a micro-manager and is as hands-off as one can possibly be. They sponsor a project or an executive and they empty the bank account in support of the initiative. They name a lead and make sure everyone knows that the success or failure of the initiative sits with this lead. They stretch this person, hold the lead accountable, and do not care how the objective is accomplished, only that it is.

To become a Sponsor, you need to be bold and bet big. Sponsors step in only when the person on the hook needs knowledge and resources to deliver. They teach and coach but never “do.” They also expect a complete job and reject partial work, demanding only solutions and not more new problems. Ultimately, Sponsors allow people to experience the natural consequences of their actions.

This is my personal leadership style. If you want to hear how I became a Sponsor, listen to this.

The Leadership Style You Don’t Want to Imitate

In addition to these five leadership styles, there is one leadership style to avoid. Members who use this leadership style to lead their firms are underperforming. It’s called the Pleaser.

The Pleaser has the best of intentions. They think they’re doing a good job but are not and just do not know any better.

How do you know if you’re a Pleaser and need to rethink your personal approach to leadership? You can quickly check any or all of these boxes:

    • You overwhelm your team with an idea a minute. This wastes resources and demoralizes the team, chasing crazy ideas. (The solution: Put your ideas into a holding tank until the time is right.)
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    • You tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room. (The solution: Chill out and let others contribute)
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    • You “rescue” employees. This creates dependents and prevents scale. (The solution: Let people get their stuff together.)
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    • You run too fast. Not everyone in your firm can keep up with you. (The solution: Slow down or risk everyone just becoming spectators watching you sprint past them.)
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    • You create traffic jams by centralizing decision-making. You must make every decision, or nothing is going to get done. (The solution: Push decision-making down to those closest to the clients.)
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    • You live in the “reality distortion field” (made famous by Steve Jobs). Sometimes your optimism is destructive because people wonder if you understand the struggle. (The solution: From time to time, acknowledge the pain.)
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    • You are a perfectionist. If you constantly criticize everything, your employees will stop trying. (The solution: Get comfortable with progress over perfection.)

I am not going to provide a member example here because I believe it is best to praise in public but criticize in private.

The good news is that it’s never too late to improve your leadership prowess. If you want to invest in yourself, consider joining Collective 54. Our community is filled with leaders in each of these five categories and members actively looking to change their leadership style.

Learning from peers is the best way to learn, in my humble opinion. By rubbing shoulders with leaders in our community, these leadership traits will seep into your leadership approach. This will help you scale yourself, which is step one when trying to scale your firm.

Poll: What is your leadership style?