[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]Partners are the culture in a professional service firm -- what they believe, what they reward, what they do, and how they do it determines what and how things get done.
But one of the problems we consistently hear about is the lack of clarity in what being a partner means. And in the absence of clarity, the partners typically fill the gap by doing what they think it means, with all of the differences of thought and behavior that inevitably brings. It's these differences in behavior that result in firms failing to maximize their potential.
The accompanying table illustrates some of the differences in approach that can occur when partners interpret their responsibilities themselves.
So, how do firms overcome this lack of clarity and ensure that the partner group sets the right example and consistently delivers the performance the firm needs to be successful? In our more than 20 years of working with professional service firms, we have seen many attempts to provide greater clarity -- from sophisticated competency frameworks through balanced scorecards to highly personalized objective-based compensation systems. The problem is that none of them (or even all of them together) ever works well enough without the critical link between partner behavior and what the firm is trying to achieve and what the partners have to do to deliver it. Only when that overt linkage exists and becomes part of every partner's DNA do any other initiatives have a chance of working.
At the core of that linkage is the fact that the partners are the firm's owners. They and they alone are responsible for the firm's vision and its implementation. They are the people who have to ensure that, as a group, they are walking in the same direction, to the same beat, and taking everyone else with them. Put simply, the partners have to lead. They can't offload their responsibilities to a managing partner or practice leader just because they prefer to serve clients.
Being a leader means partners must:
• Make a personal economic contribution. The discussion about whether professional service firms are a profession or a business is still an emotive subject in a lot of circles. But regardless of the answer, every firm has to make money to continue to exist. That means that the partners must see themselves as accountable for the firm's financial performance. Business management has to be part of every partner's capability and every partner has to ensure that their assignments are profitable and that they manage the firm's cash flow by collecting monies when they're due; not in the last month of the tax year, as too many partners still do.
Effective partners also use their non-billable time well. They concentrate their efforts on activities that will enhance the future value of the firm, like marketing, networking and doing pro-bono work that enhances the firm's reputation in its local communities.
• Bring in new business. The lifeblood of any firm is its ability to bring in new, profitable clients or expand the work it does for its existing clients. Not all partners are effective operating in an environment where they have no pre-existing relationships, whereas some find it easy. The key for any firm is to use its resources where they will achieve the best return, rather than expect every one to be good at everything. However, regardless of which environment they operate best in, every partner must bring in new, profitable business that enables the firm to grow and develop - and, critically, provides security of tenure for the firm's people.
• Bring the firm's resources to their clients. The failure of some partners to do this is one of the most complained-about issues we see; overcoming it means that the partners have to trust that their fellow partners will do as good a job with their clients as they have. To gain that trust, they have to understand what their colleagues do and trust them personally (this is the classic "no-brainer" -- no one is going to introduce anyone to an important relationship if they have no real idea of what that colleague does, or don't know them well enough to have that trust).
Being a partner -- as we keep emphasizing -- means putting the firm first. So, while firms must share a lot of the blame for not creating opportunities for their partners to understand what the firm does by developing effective relationships with the colleagues who deliver it, the partners must also be proactive. Partners should take responsibility for ensuring that they are comfortable introducing their colleagues to their clients. Every successful firm we know introduces different service lines to their clients in a way that is second nature to their partners.
• Pass work to their colleagues. Trust is also at the core of whether partners will pass work on to their colleagues. The partners must find opportunities to ensure that, when one of their colleagues has the more appropriate experience, they are confident in their decision to pass the work to them. When partners think "firm first," the decision to pass work on to their fellow partners is automatic and enables the firm to utilize its resources to the full.
• Develop their people's capabilities. Professional services is an execution game, so if a firm develops its people faster and more effectively than its competitors, it gains a competitive advantage. As professionals learn 80 percent of what they need to know on the job, partners have got to be really effective coaches (we are unequivocal in our belief that if a partner is not a good coach, they are not a good partner). Partners must also make sure that, whenever possible, the assignment process takes into account people's development needs, and that progress against those needs is assessed throughout the assignment and at its conclusion. They must also go through the same learning-review process for the off-the-job learning, and include programs that accelerate people's transitions throughout their careers.
