This article was first published in the June 2012 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
The answer to this question has been at the top of the agenda of every managing partner (MP) we have worked with in our 20-year association with professional service firms. To answer the question and add to our anecdotal experience, we interviewed 150 practising and managing partners from accounting, law and consulting firms across Europe and the US.
Our model of what successful managing partners do describes the behaviours under four broad headings: setting direction, gaining commitment, execution and personal example. Each of the broad headings has a number of specific behaviours under it and, in this short article, we’ll highlight the behaviours from the model we believe are key. The fifth element, context, we’ll return to at the end of the article.
Create a compelling vision and get the partners on board
With so many firms trying to do broadly the same thing and with differentiation in professional services only achieved through delivery, how the vision is delivered is the critical element. And, as the partners are the people who ultimately deliver the vision, they must be brought onside, which means involving them in the debate and decision-making process.
No MP should attempt to do everything and this is especially true when it comes to making sure the partners are onside. In every example we heard about, the MPs who succeeded in generating the commitment and participation of their partners started by getting the firm’s influential partners onside first and using them to influence the other partners. This is especially important in multi-office/multi-country situations, when it is impossible for the MP to attend all of the partner meetings and engage in every debate about the right course of action. And, these debates must take place. In the truly successful firms, the partners were always involved in the discussions about the firm’s future. Sometimes the discussions were easy, often they weren’t, but, critically, at the end of the discussions, the partners ‘walked together’ and focused as a group on delivering the vision (even though individual partners disagreed with some elements of the plans).
One of the key behaviours in the engagement process is to keep repeating the message about why and how. As all of the highly regarded managing partners said to us, ‘by the time you’re absolutely fed up of hearing yourself saying the same thing, the partners will just about have got it’. In nearly every firm we know, the partners prefer to focus their attention on serving their clients and not get involved in any firm-based activities, but when the managing partner is trying to ensure the firm is and remains ‘best in class’ they must keep the partners focused on the bigger picture.
Focus on the people who want to go with you
In too many firms managing partners focus on the people who don’t want to go with them, rather than those who do. In doing this, they inevitably reduce enthusiasm and momentum. The natural temptation in a partnership is to focus on the whole, but all of the research on creating and sustaining change argues strongly for the opposite. In lots of initiatives we know, the managing partners have started with only about half of the partners clearly with them – but, crucially, they had clear plans about how to raise that figure quickly through their own efforts and those of the influential partners who were supporting the initiative.
Help the partners to be effective leaders
As stated earlier, the partners are the people who make the vision a reality and, in our experience, a lot of partners struggle in their role as owners and leaders. So one of the key tasks of any MP (and it’s what the successful MPs spent lots of time on) is helping their partners be better leaders. That means dedicating a lot of personal time to talking to the partners about their role, how they are doing and how the firm can help them. It is a time-consuming task, but all of the partners we spoke to said that the truly successful MPs knew the importance of the task, gave their time freely, and ensured the partners received the help they needed.
Never accept second best
Not every firm can be the market leader, but every firm can have a reputation for being outstanding at everything it does. The successful MPs understood this and never settled for second best, always exhorting the partners to find new and better ways of doing things. All of the MPs were trying to create a situation where challenge was a natural part of their firm’s culture – but that never meant sacrificing things that were crucial to the firm and what it stood for.
Take tough people decisions
The need for the managing partner to deal with underperformance came up in every discussion. Underperformance needs to be dealt with in line with the firm’s values and the individuals given help and support to turn things around. However, if they don’t, the successful MPs recognised the negative impact across the firm of not dealing with the issue.
Appoint the right person for the circumstances
One of the things that great MPs do is plan their succession, which brings us back to context. While there are undoubtedly some people who can do everything regardless of the challenge, in our experience most people can’t. So the challenge for MPs is to develop a number of potential successors capable of addressing the different issues the firm is likely to face in the future – then choose the right one.
Rob Lees is a founding partner of Møller PSF Group and consultant to professional service firm leaders. He is also co-author of When Professionals Have To Lead. August Aquila is a speaker and consultant to professional services firms. He is also the co-author of Compensation as a Strategic Asset and Client at the Core, and CEO of Aquila Global Advisors. Derek Klyhn is a founding partner of Møller PSF Group.