Managing partners of accounting firms often struggle to balance serving clients with serving the largest client: the firm itself. The debate over whether the MP should give up a book of business to fully concentrate on this role is prevalent in firms. There are benefits to giving up your book, but also risks.

He said: At a certain size, MPs must get to a point where the firm is their primary focus. They will never be the best MP possible if they are trying to serve two masters - the firm and its clients. This is the problem with the role today: Most MPs are not working enough on the firm because they are too busy working in the firm.

She said: I disagree. Staying somewhat connected and engaged with the top firm clients is a big plus for the MP. First, it keeps them technically up to speed so they are able to continue developing others, which is a leadership must. Also, it keeps them connected with how clients are being served and can protect the relationships. I am not suggesting MPs have a full book.

He said: Let's agree to disagree. I don't think the role of the managing partner is to stay connected with the firm's top clients. I'm not suggesting that the managing partner have no contact with clients. In fact, all managing partners should have some billable time. It helps them stay grounded. As the firm gets larger and larger, that time usually diminishes. The problem is that firm leaders tend to have too much of their time taken up with serving clients and fail to shift their focus onto managing the practice and developing partners. There are many reasons for holding on to their clients. Serving the clients is more familiar and comfortable. They feel they are contributing more in this area than if they were focusing on other, more intangible efforts that would truly move the whole firm forward.

She said: This is certainly the case many times. Once you have a book of business and are the trusted advisor to your clients, it is difficult to turn them over to others. Also, sometimes it is hard to transition your clients to others who don't have your same experience level.

He said: While it is necessary to transition clients, another partner will never serve your clients the same way you did. But that does not mean that they won't do a good job. I don't think that client transition is the major issue. I had a client where the managing partner was only 45 when he took over the role. Thirteen years later, he wanted to step down from the position. He had no clients and his technical skills were outdated. What was he or the firm going to do?

She said: Are you saying that there are many options here?

He said: Exactly. There is no one size that fits all. Each firm will be different based on its size, role and partner expectations of the managing partner. In a small firm ($5 million and less) the managing partner might have a client load of 70 to 75 percent of the average partner. In a midsized firm ($6 million to $15 million), it might be around 500 hours, and in a large firm ($16 million and up), it would be between 200 and 400 hours. Someone needs to focus on the firm's vision and execute the plan. If not, the firm will just flounder - which is what often happens.

She said: I agree each firm should be different. Partners must take into account not only the size of the practice, but other factors. Is the MP acting as the face of the firm and creating opportunities for the firm as a whole? Is the MP heading up a leading firm niche that needs continuing focus and a transfer of leadership? Is the MP spending time with each of the partners and assisting them through regular coaching?

He said: So, then let's discuss how the MP should balance the demands of the firm along with the client demands.

She said: Very carefully, wouldn't you agree? Each MP must determine his or her highest-value contributions to the firm. This includes leading the partners, keeping his or her eyes on the financial health and client service culture of the firm, and also creating opportunities for the firm's future.

He said: Something else to consider is what happens if the MP loses his or her technical skills but wants to remain with the firm in another role, like my example above. I think it could be a true challenge for many firms today and in the future. Staying relevant and being able to offer some value to the firm is imperative.

She said: Good point. So why wouldn't some involvement with key clients force the MP to stay relevant? Glancing over a client file once a quarter is very different from solving a client's problems in a true advisor role.

He said: MPs today need to carefully lay out their career plan. Is it a role that they will have for five to eight years or something until they retire from the firm? These are two different scenarios, and they require a different set of actions.

They said: Being an MP today is a more complex role than ever before. It requires individuals to set the vision of the firm and then bring the other partners along. It requires them to remain relevant to the firm in an ever-changing environment. It's a balancing act. MPs don't have a training school, which makes taking on the role even more difficult.

August Aquila (www.aquilaadvisors.com) is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or aaquila@aquilaadvisors.com. Angie Grissom is president of The Rainmaker Companies, which exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or angie@therainmakercompanies.com.

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