The more partners engage with the firm's future, the better they perform. So, the picture of the firm's future has to be compelling. It has to persuade people that they want to play a part in making it a reality.
Nearly all of the firms we know agree with the sentiment, but getting the partners engaged isn't always easy. So, how do firms go about engaging the partners and making sure they remain that way?
We used the girders-or-bridge analogy in our first article ("Get your firm pulling together," May 2012, page 36). Both have value, but building a bridge is a lot more compelling to most people. The picture becomes even more compelling when it's a bridge to somewhere people want to go. It's the ultimate destination that people engage with. And the journey is a lot more enjoyable (even if you're not actually that keen on parts of it) if the endpoint is exciting and has benefits you share in.
These last points are critical. Partners need to understand the benefits to the firm and themselves. And they need to know what the journey will entail (what we call the "how to"). All the professionals we know are highly analytical, and they need to know the detail of the journey before they'll embark on the voyage. Just saying, "We want to be a top 10 firm," for example, won't cut it.
So, given the nature of the people in the firm -- who, in addition to being highly analytical, always want to calibrate how they're doing -- there have to be distinct milestones so everyone can measure progress. That doesn't mean that the firm can't be opportunistic. The analogy of a journey is a good one. Sometimes the winds change or the train gets cancelled or there's the opportunity to visit somewhere unexpected and you change your course. The destination doesn't change -- only how you get there.
When we talk about having a compelling vision, we don't just mean one that's well-crafted. We mean a vision with a clear destination, strategies for getting there (the "how to"), the way progress will be measured and the benefits to the partners going on the journey.
Let's look at an example of what can happen when all the elements (vision, journey, milestones and a positive answer to "what's in it for me") aren't in place.
The managing partner of one of the firms we know explained how he had come back from Harvard Business School's Leading Professional Service Firms Program with renewed energy and a determination to drive the firm forward. So he outlined his vision of moving the firm from its regional base to a leading national firm to his partners and talked briefly about what they needed to do to get there. But, to his abject disappointment, nothing happened.
Concerned about the lack of action, the managing partner visited all of the offices to talk through the plans and, during these visits, the partners' concerns became apparent. While they really liked the idea of becoming a national firm, they felt that the only way to achieve it was through a merger, which they felt they would be on the wrong side of. As a result, the partners didn't engage with the vision and returned to the thing they knew best: serving their clients.
In the above example, the vision initially appeared positive, but when subjected to the partners' analytical thinking, the "how to" was clearly negative and the "what's in it for me" decidedly negative.
There is no chance of the partners being engaged unless they are an active part of the process. There is no point in managing partners coming up with a vision on their own or with their executive team and expecting it to be taken up by the other partners without question. If the partners are going to engage with the vision, it's critical that they have an opportunity to have their say about each of the elements.
Getting the influential partners onside. That means doing at the beginning of the process what the managing partner in the example did toward the end: actively solicit the partners' opinion. In a small firm, that's relatively easy, but scale brings major difficulties. Which brings us to one of our more obvious statements -- managing partners shouldn't try to do everything themselves. They need the help and support of the partners who can influence other partners' behavior. Sometimes, that's the partners in managerial positions, but more often than not, it's the heavy-hitting client partners.
So, the MP's first task is to get this group of influential partners onside. That means getting them all together (in as many groups as necessary and with the help of a facilitator who understands professional services firms) and getting their thoughts on the vision, the how to, the milestones and the benefits.
• Getting the remaining partners onside. The principle underpinning how to do this is exactly the same with the remaining partners as it was with the influential group. With scale, this means multiple groups in different locations, with the leadership of the individual groups split between the managing partner and members of the influential group. After all of the groups have taken place and the output been distilled, it's critical that the MP and the influential partners get together to confirm the final story that will go out to the partnership for final confirmation.
• What should a compelling vision contain? While we still see some visions that talk about becoming the leading player in a state or region, we are also seeing a real recognition that a vision is a lot more than the statement we used to see firms use across accounting and the other professional services sectors. The accompanying box ("Big visions," at right), for example, details the common ideas from the visions of the Big Four firms. As you can see, there are references to clients and people, the two markets that every professional firm operates in, and the ways that the firm endeavours to persuade people in both markets to choose their firm, rather than its competitors.
• The "how to" is as important as the vision statement, if not more so. With so many firms, not just the Big Four, trying to do broadly the same thing, the focus immediately switches to the "how to" and to what we all know -- that success is an execution game. The successful firms are the ones that invest time and energy in getting their strategies right and making sure their people have the capability to deliver them.
When it comes to engaging the partners, the vision doesn't have to provide the fine detail of each of the strategies. But it does need to provide the picture of what the firm wants to build. No partner wants to know every single detail, but each partner expects, and needs, to know the key moves the firm will be making and what the implications are on what they will be doing. So, if the firm is planning to invest heavily in geographic expansion or growing a new service line, the partners need to know the detail of the growth plans (including any direct involvement they may have) and what the investment means for their own plans.
• Measuring progress. Professionals always want to calibrate how they are doing, so measuring progress on the journey is critical. There must be clarity about the points that the firm should reach at different times and how they will be measured. Progress against the targets should be shared across the partner group, together with the reasons the firm achieved the targets or failed to do so. If the firm failed to reach the target, then how it plans to achieve it in the future should be part of the sharing and subsequent discussion. Naturally, following the discussion, the revised plans should be confirmed back to the partners.
• What's in it for me? Although the whole purpose of engaging the partners is to commit them to the firm's future, they also have to see a personal upside in the final destination. That upside can take many forms, but it has to be spelled out. It's also critical that the descriptions are honest. Smart people quickly stop trusting their leaders if they believe they are being lied to or the downsides are being glossed over.
If, for example, achieving scale is achievable only through a merger, the likely impact of the merger on partner earnings must be addressed. Again, smart people know that earnings may be flat, or even drop, in the short term. The key thing is that the upsides to both the firm and the partners make the initial sacrifice worthwhile.
We use the concept of "walking together" to describe the whole partner group actively committing to make the vision a reality, even though some of them may not agree with all the elements. And that's the norm in most professional services firms. Rarely will every partner agree with everything; the key is the commitment that comes from believing that the ultimate benefits are truly worthwhile -- and, critically, having been involved in the debate.
In our more than 20 years of working in professional services firms, one of the things that is absolutely clear is that engagement only comes with active involvement in the key decisions that impact the firm. Another thing that is absolutely clear is that highly engaged partners perform at a much higher level -- bringing benefits to the firm in all its markets. And, of course, increased profitability.
Rob Lees is a founding partner of Moller PSFg Ltd (www.mollerpsfgcambridge.com) and a consultant to professional service firm leaders worldwide, as well as co-author of When Professionals Have to Lead. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. August Aquila is a speaker, consultant and writer; CeO of Aquila global Advisors (www.aquilaadvisors.com); and the co-author of Compensation as a Strategic Asset and Client at the Core. Reach him at email@example.com or (952) 930-1295. © 2012 Rob Lees and August Aquila. All rights reserved.
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