Leadership Focus Creates Foundation for Professional Services Firms’ Success

Burns Insight -Benefits of leadership programs

by Patricia Tuso, PHR, SHRM-CP, PMP

After pay and benefits, today’s employees say that tangible engagement and a clear path to advancement are the primary qualities they seek in a professional services firm. They want to feel integral to the organizations they join, that their contributions make a difference, and that their managers and employers are as invested in their success as they are.

Savvy employers likewise recognize that leaders come from all levels within an organization, and actively foster the development of today’s standout employees and the leaders of tomorrow. While some great leaders are born, they are just as often made – created through considered, tailored and egalitarian development programs that emphasize continuous mentoring, experiential learning, visibility, and independent thinking.

Successful companies recognize that every employee – regardless of position – can be a leader, and they provide tools and clear paths to get there. While not everyone is cut out for the boardroom, encouraging each employee to take charge of his or her work, to contribute to problem-solving, and to communicate their accomplishments, yields a culture in which great ideas flourish and everyone thrives.


Mentoring is a powerful tool that provides valuable opportunities for less seasoned employees to learn from the example of senior leaders. This extends beyond day-to-day project execution. Employees model a leader’s behaviors so leaders must lead by example and be aware of their responsibility to demonstrate the corporate values and visions. Mentoring, whether one-on-one or in a group setting, should be consistent, meaningful and results driven. Mentoring is also most effective when it is flexible, tailored to each employee’s unique needs, goals, disciplines and skillsets. To keep mentoring programs relevant and meaningful, companies should encourage employee feedback, and regularly check in to ensure mentors are modeling corporate goals and philosophies.

Typically, an employee may have one mentor; however, having multiple mentors at different levels of the organization provides a diversified prospective. At Burns, after receiving a promotion, new Project Managers meet with the Chief Operating Officer in three one-on-one mentoring sessions throughout the year to discuss the employee’s acclimation to his/her new position, as well as responsibilities and challenges they may be facing. This gives employees a more holistic view and understanding of the organization and allows them to learn from the experiences of a seasoned leader.

Experiential Learning

Hands-on learning goes beyond mentoring and provides employees with tangible opportunities to learn and contribute. Assigning developing employees to active projects – and giving them real responsibilities – allows them to learn how to work as a team, communicate effectively, and interact with clients and other leaders. When developing employees are given the opportunity to attend meetings, interact with clients, and make decisions, they gain experience and confidence that cannot be obtained from mentoring alone.

An important aspect of experiential learning is when an employee is tasked with new and complex challenges and is encouraged to step out of a comfort zone. A supportive and “blame-free” environment gives an employee the support they need to stretch outside of their core strengths, and work on more complex work assignments.

To prepare for promotions, Burns provides employees with learning assignments that are supplementary to their technical duties. This can include attending client scope meetings, drafting change orders or portions of a request for proposal, preparing a project budget, or helping to select a project team. The ability to complete a new task while considering new ideas and thought processes provides the most effective learning experience for an employee.


Smart employers encourage employees at all levels to be visible, both inside and outside of the company. For example, it is beneficial to provide ample opportunities for employees to get out of their cubicles to attend team meetings, communicate face-to-face with clients and leaders within their organization and work with other departments. These opportunities allow employees to showcase their talents and gain visibility. Allow developing employees the opportunity to attend industry events, site visits, and client meetings with a senior leader. Serving as a member of a trade organization can also provide valuable leadership experience for the individual, and industry exposure for the firm.

At Burns, employees are encouraged to speak at industry conferences and forums and get involved with local professional organization and trade association meetings, charity events and other activities. Internally, we focus on growing a culture of communication, where employees at all levels feel comfortable enough to provide feedback and discuss concerns openly with senior leaders. Recently, a senior department leader at Burns established an employee group that meets once a month to help keep a pulse on the team’s engagement. During these skip-level meetings, the team discusses process efficiencies and challenges to continually enhance the operations of the department. This process has provided a great vehicle for open communication and has surfaced much positive feedback as well as a few important concerns directly with the senior leader.

Independent Thinking

Employees who are encouraged to speak up about problems, come up with innovative solutions and shepherd those solutions to completion, are happier, more collaborative and more productive. They also are more likely to make important contributions to the team. It’s important to encourage creativity and provide options for ways that employees can communicate their ideas. At Burns, our junior engineers have established their own mentoring group – the Junior Engineering Training (JET) Committee. The JET Committee promotes open discussion, expands interdisciplinary knowledge, and improves interdisciplinary coordination.

Rewards and recognition, both big and small, are an important incentive to help build leaders. At Burns, we monetarily incentivize continuing education, advanced degrees, professional registrations and other formal accomplishments. We also applaud employees’ contributions to their communities in internal bulletins and on social media, and reward top performers at a special ceremony held annually.

Employees who are encouraged to communicate and contribute are more likely to innovate, and shoulder and solve tough problems. It’s important to recognize contributions of all sizes so employees keep contributing and are motivated to stay at and advance within their companies. At Burns, we use a “Cheers to Peers” software platform that allows employees at all levels within the organization to recognize a coworker on a job well done – from big accomplishments to little successes. This helps encourage positive thinking and supports a culture of accountability and appreciation.

Firms that recognize and leverage the benefits of leadership programs likewise are able to attract and retain professionals who are industry leaders today, or who have the unique potential to be the dynamic, results-driven leaders of tomorrow.