Promotion to partner represents a huge step up, and practices need to define and develop the leadership skills required for the role, as Derek Smith explains
This article was first published in the September 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
‘We aren’t doing anything to prepare our aspiring partners. Let’s face it – they’ve either got it or they haven’t.’ This was the remarkable response from the senior partner of a five-partner practice when I asked what steps he was taking to address their leadership problems. Nothing was going to change his view that the necessary skills and traits of a successful partner were ‘nature not nurture’.
This is an extreme example, but this form of rationale still underlies some firms’ approach to preparing people for future partnership roles. Many candidates neither know what the partnership role entails nor the criteria on which admission to the role is based. While it is hard to define roles at a time when firms are going through fundamental change, this lack of information is indicative of the profession’s historic perception of how these matters should be handled.
Essentially, firms need to be seeking successors who have the necessary leadership and management qualities for the role they will be taking on. But all too often those who aspire to the role, while described as ‘managers’, have previously managed very little beyond a set of files and a series of processes. Even if they are involved in activities such as appraising their own teams, often this is done with little or no training.
At the heart of the challenge is the need to define what is required in a role that is undergoing fundamental change. Certain areas have to be viewed as givens – for example, technical skills – but even these have changed considerably over time, with today’s requirement to embrace the digital age in which firms have to operate. Of even more significance is the need to develop and enhance the necessary leadership skills for the role.
One of the clear requirements is for the candidate to possess a number of competency clusters, which firms should be helping their aspirants to develop and maintain – see panel.
These traits can be developed, although not necessarily by everyone, but much depends on the appetite of the aspirant to take on the role. Often the decision to promote is based on the subjective views of the existing partners. Those making the decisions might just be seeking to clone their own personalities and approaches, even though the environment in which they operate has significantly changed since they made partner.
At the heart of the dilemma is the need to identify the future role of the individual, which will inevitably change over time. Candidates need in some measure the following intelligences:
- cognitive: the ability to reason
- emotional: self-awareness, control, empathy
- spiritual: beliefs and values
- behavioural: adaptive ability and contextual awareness
- moral: the capacity to identify right and wrong, and act accordingly.
Recent high-profile examples of inappropriate behaviour and professional misdemeanours of senior leaders in some firms have highlighted serious deficiencies in spiritual, behavioural and moral intelligence. Clearly there need to be adequate procedures and processes to identify and prevent these.
But what of emotional intelligence? This is the capability of individuals to recognise their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour. The main components are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. All of these attributes may be vital to partner roles but much depends on the nature of the specific role that firms are seeking to fill.
The key questions are how firms can assess candidates for these attributes and whether such measurement is helpful in ensuring that aspiring partners will succeed in their leadership and management roles. A number of firms use IQ assessments covering the numerical, verbal and spatial skills of candidates, in some cases together with logical reasoning tests. There are also established psychometric testing techniques (such as Myers-Briggs and Belbin), which can be helpful in preparing aspiring partners.
Probably the most important aspect of all these techniques is that they help aspiring candidates to recognise their strengths and weaknesses and help them on the journey of self-development. These skills are learned rather than taught, and personal awareness is a key element of the learning process.
There are a number of well-validated programmes for measuring IQ and emotional intelligence, but they are often misused, and applied without the necessary training and understanding. Unless the users are professionally guided these programmes can become blunt instruments that are interpreted in the wrong way, and established leaders can hold the misguided belief that there are rights and wrongs as regards the outputs. These assessments are not about measuring ability but measuring personality preferences and traits. They are extremely helpful to the candidates in developing their self-awareness but should not be used as a total measure of their suitability or otherwise for a potentially ill-defined role.
Firms need to understand that to do nothing to prepare their candidates for their new roles is tantamount to planning for them to fail. If you want your team to aspire to the partnership role, you need to inspire the individuals by showing that the firm is prepared to invest in their future and not simply to act as if it believes ‘they have either got it or they haven’t’.
Derek Smith, senior consultant, Foulger Underwood
"All too often aspiring partners have previously managed very little beyond a set of files and a series of processes"