Let's do away with the title of "managing partner."Partners and other professionals are not employees to be managed. They don't like the idea of someone else telling them what to do. If you have any doubt, just ask your current partners.

That is probably why in many small firms there are no managing partners, just partners who act as individual practices. This model, however, does not work if the owners really want to create a firm.

What is an MP to do?

To manage or lead - that is the question. There is a significant difference between managing and leading. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th Ed.), the verb "to manage" is defined as "to make and keep compliant," or "to exercise executive, administrative and supervisory direction of."

We often hear people say, "The parents could not manage their children," or, "He could not manage the situation."

The implication here is that the individual could not control what was happening. And while many a managing partner may feel the same way, managing is not the solution to the issue. How often have managing partners tried to control their partners, make them more motivated, productive and so forth, only to fail or give up?

The verb "to lead" provides a completely different emphasis. It is defined as "to guide on a way," "to direct on a course or in a direction." True leaders show their followers a way. It's often been said that there can be no leaders without followers.

While larger and more successful firms today have leaders rather than managers running the firm, the size of the firm is not the critical criterion. There are some outstanding leaders in many small and midsized firms.

The evolving role

The role of the managing partner has certainly evolved over the last 20 years or so. The autocratic founder of the firm, who led by decree and felt that the firm was his, is rapidly being replaced. Real leaders realize that the firm is not theirs alone, that they have a responsibility to serve the firm and its owners. They are stewards, and will be rewarded on how well they maintain and grow what they received.

They realize that they have no authority except that which comes from the willingness of the partners to be managed. Today, a majority of firm leaders still maintain some client responsibility. Depending on the size of the firm, this could be as few as 200 billable hours and as great as 1,000 or more.

When managing partners report to the partnership, they know that they can be voted out of the position if they do not perform and lead the firm.

Many MPs concern themselves with daily operations or spend a majority of their time on partner issues. This leaves a void in the firm. Who, then, is setting the vision and spending time looking down the road? Leading a firm today takes more than just being concerned about the here and now.

I believe that in the near future, the managing partner position will become more of a full-time, rather than a part-time, position. As more managing partners take on the leadership responsibilities and role of a chief executive officer, firms will create a chief operating officer position to handle the day-to-day activities. This position can often be filled by a non-partner operational professional.

Plan for the future

While we live in the present, we need to also plan for the future. One way to do this is to develop as many future leaders in the firm as possible. Don't expect the 10-year partner to wake up one day and have good leadership skills.

Strive to make your practice the best. If you focus on the well-being of your staff and fellow owners, you will build a strong firm. Get to know your partners' spouses, so that they understand what's happening at the firm. Finally, invest in the competencies of your people. They need to grow in the following areas: client development and management, business management, technical and quality control, and leading and developing others.

Your firm is only as strong as its people.

August J. Aquila, Ph.D, is the director of practice management consulting at The Growth Partnership, a full-service consulting firm. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or aaquila@thegrowthpartnership.com.

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