By Rob Starr, Big4.com Content Manager.
“We really know professional services,” Laurence J. Stybel says and there’s no doubt that statement carries appropriate weight. He is the co-founder of Stybel, Peabody Lincolnshire, a global firm specializing in leadership and career success headquartered in Boston.
It boasts three of the Big4 as clients. The firm was founded in 1979 and also works with 13 of Boston’s 15 largest law firms. Stybel is also Executive in Residence at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.
Stybel starts our conversation about career advancement in the Big4 by paying homage to the origins of the Finders, Minders and Grinders template they subscribe to as the best description for the three core accounting functions in a CPA firm.
“That framework wasn’t created by me,” he says. “One of our clients was the late lamented Arthur D. Little which was at the time the world’s largest management consulting firm and they had this concept that I find applies in the professional services world extremely well.”
Predictably, the Grinders are the folks in the entry level positions who are willing to work incredibly long hours. They are, according to Stybel, tasked with proving their competence by
paying studious attention to detail as well.
Success as a Grinder
“The problem that I find with this population is that in order to be successful in this work, you need to be a little obsessive/compulsive. As you achieve success as a Grinder, the temptation is to keep doing what you’ve been successful at,” he says adding this cycle can propagate itself to the detriment of further advancement.
Enter a beneficial psychological concept called unlearning that’s best done through social unfreezing. It’s an idea Stybel champions and it was first described by sociologist Kurt Lewin.
“This concept is not fully appreciated in business. It rests on the premise that in order to learn
new things, you need to unlearn old things.” He adds past habits that have been successful are extremely hard to get rid of and people often need a push to carry on with new phases in their career development.
However, Stybel proposes an unfreezing ceremony after the third year would include a symbol of the firm’s appreciation of the person’s hard work and an acknowledgement they were moving to the next level where old behaviors that once worked well could be discarded to face up to the realities of a new position and future.
Beyond the negative consequences on upward mobility the Grinder role presents, Stybel points out there are even more imminent dangers. For example, the pressures on the Grinders are amplified by the fact there are others waiting to take the jobs and do the work cheaper through a variety of methods like outsourcing to India. Artificial intelligence working in this slot is another looming possibility.
“The Grinder role has always been a transition role, but now it’s going to be more so,” Stybel says adding the position is actually a dangerous plateau to rest on since you’re managing business but not bringing any in.
He went on to say there was a blind side to business thinking where they only looked at the positive side and an inability to acknowledge the negative. The unfreezing process he describes is the way to learn new things with a better mental outlook and of acknowledging the need to clearly delineate the need to close one door and open another on a career path. In essence, the process is about allowing people to mourn one position and its traditions and ethics as they move to another.
“It’s human nature and business just hasn’t gotten the message,” he says.