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So, what does being a partner mean?

By August J. Aquila, Ph.D. and Robert J. Lees

Partners are the culture in a professional service firm — what they believe, what they reward, what they do and how they do it determines what and how things get done. But, one of the problems we consistently hear about is the lack of clarity in what being a partner means.
And, in the absence of clarity the partners typically fill the gap by doing what they think it means, with all the differences of thought and behaviour that inevitably brings. It’s these differences in behaviour that result in firms failing to maximise their potential.
The following table illustrates some of the differences in approach that can occur when partners interpret their responsibilities themselves.
Individual > Firm Firm > Individual
My clients are mine. My clients are the firm’s.
I don’t trust others with my clients. I introduce other people to my clients.
I hold on to what I know. I pass what I know on to others.
I do things best and interfere in what others do. I have a role and let others have theirs.
My interests prevail. The firm’s interests prevail.
My rights are paramount. Cabinet responsibility is paramount.
Management interferes in my plans. Management adds value through coordination.
I operate at arm’s length to the firm. I am actively involved in the firm’s initiatives.
The whole is less than the sum of its parts. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The initial ideas for this table were developed by Des Woods of Møller PSF Group in his work on the impact of different collegiality models on market performance.
So, how do firms overcome this lack of clarity and ensure the partner group set the right example and consistently deliver the performance the firm needs to be successful? In our more than 20 years working with professional service firms, we have seen many attempts to provide greater clarity from sophisticated competency frameworks through balanced scorecards to highly personalised objective-based compensation systems. The problem is that none of them (or even all of them together) ever works well enough without the critical link between partner behaviour and what the firm is trying to achieve and what the partners have to do to deliver it. Only when that overt linkage exists and becomes part of every partner’s DNA do any other initiatives have a chance of working.
At the core of that linkage is the fact that the partners are the firm’s owners. They, and they alone, are responsible for the firm’s vision and its implementation. They are the people who have to ensure that, as a group, they are walking in the same direction, to the same beat, and taking everyone else with them. Put simply, the partners must lead. They can’t offload their responsibilities to a managing partner or practice leader just because they prefer to serve clients.

Being a leader means partners must:

