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Book Summary: Inside Knowledge – How Women Can Thrive in Professional Service Firms by Alison Temperley

In 2015, a man starting work at a law firm was three times more likely than a woman to make a partner. The same held for accounting and consulting firms. Women’s leadership coach Alison Temperley addresses unconscious bias and gender inequities in professional service firms. She has 30 years of experience working in and with such firms.

Summary of Inside Knowledge - How Women Can Thrive in Professional Service Firms by Alison Temperley

Even in firms that claim to be meritocracies, women don’t advance as quickly as their male counterparts. Temperley advises women to be more vocal, to express how their contributions matter, and to advocate for promotion. Although the book’s subtitle positions her overview as niche advice for women in professional firms, women in many fields will find her counsel applicable.

In this summary, you will learn.

  • How women can actively manage their professional careers.
  • Why professional service firms need to fix internal inequities.
  • What women can do to succeed in this environment.

Content Summary

Getting Started
Maximize Your Time
Office Politics: How to Manage Your Impression
Unique Obstacles
Ship and Role Models
Attaining More Clients
About the Author

Getting Started

Whether you work in law, accounting, medicine, consulting, or another professional service area, consider what you offer your firm. Many women underestimate their talents. Run through some self-analysis to identify what you contribute and what you want. Where do you hope to be in three years? What aspects of your life do you want to keep or discard? What information do you need to move forward? Analyze not only what you want, but also how to get there, including professional assignments and remuneration. Identify the factors that keep you grounded, such as personal support, exercise, and leisure activities.

Put to rest the widely held view that women are less ambitious than men. Women are only less outwardly ambitious, while men state their ambitions succinctly and unequivocally. Males apply for a promotion when they have only 60% of the job requirements. Women worry about being seen as “too ambitious” and wrongly assume their superiors will notice their hard work. Women in professional service firms either can keep their heads down and work long hours hoping for a promotion or can actively manage their careers, including stating their goals and ambitions.

Express your ambition using simple language such as, “I would like to be a partner in this firm in 20XX,” or “I would like to take on X piece of work this year.” Elaborate on why your work benefits the firm and how handling a particular project is adding to your professional development. This shows what you want when you want it, and how you can get it without you seeming too pushy or demanding, faults people are quick to find in women, though not in men.

Tell your co-workers that you’re working on your professional development, and ask for feedback with examples of three things you do well and three things you “could do differently.” Asking what you could do differently increases the likelihood of getting balanced feedback from junior staffers who otherwise would be reluctant to address your weaknesses. Feedback is more useful when it reveals a pattern of behavior and is specific and written. Current feedback from clients or your superiors is the most useful. Solicit feedback after big projects or every three months. Make sure people see the positive feedback your clients give you.

“Working in a professional service firm involves long hours and demanding clients.”

“Find a way to express your ambition that is clear, concise and factual. Plan, prepare and practice…and then do it.”

Maximize Your Time

Do urgent and important tasks first, then those that are important but not urgent, followed by urgent tasks that aren’t important, and then tasks that are neither. Keep a professional development file with feedback, evaluations, coursework, your résumé, and a draft of your next performance appraisal – which you can use to support the future promotion

Think about what boosts your energy and what drains it. Energy boosters might be exercising, meeting friends for lunch, and having good relationships with your co-workers.

Energy drainers include routine administrative work and contention with co-workers or acquaintances. Do your workout before work or eat breakfast with a friend. Having lunch with someone is better for you than eating at your desk or skipping lunch; your brain needs fuel. At day’s end, doing just one more thing might be tempting, but most tasks can wait until the next day

Set aside time each month to review your career. Schedule a monthly meeting with yourself. Use this time for thinking, not doing. Turn off technological distractions. Spend 20 minutes looking back and 40 minutes looking forward. Review your CV and recent accomplishments.

Training junior staff members take time upfront, but being able to delegate to them is necessary for promotion. Giving your staff more responsibility will boost their skills and exposure, and ultimately, you’ll save time by delegating. Men often use the support a firm offers, but women usually try to do everything themselves. Check with your staff regularly to clear any confusion and offer support. Let them correct their mistakes so they learn.

“Your firm is…there to make money…by selling the skills of its people, and you are one of those people.”

“Politics just exists when people get together. It is a fact of life. It is how you play the politics that is the choice.”

Office Politics: How to Manage Your Impression

Many professionals see two archetypes in the workforce – the peacock and the mouse.

Mice quietly work hard; peacocks strut their stuff. Women often overlook the middle ground: “Simply tell other people what you do and explain the impact of your work.”

This isn’t blowing your own horn. Senior executives won’t always be aware of your accomplishments. You have to tell them. “Impression management” isn’t about manipulation or bragging. It calls for telling others how you affect the firm. You are less likely to get challenging work assignments in the future if nobody knows what you do. If you aren’t visible, your superiors can’t consider you for promotion. Keep your LinkedIn profile and social media up-to-date with your accomplishments.

Determine three things you want others to say about you when you’re not around. Write them down. Then compose a short paragraph that highlights you at your “BEST”:

  • Brief: Be succinct because people have short attention spans.
  • Enthusiastic: Show your passion when describing how much you love your work.
  • Successful: Document your successes and your contributions to the firm.
  • Take-Aways: Include memorable highlights people can use to link you with your work.

