In the second of two articles, Jo Larbie explains how to succeed in this challenging environment by building a supportive team that will deliver your firm’s goals – while making managing directors and managing partners look good.
Becoming an effective leadership team
Are you really a team or just a group of individuals who meet once a month? To function as an effective team you must focus on how the collective performance, and that of individual members, works to deliver goals and objectives, not just on the goals themselves.
Nothing wastes time and undermines a leadership team more than a failing to understand the importance of collective responsibility and accountability. As the leadership team, you represent and act on behalf of the whole firm, and of the many hats you wear, representing your individual interests is not one of them. Your leadership team is highly visible, and it’s important that the team communicate a consistent message into the partnership and wider firm. One or two members commenting on board matters outside of a meeting, whether privately or publicly may send negative messages internally and externally.
Acting as a team, accepting collective responsibility for decisions (both inside and outside of board meetings) is vital for stability internally and externally. As a leadership team, you must agree that once an issue has been thoroughly discussed and a decision made, it should be honoured and respected; collective decisions must be fully supported by all board members, regardless of their attendance at a specific meeting, or personal view. ‘Leaking’ of sensitive information or evidence, or an unwillingness to tackle difficult issues must not be tolerated. A decision ratified by the leadership team must be unanimously executed.
All members of the leadership team must share responsibility for influencing key partners and stakeholders. This should not be the sole responsibility of the Managing Partner or Practice Group Leader. Your partners will soon get the message that you are a united leadership team, and may even stop second guessing your decisions!
Maintaining productive management meetings
The primary role of the leadership team should be to ensure that the important aspects of the firm’s operational activities are being managed. In our experience, a strong and effective leadership team is a good predictor of improved firm performance. However, the amount of time available to a leadership team for management in a professional services firm is always limited and must be used wisely.
It’s a good idea to regularly review (every 3 or 4 months) what the leadership team is actually spending its time discussing during management meetings. How ‘strategic’ are the items on your agenda? Are you spending too much time on urgent, short-term issues rather than focusing on the important, but more difficult issues and initiatives that will make a difference in the long term? The 80/20 Pareto principle applies here: focus on the top 20 per cent of activities to be more productive.
Your leadership team meeting agenda should contain no more than six items which are important to the firm’s future. Ideally this agenda should include a number of the following:
- Reviewing and monitoring the firm’s financial performance;
- Setting, planning and monitoring short, medium and long term and direction;
- Making major decisions and recommendations e.g., compensation and benefits, decisions involving substantial expenditure; talent management; expanding the firm; clients and business development; policies;
- Reviews and updates of specific projects or areas of the firm;
- Communicating with the firm so that everybody knows what is happening and understands decisions taken.
Before the leadership team takes any decision, time should be given to examine the effect on the firm’s finances, its people, and how this decision fits with the firm’s other policies and initiatives.
Every partner is busy. Therefore, aim to announce leadership team meetings and partners’ meeting dates annually to lock these into the right people’s diaries. That way your partners can have no excuse that they didn’t have enough notice about a partner meeting! It can often help to have your leadership team and partners’ meetings on a certain day and time each month, i.e. the first Friday of the month.
To help make your partners’ meetings productive:
- Invite partners to suggest items, issues and topics for the agenda,
- Circulate the minutes, an agenda and supporting paperwork at least 48 hours in advance,
- Avoid surprises by consulting relevant partners ahead of the meeting; and
- After the meeting, follow-up and communicate the outcome as soon as possible.
Gaining an in-depth understanding of your firm’s business
How can you take informed decisions if you only understand a part of your firm’s business? To be a credible Managing Partner, you need to understand all aspects. Leading a firm requires very different skill sets. It’s not enough to only know how things operate in your area of expertise; you must understand how all parts of the business work; its positive attributes, the issues and challenges ahead.
Any new Managing Partner should make this one of their first priorities when appointed because what you learn about the business will determine your own focus. In the early days of leading a firm, it’s rare to possess an in-depth understanding of the firm’s problems and potential. Therefore, it’s wise, to avoid appearing to have all “the answers” Make a wrong decision at this stage and you may lose some of the support that you will need to make further changes.
The following questions will help you understand your level of knowledge about your firm:
- When was the last time that you reviewed your firm’s services?
- Do you regularly assess and review your firm’s mix of services to identify weaknesses, gaps and spot opportunities for new services?
- When was the last time you conducted a thorough review of your firm’s client base?
- Do you have a process for capturing and selecting the best ideas and taking them to market?
- Does the firm have a formal, consistent client feedback programme? How are the results shared? Are problems tackled as a matter of urgency?
