Partners need to be constantly engaged with the firm's vision. What prevents this is the partners' performance goals, either individually or as a team or department, not aligning with the firm's strategic initiatives. When this occurs, what the partners do on a daily basis isn't coordinated and can result in individual partners, teams (or even whole departments) emphasizing different elements of the firm's strategy -- usually the one that resonates most with them!
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We see this too often in multi-location/multi-country firms where what's important in one location isn't in another and, as a result, it's downplayed in favor of local priorities. Unfortunately, though, it's the whole firm that suffers, not just the initial location.
To make sure all of the partners are going in the same direction, the firm needs a goal-setting process that creates a "line of sight" -- i.e., the partners need to be able to draw a line of sight between the firm's vision and strategic objectives and what they do on a daily basis. With "line of sight," a partner's goals would typically be based on the firm's overall goals, plus the partner's departmental and team goals (team goals might include a client team charged with introducing more of the firm's services).
'LINE OF SIGHT' GOALS
"In most cases, goals that do exist are vastly under-communicated, and just because the formal leaders are clear on what they want to achieve doesn't necessarily mean that those on the front line, where the action actually happens, know what the goals are," said Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen R. Covey, during a seminar that he gave in 2005.
This assumption that the firm's goals will be automatically carried through into individual partner goals is one of the mistakes that managing partners often make. Another is to focus performance at an individual level, rather than at a team or department level. After all, with peer pressure the most effective form of control in professional service firms, and partners in the majority of firms working in teams on client delivery and development, ensuring that team goals are aligned with the firm's strategic initiatives is a much more effective way of achieving goal alignment throughout the firm -- just as it's a much more effective way of promoting cross-selling and the creation of mutual support and accountability.
FOCUS ON A FEW GOALS
Current thinking suggests that people who focus on a few key goals have a greater chance of achieving or surpassing their goals -- and all of our work confirms that this is true. In our research, something that successful managing partners do that differentiates them from their peers is to focus their partners' efforts on the firm's key deliverables as a way of avoiding dissipation of energy and a loss of momentum.
As more firms introduce a "balanced scorecard" approach to individual goal-setting, we increasingly come across partners with goals in each quadrant of the scorecard. And yet the thinking behind the scorecard is that people have different capabilities and that the achievement of the firm's goals can only be achieved through the aggregation of individual scorecards that recognize people's differing capabilities.
So, for example, we all know that some partners are not very good at winning business from people with whom they have no pre-existing relationship, while some partners find it relatively easy. But, all too often, every partner is expected to win new business from prospects when some partners would be far better employed extending the services that the firm provides to their existing clients. It's a simple example, but it highlights another thing that successful managing partners do: They make sure they know their partners' capabilities well enough to ensure that they are used effectively. And when the firm is too large for the managing partners to have the intimate knowledge this approach requires, they ensure that the people they appoint to key positions adopt the same approach.
This focus on making sure that the firm's resources are used effectively is key for all firms. And, as we keep stressing, firms will only use their resources effectively if they ensure that there is engagement, capability and an alignment between the firm's strategic initiatives and departmental, team and individual goals.
DEFINE MEASURES AND TIMESCALES
Traditional thinking suggests that once the goal has been communicated, people will know the organization is serious about it. But, in reality, most people don't usually take a goal seriously until they start keeping score. And, as professional services is an execution game and goal delivery is crucial, every goal needs appropriate measures and timescales.
So, for example, if the firm and the department have a goal of reducing attrition of five-to-seven-year professionals from 15 percent to 10 percent within three years, individual partners across the firm will have different annual targets depending upon the attrition in their group. They will also have individual targets and timescales for the retention of the top-performing five-to-seven-year professionals in their group and the development of the next cadre of professionals, should the retention goal not be achieved.
The need for appropriate measures and timescales is especially important given the psychological make-up of professionals. With their highly competitive nature, professionals always set personal goals associated with their work and careers, and it is crucial that these personal work goals are aligned to the firm's strategic initiatives.
Many leaders believe that people remain focused and committed to their performance goals if the goals are clear and compelling. However, that's not our experience. According to Franklin Covey's 4 Disciplines of Execution, team engagement and accountability is necessary to maintain commitment to goals, and we are firmly in this camp. In all of the great firms we know, the focus is on team accountability. The partners share their performance goals, measures and timescales, and hold each other jointly accountable for their delivery. They also explicitly support each other in a high challenge/high support culture in which help (rather than criticism and the perception of failure) is the normal and expected behavior.
The alignment of individual goals with the firm's strategic initiatives ought to be straightforward and something all firms do automatically, but this doesn't always seem to be the case. The problem is that, in most firms we know, goal-setting isn't something that the partners are actually good at. So they need help but, critically, that's not something they like to admit.
As we have said before, great firms have a high challenge/high support culture where help is seen as a positive - a way of enhancing firm performance. The challenge facing all firms, therefore, is to ensure that their partners can set meaningful goals -- goals that align with the firm's strategic initiatives and which, when delivered, ensure that the firm achieves its vision.
Rob Lees is a founding partner of Moller PSFG Ltd., a consultant to professional service firm leaders worldwide, and co-author of When Professionals Have to Lead. Reach him at email@example.com. August Aquila is an internationally known speaker, consultant and writer, CEO of Aquila Global Advisors, and co-author of Compensation as a Strategic Asset and Client at the Core. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (952) 930-1295. © 2012. Robert J. Lees, August J. Aquila. All rights reserved.