Engaging Partners: The six barriers

Posted: 15th March 2014

Everyone who works in professional services knows that a firm’s success is inextricably linked to its partners’ performance. So, it comes as no surprise that, at a time when markets are decidedly tough, one of the key issues facing firm leaders is improving partner performance, including getting partners to introduce different practices to their clients. One thing is clear: the more that partners are engaged in the firm’s future, the better they perform for the firm rather than for themselves. Before any firm leader can hope for any sustained uplift in performance, he must ensure that partners are engaged and committed to the firm’s future. As engagement is typically highly correlated with involvement, it should also be self-evident that the partners won’t be committed to the firm’s future if they haven’t had any involvement in deciding what it should be.

Partners are the culture in a professional services firm – what they believe, what they reward, what they do and how they do it determines what and how things get done. And, if they don’t believe in what the firm is doing, they will never be effective role models who think firm first and actively bring the whole of the firm’s services to their clients. This article outlines the six challenges facing firms in engaging partners. It will be followed by articles which address each of the challenges in more detail.

Barriers to engagement

There are six major challenges that firms need to address to engage their partners and to ensure everyone moves forward together. They are:

1. an un-motivational firm vision;

2. a lack of clearly-defined core values;

3. a lack of clarity about what being a partner means;

4. ineffective or non-existent partner performance reviews;

5. performance systems that are not tied to strategic initiatives; and

6. leaders not knowing how to engage their partners.

Too many firms consider these six challenges to be tangential to their real job of serving clients, especially as they take time to implement. But, unless leaders embrace these challenges and get their partners actively engaged and performing for the firm and its future, their firms will continue to struggle to compete effectively with the ‘best in breed’ firms. These are firms in which partners play an active part in shaping their firm’s future and whose performance ensures the firm continues to be successful.

1. An un-motivational firm vision

Most firms have a vision statement and an accompanying strategy in the hope of engaging partners and employees. Despite this, many firms are facing two problems in making them ‘live’ across the partner group:

1. a lack of involvement; and

2. the firm’s vision just isn’t compelling enough to persuade partners to commit to the firm rather than to their practice group or their own practice.

A vision should tell everyone what the firm wants to be in future, but one of the problems facing firms is that most visions are basically the same. They don’t say what’s different about the firm compared to its competitors (which is difficult in a simple statement). And, critically, they don’t talk about how the firm is different – what it does that makes it different from other firms.

The problem with most vision statements is that they do not provide a powerful picture of what the firm will look like and what its partners and people will be doing in five, ten or more years from now. Most visions are neither motivating nor audacious and often lack a larger sense of purpose.

Do the partners think that they are simply putting steel girders together or building a bridge, which will carry everyone forward? The problem is that, all too often they see the girders not the bridge and, as a result, don’t engage with either the picture of the firm’s future or the journey.

Visions must be compelling. They have to create excitement, enthusiasm and engage partners and employees. It sounds simple and it should be, just as making sure that partners play an active role in creating that picture of the future for their firm ought to be. It’s a pity that in too many firms the obvious has got lost.

2. A lack of clearly-defined core values

Many partners can’t recite their firm’s core values and that’s a problem. A more serious problem is that the list of core values frequently found on firms’ websites are often no more than words. They look good and make it sound as if the firm has a sound behavioural underpinning, but the reality is somewhat different, with no real clarity or cohesiveness around what the firm actually stands for.

Core values should define the parameters of partner and employee behaviour. They should provide guidance on how individuals in the firm are supposed to act.

Core values are much more than minimum standards: they should inspire everyone in the firm to do their very best at all times. They are the common bond and the glue that unifies and ties the firm together. The challenge for every firm is to ensure its core values and the behaviours that underpin them are real and, in doing so, ensure that everyone in the firm is clear about what the firm stands for and what is acceptable and what is not.

