Nothing beats learning from those who have succeeded…. and in order to obtain an industry-wide perspective we have interviewed over fifty Partners and other senior individuals within the accounting, actuarial, consulting and legal sectors, a number of whom we have worked with as coaches. One of the questions posed was “what advice would you give to those seeking to become a Partner over the next couple of years”. The following is a summary of the most common ‘tips’:

1. Understand the role and the sacrifices you may need to make
Partnership can be very rewarding, both financially and in terms of the opportunities a senior position offers for interesting and challenging work. However, many Partners made the point that a decision to go for Partnership should not be taken lightly in light of the additional responsibilities that come with the role. And while it may seem obvious, individuals wishing to ‘step up’ to Partnership need to develop an understanding of the role in the context of their organisation. Speaking with both experienced Partners and those who have been appointed more recently will help develop a deeper understanding of the role.

2. Take responsibility

Whilst the business will generally provide support and encouragement to those who wish to step up, the individual needs to take responsibility for their own development. Many of those we spoke with had their career aspirations delayed for a while, either as a result of them not being quite ‘ready’ at the time, or other factors (such as lack of consensus in the promotions committee or the firm’s finance not being sufficiently robust). Those who are ultimately successful play the long game, learn from any set-backs, and keep going.

The responsibility theme extends further in that firms expect their most senior people to discharge the responsibility required for running a business, whether it is securing new business, resolving a client issue or leading the development of a new service. Candidates need to demonstrate willingness to take responsibility and to acknowledge that the ‘buck stops with me’.

3. Rigorously assess your strengths/weaknesses relative to the role & take action

There are a number of key points that should be considered. Firstly, candidates can sometimes fail to benchmark their strengths/weaknesses relative to the demands of the new role, basing their assessment instead on how they are performing in their current position. Secondly, it is very hard to self-assess and many Partners valued rigorous 360 feedback (often including client feedback) in helping them focus on their key areas for development.

Most Partners reported that their principal challenge was in the development of their broader business skills. These embrace what are often described as “soft skills” such as leadership and management skills, although significant focus is also given to the ability to develop the business through increasing revenue. The development of such skills can often be a demanding challenge as the initial focus in their professional life has predominantly been the development of technical skills.

4. Ensure the business case demonstrates your contribution to making the “cake bigger”

This is a fundamental requirement in most firms as Partners are expected to drive the business forward. One Partner described the transition to Partnership as moving from being ‘fed’ to being one of the ‘feeders’ of client work. Firms will therefore be looking for a link to revenue generation in the Partner’s business case although they will place different weightings on short term versus long term revenue generation.

Clearly the ability to win new clients will count but is not the only way that the business can be developed. For example, the abilities to cement the relationship with existing clients or to extend the range of services they buy are both valuable attributes. Those who are not in client facing roles can make it to Partner (and rightly so), albeit it can be a greater challenge.

5. Develop your internal and external network/profile

Many of those we spoke with found this to be a key learning point in their journey to Partnership. Most firms expect candidates to have a broad support base from across the business, not just the business area they work in. This is partly because the final decision for Partnership, particularly equity Partnership, will be the decision of the other equity Partners who themselves will be spread across the firm. The other reason is that firms generally wish their Partners to have knowledge of the firm as a whole, particularly when representing the firm in their dealings with clients and other parties. This ‘one-firm’ ethos is strongly articulated in a number of firms and was often quoted as a defining feature of Partnership.

The importance of developing an external profile, particularly in the industry/sector of clients serviced by the prospective Partner, should not be underestimated. Such profile can be particularly helpful in developing contacts and securing future business for the firm.

6. Seek advice/support from others

Most firms offer support to candidates in the promotions process, including:-
• access to internal mentors (generally seasoned Partners);
• the sourcing and funding of external coaches;
• In a number of cases, intensive workshops to help candidates develop specific skills (generally business skills as discussed above).

Our advice is to make the most of any support offered.

Criteria for ‘stepping up’ & ‘staying in’

It’s clear from the advice given above that candidates need to develop an understanding of the criteria used in the selection of Partners. Naturally it will differ from firm to firm, but to provide some guidance, the following were the most frequently highlighted:-

Revenue The ability to generate sufficient income is a key component of the business case for Partnership in many firms. This can include new business sales but also existing client account development for example.

Business Development This is not confined to revenue growth and can include the development of new products/service, enhancing the firm’s intellectual capital or extending the firm’s talent base for example.

Firm-wide perspective The step up to Partner is often characterised by individuals changing their mind-set, knowledge and influence from that of operating within their practice area to representing and being responsible for the firm as a whole.

Leadership role model Partners need to act as ambassadors for the business to clients and to staff, the latter being particularly important in helping develop their talent base of the future.

Partner fit The existing Partners will naturally have some view of the behaviours they are seeking for those ‘joining the club’, albeit this will very much depend on the culture and size of the organisation.

Moving Forward
So what to do with this advice? If you are serious in taking a step up in your career, our experience in working with clients indicates that the best way forward is to plan for any step up well in advance, with your plan addressing the following:

• Any skills that you need to sharpen or develop;
• Any behaviours that may need to change;
• What support you may need;
• Timescales, with appropriate milestones;
• Progress review points, with rigorous, reliable feedback.

Author: Russell Borland

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