It’s a well-known fact that leading and managing within a professional services firm can be a thankless responsibility; these roles are often ill-defined and it can be tough keeping outspoken partners in-line. In the first 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, practice group or department leaders look good.

The inherent challenge in taking on a leadership role in your partnership

If you have made it to Managing Partner, it is usually on the basis of excellent personal performance, coupled with an ability to generate high fees and lead a team of like-minded professionals. The ultimate goal of this position, however, is to build the current and long-term value of the firm. To achieve this, you need a great team behind you who believe in you and your objectives.

To grow a people-based business you will need some inherent leadership capability and passion.  Leadership involves some key qualities – first, and foremost, integrity.  No one follows anyone else if they do not believe that person is authentic.  Your ability to get more from a team is also about communication; an ability to describe a vision, and instil a sense of collective purpose in others.  Finally, it requires having a sense of humour and perspective.  Would you trust anyone in power who doesn’t have a sense of humour and takes themselves too seriously?

Taking on a leadership role within the firm you have to deal with other partners, who, despite the fact that very few have any formal leadership and management development skills, believe that they know how to run the firm. Partners are, by definition, skilled and autonomous individuals who expect the exercise of authority to occur through a process of influence and negotiation, rather than through reliance on more direct, position-based authority.

The other hurdle facing Managing Partners is they often lack a clear mandate from the partnership, with the result that their remit is only defined when they begin (or try) to implement decisions. Few Managing Partners receive any professional leadership and management training for running a business. The higher up you go in many professional service firms, the less leadership and management development you receive. Where it is provided, it is often limited in scope.

In a professional service firm, Managing Partners are leader-managers. Leaders create the vision and management is focused on implementation and delivery – both are needed. Alongside the requirement to be a leader and manager, most partners in leadership positions – even Managing Partners – still are expected to nurture their own client portfolio.

As a Managing Partner your primary task is to run the business and build the long-term value of your firm. To do this you need to agree your leadership team’s core responsibilities, which include:

  • Setting and communicating a vision for the firm that engages all stakeholders
  • Creating a strategic plan to deliver the vision
  • Obtaining and managing the required resources
  • Making decisions that influence the firm’s ability to achieve its vision
  • Creating an environment in which people are self-motivated and willing to go the ‘extra mile’
  • Managing and minimising risks.
  • Building and creating consensus amongst the partners across all areas of the firm.

Above all, you and your leadership team need to be passionate about your firm, your clients and the future. Fundamentally your leadership team needs to be able to energise and excite your people about the future and career opportunities available to them.

Agreeing and communicating your vision

Your fellow partners may have different and often competing visions for their practice and the firm as a whole. Therefore, it is essential that you invest time at the outset to define your partner team’s purpose to ensure everyone’s vision is aligned.

Once you have agreed your vision for the firm it needs to be articulated and communicated to the partners. Creating and communicating a compelling and shared vision is an immensely powerful way to engage and motivate people, particularly in tough times. Your vision needs to be both realistic and attainable if you want your fellow partners and staff to sign-up to it, follow your lead and do what’s required to achieve it. This should be more than a strap-line or a statement.

Your vision should:

  • State your strategic intent
  • Define and offer a compelling and motivating picture of the future and provide a purpose for those working in your firm
  • Make-clear the end goal
  • Create alignment within your firm
  • Act as a decision-making guide
  • Inspire and motivate people to do what is needed to achieve it.

It is important over time to test whether this vision has become embedded in your firm. To do that think about the following questions:

  1. When was the last time your leadership team spent time reviewing, discussing and agreeing your vision for the firm?
  2. Are your partners aligned to your vision and how do you know this?
  3. Can everyone in your firm, from the post room to all members of the leadership team, articulate the vision of the firm and their respective roles in its delivery?

How to obtain partner buy-in to the firm’s goals and objectives

Within a professional service firm, it is the individual behaviours of partners on the ground that defines the firm’s strategy and culture. Unless there is significant buy-in from partners to the firm’s goals and objectives, no amount of management will achieve them.  Therefore, obtaining partner buy-in to the firm’s goals and objectives is one of the Managing Partner’s key tasks.

Whichever way you look at it, influencing whether directly or through peer pressure, is the only way to achieve results in a professional service firm. It is important to get to know your firm and partners from the beginning to ensure that you understand their interests and what they want.

Getting significant buy-in from your partners means you have to build a critical mass of support for your initiatives. Not every partner needs to buy in. However, powerful individuals and groups must see that it is in their interest to support and help you realise your goals and objectives for the firm. Ignore the politics of the firm at your peril.  Political networks, informal bonds of solidarity among individuals and groups, can organise either to resist change or get things done. Building and maintaining partner consensus across all areas of the firm requires constant vigilance by the firm’s leaders. This is one of the leadership team’s key responsibilities.

The starting point for getting key partners on board is to define, as precisely as possible, the specific goals and objectives that the leadership team wants deliver. Clarity is important; it is difficult to obtain support if your goals and objectives are poorly defined and unclear. Once you have defined your goals and objectives, you can identify key players, map the influence networks (i.e. who is likely to support and oppose you) and design your strategy.  Some Managing Partners would describe this approach as Machiavellian; however, unless you learn to skilfully influence your key partners, making decisions can be a prolonged and painful process which could prove costly.

In times of change or new initiatives, some partners may support your agenda early on because it coincides with their individual interests.  At the same time, some key players will oppose your efforts whatever you do. It is important to always obtain critical ‘buy-in’ from the more influential partners before going out on a limb regarding contentious proposals. Because influencing and persuasion can use up valuable time and emotional energy it is essential to assess early on who can be influenced and to direct your efforts accordingly.

Don’t waste time on those who are irrevocably opposed. Be pragmatic and move on.

Written by Jo Larbie