Communication is the bedrock to any collaborative culture or environment. It is also essential if you want to get “buy-in” to implement new initiatives to move the firm forward. Despite what many people think, you can’t communicate too much, particularly in times of uncertainty. If you don’t tell your people what’s happening, or why you are doing things and making changes, they will fill the vacuum themselves.
As Managing Partner you need to stay in touch with what is going on across the firm, don’t just rely on what others tell you; get out there, find out and hear it for yourself. Make time to meet with people across all levels of your firm in a variety of settings including firm wide, departments and small groups.
Listening is just as important. When you invite people to tell you what they think, really listening to what they have to say demonstrates that you want to know. However, don’t feel that you should have all the answers there and then. Don’t respond definitively until you’re sure it’s the correct approach.
Email, as a communication tool, should come with a health warning. Even the with the best of intentions, an email can be misunderstood. Depending on the question, it is often better and quicker, to have a face-to-face meeting to discuss your response. Therefore, take care when using email to respond to questions or solve problems.
Invest in your personal development
What got you here may not make you a great Managing Partner. It is important to recognise and accept that being a leader may require entirely new skills, attributes and attitudes, and to make time to learn what you need to know to be more successful. Working with an executive coach can accelerate your leadership and management skills. It can also provide a ‘safe’ environment to test ideas and formulate your thinking. After all, it may not always be possible to be open and candid, particularly in difficult times, with your partners when you get to Managing Partner.
One of the best ways to acquire the new skills, attributes and attitudes is to make a commitment to meet other Managing Partners and firm leaders for mutual development and support. Most will be pleased to pass on their experiences, and such contacts will prove invaluable and may save you from making mistakes! Days out of the office meeting others not only helps you to gain perspective but can also provide much needed space for self-reflection, and lead to new ideas. You may find that joining relevant professional organisations and attending their on-going professional development programmes can provide great opportunities for your own personal development.
To be an effective Managing Partner means you need to take care of yourself. Now more than ever, given the nature of your role, your personal physical fitness and well-being is important. Your fellow partners and staff are not going to thank you if you burnout due to stress and overwork.
Some final tips for leaders in firms
- Take the time and the risk to get close to people and let them get close to you. If you are alone at the top that means nobody is following you and no one will help you. No accomplishment of any real value has ever been achieved by a person working alone.
- Only a leader who has followed well knows how to lead others well. Good leadership requires an understanding of the world followers live in. How can you really understand the world of your fee earners and support staff?
- Be willing to seek and follow advice. See yourself clearly, identify where you need to grow and be accountable.
- Leadership develops daily, not in a day. Defining moments in your life make you the person you are and how others see you. It is possible to prepare how you will respond to those moments, by making choices about things like your values, or relationships, so that when the time comes you only need to make decisions based on those values
- What we need to hear most is usually what we want to hear the least. If you receive constructive criticism, try to not be defensive and look for the grain of truth to make the necessary changes
- The best leaders are listeners. Take time to properly listen, give the speaker your full attention. Use your eyes too.
- Everything rises and falls on leadership. To see how the leaders are doing look at the people. Are the people in your team being developed, initiating change, and managing conflict? Your legacy will be the people you have developed
- Nothing separates successful and unsuccessful people more than how they manage their time. Every person’s day has the same amount of time – successful people will pack more into them than others. Rate and multiply tasks in terms of importance and urgency to judge when to schedule activities
- Hold at least annual management retreats or practice group retreats to explore and develop strategies for moving forward the firm or practice group.
- The secret to a good meeting is the meeting before the meeting. Meet with key people beforehand to check you are on the same page, develop trust and make sure you haven’t missed something.
The words “adding value” are often overused; however, this exactly what is needed from those who lead and manage professional service firms today. What are you doing, or planning to do, to build the firm’s capabilities and enhance your competitiveness? Will you leave your firm in better shape?
Highly effective practice heads can add great value to the firm through their leadership and stewardship. This includes both their own efforts but also inspiring valuable contributions from others in their department. A good managing partner and practice group leader will:
- help develop and implement a department/group strategy
- acquire and integrate lateral hires into the partnership and wider firm
- increase profits
- lead the department’s efforts to develop new business
- cross-sell other departments,
- develop its fee earners professionals
- grow the firm’s market share and reputation in the marketplace, and
- increase the firm’s competitive position.
If you’re up for the challenge, becoming a Managing Partner or Practice Group Leader can be a hugely rewarding position. It’s perfect for those who possess a combination of business acumen and people skills. Leadership roles within professional service firms allow those involved to have a real say in the running of the firm. But make sure that your vision is a shared one, supported and assisted in its implementation by a team that is on side. Finally, great firm leaders recognise that credibility begins with personal success, but should end with helping others achieve success.
Written by Jo Larbie