May 8th 2012
One hundred fifty managing partners from professional service firms in the United States and Europe shared their ideas on what it takes to make a managing partner truly successful. The information is compiled by the Møller PSF Group which is located at Churchill College in the University of Cambridge. The group brings together professional service firms (PSF) experts who focus on leadership, strategy, business development and management issues within the PSF market.
The model of what makes a successful managing partner (MP) was developed from researching and working with professional services firms over 20 years. The model categorizes successful MP behavior under four broad headings:
- Setting direction
- Gaining commitment
- Personal example
Each of the broad headings above encompasses specific behaviors and this short article focuses on what behaviors seem to have the most impact.
There is a fifth element, context, which will be addressed at the end.
Engage the partners in the “how to”
It’s clear that, once the market for accounting services is segmented, most of the firms in each of the segments are trying to do the same thing – which makes the “how to” absolutely critical. 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.
In our experience, regardless of what size the firm is (unless it’s very small), the MP must get the firm’s influential partners onside first and use them to influence the other partners. Often, the influential partners are in management positions but in most firms the partners with real influence are the heavy-hitting client handlers.
One of the key behaviors in the engagement process is to keep repeating the message about why and how. As all of the highly regarded MPs 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!” It sounds simple, but it’s key.
Focus on the people who want to go with you
In too many firms the focus is on the people who don’t want to go rather than those who do. And yet, by taking that focus, the MP is slowing energy, 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 MP started off with only 50 percent of the partners clearly on board – but, critically, with clear plans of how to raise that figure quickly through their own efforts and those of the influential partners who were supporting the initiative.
Help the partners be effective leaders
As we said earlier, the partners are the people who will implement the changes, and they, too, often 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 the other partners be better leaders. The MPs didn’t do it solely through their personal actions; they also made sure the firm provided leading edge developmental support, including external coaches.
Don’t 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. With differentiation in professional services only through delivery, one of the examples we heard about was an MP who made sure that the firm focused on developing its people faster and more effectively than its competitors. He knew that the firm would gain a clear competitive and economic advantage, and an outstanding reputation in the firm’s other key market – the market for people.
Take the tough people decisions
The need for the managing partner to deal with under performance came up in every discussion. The impact of not doing so on the partners who are performing can be demoralizing in the extreme, and yet too many MPs avoided dealing with the issue. Naturally, under performance needs to be dealt with in line with the firm’s values, and the individuals need to be given help and support to turn things around. However, if they don’t turn things around, the successful MPs recognized the negative impact across the firm of not dealing with the issue and helped the under performers find a different home.
Appoint the right person for the circumstances
We said we’d return to context as we believe it’s critical. To assume that an individual can be a successful managing partner in all circumstances is naïve. Firms have got to choose the right person for the circumstances they face. To be able to do that every firm has to develop a number of potential MPs capable of addressing the different issues the firm is likely to face in the future – making succession planning and the development of suitable individuals a key task for every firm.
So, are successful MPs born that way or can anyone do it?
We meet this question all the time as well as the claim, “I can’t be a leader as I’m not charismatic”. For sure, it helps if you are a people person, but all of the research and experience indicates that trust and respect are the key attributes for successful leaders.
Naturally, the ability to do the job well also comes into it. But, let’s be clear: Most people can learn how to be truly effective leaders.
Robert J Lees, August J Aquila and Derek Klyhn work at the Møller PSF Group which is located at Churchill College in the University of Cambridge. The group brings together professional service firms (PSF) experts who focus on leadership, strategy, business development and management issues within the PSF market. This report presents findings from a recent survey of 150 managing partners from professional services in Europe and the USA on what sets truly successful managing partners apart from their peers.