Unique Obstacles

Women face some unique obstacles, including the social cost of being excluded from the team, relying on a system of meritocracy, getting caught in the role of “organization dusting,” fearing failure, attributing their success to external events, and needing to prepare. Organizational dusting refers to the hidden work women do which male superiors easily overlook. For example, firms often ask women to train junior associates, thus freeing up time for senior managers to focus on profit-making activities. While such delegation is necessary, women lose out on more commercial opportunities. To gauge how you’re doing, rank yourself against a peer and a significantly superior in terms of how often you step forward to volunteer for important roles and assignments.


Be strategic about networking. Identify the specific senior people who can best help you advance, position yourself to work on major projects, and obtain new business from external clients. Strategize how you will build meaningful connections internally and externally. Internally, you may find that some co-workers still regard you as you were when you first joined the firm or when you held a more junior position. Approach them with commonalities, for example, shared clients or future projects you could work on together. Ask them for advice. Externally, think broadly and use all your resources. Talk to your clients about potential cross-selling opportunities.

Although official networking events can be awkward, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you prepare. Be clear about your intentions before going to an event. If it won’t help you, don’t go. Find out who’s on the guest list, and send an email to the top person to see if he or she is willing to meet with you before the event. Send emails to other contacts on the list to see if you can connect with them there. During the event, first look for ways to help others. Ask them about their business and roles. Don’t spend all your time talking only to your friends. You can leave early once you achieve your goals. Write down facts you learned about your contacts on their business cards. Send them an email the next day to establish a relationship. Once a month, reach out to your contacts to see how you can help them, and update them on your career. Take time to network effectively.

Ship and Role Models

To advance, you need a sponsor who’s interested in backing you and hearing about your accomplishments. Sponsors are different from mentors. Mentors are your sounding boards and advisers; they’re neutral. Sponsors are advocates who’re willing to stake their reputations on you. They introduce you to powerful people and push for your promotion. But sponsorship isn’t a one-way street. Work hard to make your sponsors look good. Besides doing excellent work, keep your sponsors regularly updated and assure them you plan to stay with the firm.

Women are often better at gaining supporters and mentors than at gaining sponsors. Yet having a sponsor is critical for advancement. Sponsorship can be hard for women to find because it often takes place outside the office. Many men feel uncomfortable sponsoring women, especially older men sponsoring younger women because of the possible social implications. If you can’t find someone to sponsor you directly, ask for help in getting a sponsor. Often, your former managers “make good mentors; they know you well and are no longer line-managing you.” Ideally, you want more than one sponsor. When you advance, return the favor and sponsor another woman.

Attaining More Clients

Your superiors want to know how your projects affect profits. Does your work boost the firm’s reputation and bottom line? To get more clients, speak up about your contributions. Consider how your firm differs from its rivals and what you uniquely offer as a trusted adviser to your firm’s clients. To build better client relationships, realize that you don’t always have to be selling. Clients appreciate it when you listen and ask about their work. They are experts at what they do. Author Alison Temperley once had a client who was the general counsel of a large global company based in South Africa. The client said she’d seen professional service firms come and go, and that none of them had asked what she wanted. And, they failed to listen when she tried to tell them. They only repeated what they offered. Listening well to your clients gives you an edge. Women often feel that they can’t build better after-hours relationships with clients because of the social implications that crop up when men and women work late or attend social gatherings together. Men who play golf or go to sports events often leave their female colleagues behind. Pursue alternatives to sports, such as going to theaters, art galleries, or concerts. Develop your client base by expressing interest in your clients and their activities.


To get promoted, you must be proactive about performance appraisals and your progress at work. Review your firm’s performance appraisal document at the start of the year so you know what the company expects. Hit every goal in each section by year’s end. Ask for specific feedback in the evaluation process. Women often get unhelpful general feedback. Ask for exact targets.

Prepare for your performance evaluation. Think of the big picture that you want to communicate: what you want your reviewer to think and feel, and what you want him or her to do. Write out what you think went well or didn’t go well during the year, what you learned from each experience, how internal and external factors contributed, your immediate goals, and their implicit problems or smooth points, and your long-term career ambitions and their accompanying challenges. Bring this exercise to your appraisal meeting to discuss with your reviewer. Actively participate in your performance evaluation process. “Ask for what you need.”

The promotion process can be hard to parse. Often, two processes happen at the same time: an informal one in which you gather support from sponsors and mentors – and an official or formal one that goes through HR and your boss. As you prepare for promotion, do great work while solidifying support. Prepare paperwork in advance, putting your most important points first in your performance review document. Avoid words that weaken your case, such as “just, quite or a bit.” Have sponsors and supporters review your paperwork. Before your interview, learn the background and interests of your interviewers. Do a practice interview panel with your backers. Plan your attire a week ahead.

On the day of your interview, don’t answer the phone before your meeting unless you plan to talk to a friend who can pump you up. During the interview, show your professionalism. Your interviewers may use the “STAR model” for questioning. They will ask you to describe them a “situation” in which you applied your leadership skills, the “task” you were performing, your “actions” and your “results.” Prepare your answers in depth.

About the Author

Alison Temperley applies her 30-plus years of professional service firm experience to coaching female accountants, lawyers, and consultants. She leads the design, delivery, and coaching of global women’s leadership programs for Linklaters and Allen & Overy, both international law firms, and co-leads their global program.

Source: Inside Knowledge – How Women Can Thrive in Professional Service Firms by Alison Temperley, Emerald Publishing Limited