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Partner Perspectives Determine Your Firm’s Future

One of the toughest challenges any leader faces is building consensus among partners. While levels of managing partner authority vary from firm to firm, at some point even the most autocratic figure needs to get buy-in. Answers to questions related to growth, strategy, goals and tactics generally involve more than one person in the decision-making. This is difficult at best. I’m convinced that phrases like herding cats and pushing rope came into being specifically to describe professional service firms.

The precursor to answering strategic, future-oriented questions like those above is understanding how most partners view the firm. At one extreme are owners who see themselves as a collection of professionals sharing common interests. They view the firm as, essentially, an exclusive club: one must have certain credentials (as defined by club members) to join; club rules are set by members; and everyone must agree to all changes to rules. A friend of mine who is a former marketing director described it like this: “Oh, we’re not really a firm. We’re 42 lawyers sharing an elevator.”

This country club mentality works for some firms, particularly those that are not interested in growth. Of course, they risk being swallowed up or run over by more aggressive (some would argue more progressive) groups. And they often have trouble finding and keeping talent, because ambitious people usually want to be with ambitious organizations.

At the opposite end of the range are many large CPA and law firms that look very similar to any other large corporation. Rules, goals, and strategies are set by a managing body and communicated to partners and employees, who can accept the structure or go to work somewhere else. Interestingly, these groups suffer from many of the same maladies as the country club models. They often have as much difficulty finding and keeping great professionals, but for different reasons than the country club firms.

While neither of the models presented here is inherently wrong or unprofitable, it is useful for partners to agree where they are today and to decide where they want to be. Of course, to agree, partners must first discuss. Discussion takes time away from billing. Therefore, the leadership needs to elevate the importance of such a conversation to encourage owners to come to the table.

Leaders have trouble building consensus, and firms have trouble operating, when they misunderstand their partners’ views of where the firm is. Reaching consensus on these critical issues will clarify a leader’s approach to problem solving and serves as an important determinant of future success.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009