Many people would assume that this is something every partner should do naturally. Sadly, this isn't the case. Despite knowing that they should invest time in developing their people, we continually meet partners who accept that, in task time, they will focus on the task at the expense of everything else, including developing their people -- despite being aware of the consequences on the firm's finances and, ultimately, its reputation. The challenge to all partners is to make developing their people part of the task. That way, it becomes a natural part of what they do and continually enhances the firm's delivery capability and the quality of its clients' experiences.
• Persuade their people to join the partners on the journey and to play a part in building a better firm. Just as the partners need to engage with the firm's vision, so do the firm's people. But, like everyone, they actually engage with people -- not words. Effective partners continually engage with their people, regardless of their level and role. They go out of their way to create a personal bond, sharing personal information and operating with honesty and integrity in all of their interactions. One of the great truisms is that you can't be a leader if you don't have followers, and effective partners create strong relationships with their people. They are accessible and have highly tuned antennae that enable them to know where their people "are" and how and when to act to ensure they remain committed to the firm.
• Help their colleagues and, through them, the firm. Some firms have a predominantly individualistic culture. Increasingly, though, firms recognize that they have to create a more collective culture, in which their partners operate in tandem when dealing with the firm's clients and people. Part of that cohesiveness is an active willingness to help others.
In our research into what successful managing partners do, two of the things that distinguished successful MPs from their peers were: helping their partners be better leaders, and a willingness to ask for help. The normal stigma of failure had been replaced by an understanding that, "If we're all in it together, it makes sense to make sure we're all doing the best we can." Help was the dominant action, rather than failure or blame.
Help must also be part of every partner's DNA. As acute observers of professional service firms, our experience across many hundreds of firms is that those firms where help is the predominant action perform demonstrably better than their peers.
• Live the firm's values all day, every day. Values are the cultural glue in a professional service firm. Professionals, as we all know, are highly intelligent, high-achieving individuals who value their autonomy. A traditional "top-down," command-and-control approach typically never works, as the partners are able to game the system with aplomb.
So, how do firms ensure that their people operate cohesively and consistently in a highly networked organization? The answer, in addition to ensuring that they are engaged with the firm's vision and want to play an active part in its delivery, is through an all-pervading set of values. Every successful firm we know has a set of values that are part of the firm's DNA. They drive people's actions and help them to make the "right" decision should there ever be any doubt about which action to take.
• Never be satisfied with second best. In an execution game, successful firms continually look for ways to improve what they do. Whether that's serving their clients, developing their people, maximizing their revenues, creating new service lines, or simply being more efficient, they never rest on their laurels. The challenge of being the best at everything is usually highly energizing to the competitive personalities who live in professional service firms. In the best firms, the question, "How can we do this better?" is a natural part of everything those personalities do.
• Be role models for high performance and judgment -- the people members of the firm turn to for inspiration and help. People follow leaders they respect and trust, and whose performance inspires them to want to do even better themselves. This is especially true in professional services firms. Highly intelligent, highly competitive professionals will only follow people they believe are really good at what they do. A partner who builds great relationships with their clients, introduces their colleagues to them, and makes sure their professionals are developed during the assignment is the role model people respond to, rather than one who doesn't.
• Stand up and be counted. This may sound obvious but unfortunately, it isn't. In small firms, it's not easy to disappear into the passive middle, but scale can make it easier. In our work, we hear about too many partners who don't play a part in what the firm is doing. The negative impact of this behavior on the people looking up at them and expecting their leaders to be great role models is unacceptable. It also tells absolutely the wrong story about the cohesiveness of the partner group, their trust in each other, and their belief in the firm's future.
After all, partners are the culture, and effective partners are great role models. Being a great model has to be the aspiration for every partner, because that's what being a partner means. Great role models are what every firm needs in its partners: people who inspire others to help the firm deliver its vision. They should, in their interactions with others in the firm, ensure that everyone wants to play an active part in delivering the firm's future, and they should always puts the firm first.
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.
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