  • Make a personal economic contribution: The discussion about whether professional service firms are a profession or a business is still an emotive subject in a lot of circles. But, regardless of the answer, every firm has to make money to continue to exist. That means that the partners must see themselves as accountable for the firm’s financial performance. Business management has to be part of every partner’s capability and every partner has to ensure their assignments are profitable and that they manage the firm’s cash flow by collecting monies when they’re due not in the last month of the tax year as too many partners still do.
  • Effective partners also use their nonbillable time well. They concentrate their efforts on activities that will enhance the future value of the firm like marketing, networking and doing pro-bono work that enhances the firm’s reputation in its local communities.
  • Bring in new business: The lifeblood of any firm is its ability to bring in new, profitable clients or expand the work it does for its existing clients. Not all partners are effective operating in an environment where they have no pre-existing relationships, whereas some find it easy. The key for any firm is to use its resources where they will achieve the best return rather than expect everyone to be good at everything. However, regardless of which environment they operate best in, every partner must bring in new profitable business that enables the firm to grow and develop — and, critically, provides security of tenure for the firm’s people.
  • Bring the firm’s resources to their clients: The failure of some partners to do this is one of the most complained about issues we meet. Overcoming it means that the partners must trust that their fellow partners will do as good a job as they do if they introduce them to their clients. To gain that trust, they have to understand what their colleagues do and trust them personally (this is the classic “no-brainer;” no one is going to introduce any one to an important relationship if they have no real idea of what they do and don’t know them well enough to trust them). But, being a partner, as we keep emphasizing, means putting the firm first. So, while firms must share a lot of the blame for not creating opportunities for their partners to understand what the firm does and develop effective relationships with their colleagues who deliver it, the partners must be proactive and take responsibility for ensuring they are comfortable introducing their colleagues to their clients. Every successful firm we know introduces different service lines to their clients and doing so is very much second nature to their partners.
  • Pass work to their colleagues: Trust is also at the core of whether partners will pass work on to their colleagues. The partners must find opportunities to ensure that, when one of their colleagues has the more appropriate experience, they are confident in their decision to pass the work to them. When partners think “firm first,” the decision to pass work on to their fellow partners is automatic and enables the firm to utilise its resources to the full.
  • Develop their people’s capabilities: Professional services is an execution game, so if a firm develops its people faster and more effectively than its competitors, it gains a competitive and economic advantage. As professionals learn 80% of what they need to know on the job, partners have got to be really effective coaches (we are unequivocal in our belief that if a partner is not a good coach they are not a good partner). They must also make sure that, whenever possible, the assignment process considers people’s development needs and that progress against those needs is assessed throughout the assignment as well as at its conclusion. They must also go through the same learning review process for the off-the-job learning, including the programs that accelerate people’s transitions throughout their careers.
  • A lot of people will consider that this is something that every partner should do naturally. But, sadly, this isn’t the case. Despite knowing they should invest time in developing their people, we continually meet partners who accept that, in task time, they focus on the task at the expense of everything else including developing their people — despite being aware of the consequences on the firm’s finances and, ultimately, its reputation. The challenge to all partners is to make developing their people part of the task. That way, it becomes a natural part of what they do and continually enhances the firm’s delivery capability and the quality of their clients’ experiences.
  • Persuade their people to join the partners on the journey and to play a part in building a better firm: Just as the partners need to engage with the firm’s vision so do the firm’s people. But, like everyone, they engage with people, not words. So, effective partners continually engage with their people, regardless of their level and role. They go out of their way to create a personal bond, sharing personal information and operating with honesty and integrity in all their interactions. One of the great truisms is that you can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers and effective partners create strong relationships with their people. They are accessible and have highly tuned antennae that enable them to know where their people ‘are’ and how and when to act to ensure they remain committed to the firm.
  • Help their colleagues and, through them, the firm: Some firms have a predominantly individualistic culture, although increasingly firms recognize that they have to create a more collective culture in which their partners operate in tandem in their dealings with the firm’s clients and people. Part of that cohesiveness is an active willingness to help others.
  • In our research into what successful managing partners do, two of the things that distinguished successful managing partners from their peers were helping their partners be better leaders and a willingness to ask for help. The normal PSF stigma of failure had been replaced by an understanding that, “if we’re all in it together, it makes sense to make sure we’re all doing the best we can.” Help was the dominant action rather than failure or blame.
  • Help must also be part of every partner’s DNA. As acute observers of PSFs, our experience across many hundreds of firms is that those firms where help is the predominant action perform demonstrably better than their peers.
  • Live the firm’s values all day, every day: Values are the cultural glue in a professional service firm. Professionals, as we all know, are highly intelligent, high-achieving individuals who value their autonomy. A traditional “top-down” command and control approach typically never works as the partners can game the system with aplomb. So, how do firms ensure their people operate cohesively and consistently in a highly networked organization. The answer, in addition to ensuring they are engaged with the firm’s vision and want to play an active part in its delivery, is through an all-pervading set of values. Every successful firm we know has a set of values that are part of the firm’s DNA. They drive people’s actions and help them to make the “right” decision should there ever be any doubt about which action to take.
  • Never be satisfied with second best: In an execution game, the successful firms continually look for ways to improve what they do. Whether that’s serving their clients, developing their people, maximising their revenues, creating new service lines or simply being more efficient, they never rest on their laurels. The challenge of being the best at every thing they do is usually highly energising to the competitive personalities who live in professional service firms, and in the best firms the question, ‘how can we do this better?’, is a natural part of every thing they do.
  • Be role models for high performance and judgement, the people members of the firm turn to for inspiration and help: People follow leaders they respect and trust, and whose performance inspires them to want to do even better themselves. This is especially true in psfs. Highly intelligent, highly competitive professionals will only follow people they believe are really good at what they do. So, a partner who builds great relationships with their clients, introduces their colleagues to them and makes sure their professionals are developed during the assignment is the role model people respond to rather than one who doesn’t.
  • Stand up and be counted: This may sound obvious but, unfortunately, it isn’t. In small firms, it’s not easy to disappear into the passive middle but scale can make it easy to escape notice. We discussed how to engage partners with the firm’s vision in our last article, including how to address the scale issue, and the need for partners to accept personal responsibility for both themselves and the firm is why it is absolutely critical. In our work, we hear about too many partners who don’t play a part in what the firm is doing. The negative impact of this behaviour on the people looking up at them and expecting their leaders to be great role models is unacceptable and tells absolutely the wrong story about the cohesiveness of the partner group, their trust in each other and their belief in the firm’s future. After all, partners are the culture of the firm.

Effective partners are great role models

Being a great model must be the aspiration for every partner because that’s what being a partner means. Great role models are what every firm needs its partners to be — the people who inspire others to help the firm to deliver its vision and, who in their interactions with others in the firm, ensure that every one wants to play an active part in delivering the firm’s future and always puts the firm first.
Rob Lees is a retired founding partner of Moller PSFG Ltd and consultant to professional service firm leaders worldwide. He is also co-author of the best-selling book “When Professionals Have to Lead” (Harvard Business School Press).
August Aquila is an internationally known speaker, consultant and writer. He is CEO of AQUILA Global Advisors. He is also the co-author of “Compensation as a Strategic Asset” and “Client at the Core.” He can be reached at or 1-952-930-1295. For more information see