3. A lack of clarity about what being a partner means

There are a lot of different reasons to make someone a partner, including unique talents, the need to fill a specific position and succession planning. However, what many firms lack today is clarity around what being a partner means.

The following characteristics are found in those firms that have embraced a one-firm concept and where the partners actively support their firm’s vision and way of getting there:

1. put the firm first;

2. are team players, not lone wolves or prima donnas;

3. live the firm’s values;

4. share their clients with others;

5. are accountable for their own actions and don’t pass the buck;

6. go out of their way to help others;

7. put developing their people at the top of their agenda;

8. have the highest degree of personal integrity;

9. treat others with respect; and

10. are willing to embrace change and stretch outside of their comfort zone.

It is only if partners are clear about what is expected of them that they can perform as the firm wants and needs. It is also critical that firms reinforce what they want by only making the ‘right’ people partners and taking action if partners visibly ignore the firm’s values.

4. Ineffective or non-existent partner performance reviews

One of the ways to ensure engagement is to make sure that, with clarity around what being a partner means, partners talk through their performance against agreed targets and agree what they will do in future.

Having written annual partner performance goals and an effective performance management process is essential. However, many partners say they do not have an effective review.

Firms cannot expect an uplift in performance if underperforming partners do exactly the same thing year on year. Firm leaders have to be clear about what they want and make sure that partners have the capabilities to deliver.

All efforts to deal with underperformance must be in line with the firm’s values, which means ensuring partners are equipped to carry out their roles and are supported in their attempts to improve what they do.

5. Performance systems that are not tied to strategic initiatives

It is not always the performance system itself that’s the problem. Rather, it is what the system rewards that is the issue. If a firm’s system rewards entitlement criteria (such as seniority or equity interest), then it isn’t surprising that some partners don’t take accountability seriously, aren’t good citizens and don’t put the firm first. If a firm is serious about rewarding partners who help to achieve its strategic initiatives, then its compensation must be tied to individual and team results – and the results must be delivered in the way the firm expects its partners to behave.

6. Leaders not knowing how to engage their partners

What separates the top leaders of law firms from everyone else? Unsurprisingly, it starts with helping partners to create a compelling direction and vision, the strategies for achieving them and the values the firm stands for. With the partners active participants in the firm’s future, successful firm leaders continually engage their partners and help them to become even more effective with clients and, critically, successful leaders themselves, given their influence on what everyone in the firm does. It sounds easy but it isn’t. It’s no longer good enough for firm leaders to be appointed on the basis of great client service. Staying close to clients is still a part of the job, but it’s not the major part. It’s vital for leaders to help build a more cohesive, integrated firm, where everyone in the firm wants to be a part of its future, has the capabilities to help it to succeed and demonstrates behaviours driven by its values. And, as firm leaders need the respect and trust of partners, they also need to be outstanding role models in everything they do.

One direction

Most firms’ efforts to engage their partners and increase their performance have not generated the uplift hoped for or expected, while some firms have driven up performance to the detriment of unity.

In order to create an environment in which all partners work to create an even better firm, leaders and partners need to commit to:

  • having a compelling sense of direction/vision that all of the partners share and want to play a part in achieving;
  • developing accompanying strategies through an iterative bottom-up process;
  • creating a culture of collective responsibility;
  • bringing the collective capabilities of the firm to the client by creating interlocking teams (partners need to know what services the firm provides and trust that their colleagues will deliver them to the same standard that they do);
  • appointing firm leaders who are able to motivate and engage their partners;
  • instilling an obligation to dissent when people see something being done that is against the firm’s values, and the belief that the firm comes first;
  • introducing a performance management system, including 360-degree or other feedback mechanisms, in which partners share data as part of taking shared responsibility for their practice’s performance; and
  • dealing with a lack of engagement and underperformance by creating an environment of support.

This is what it takes to start the process of engaging partners and improving performance. It is not a one-off event, but a continual process. This is what successful firms do. The challenge facing every managing partner is to make sure his firm is counted among them – and remains so.