Leading Professionals as the First Among Equals

By: Jody Keller

David Maister, an expert on management of professional services firms, authored the must-read resource for anyone who finds him/herself emerging from the ranks of professionals to lead their organization: First Among Equals. Maister asserts that in order to be successful as the one that “heads up” an organization, team, committee, or any other group, the key to effectiveness is the existence of an explicit agreement where the team knows the rules and adheres to them.

A leader should rarely have to assert authority – and although you may be “the boss," that’s not the way you act. The way in which a leader behaves – inspires - is by demonstrating a strict discipline in following a set of standards that aren’t just talked about, but are enforced.  The key to enforcing these standards is skillful management, coaching, and facilitating. In other words, leadership.

This idea is supported by Jon Katzanbach, an expert on “teaming,” who asserts that performance of a team is more a matter of discipline than togetherness. We’ve probably all experienced or at least heard of work teams where members have trouble getting past their core area of competency - where collectively, they over-analyze, attempt to eliminate every bit of risk, and have so many conversations before making a decision – they want to be “safe” – that action is delayed or completely avoided. Because of this, many leaders give up trying to work with their employees as a team. 

However, well-coordinated groups can work, with the attention being paid to managing the process, rather than the individuals. The leader needs the emotional intelligence to influence other’s feelings, attitudes and emotions. With determination and optimism, the leader will be effective in transforming this disparate group of individuals into a high-performing team.

So, how do you get this done?   

  • First, clarify your role – how do you add value as a leader? Clarify the skills and talents you bring to the role, as well as the shortcomings. This is necessary to move to the second step. 

  • Confirm your responsibilities and obligations as the leader – EXPLICITLY. There should be no doubt what your role entails and what it does not.

  • THEN…. Build relationships – one at a time. And maintain those individual relationships outside of the team meetings. Only after relationships are built, can you move to the next step.

  • Gain trust and PERMISSION to coach. Only by earning their willingness to allow you to guide them can coaching be effective.

  • From this point, you can build support for change, which is a necessity for progress in an organization.

Of course, important skills including listening for understanding, assisting/training underperformers, and confronting/tackling difficult people head-on will always be needed as an effective leader of others. 

There’s nothing more gratifying for the leader and team than to be a part of a successful event, operation, or organization where it can be said with all honesty that it wouldn’t have happened without the collective effort and energy of the “equals” who make up the whole.   


After retiring from ParenteBeard LLC in 2013, Jody has returned to her organizational development consulting practice, focusing on company culture, employee engagement, and performance management. She recently served as the interim CEO of the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center and is an active community volunteer. Current roles include chairman of the board of Turning Point Women's Counseling and Advocacy center, member of the Memorial Health Systems Foundation board, Penn State York Advisory Board, and member of Human Resources committees for SpiriTrust, Byrnes Health Education Center, and the Country Club of York. Jody has been an active member of the Rotary Club of York for over 25 years. Jody serves as a mentor for Leadership York's Mentorship York program.