Avoid new partner pitfalls

Jun 26, 2017

Generational ownership and leadership transitions pose unique challenges. Anyone you promote to the highest level must be cut from the right cloth.

The statistics bear repeating: Most professional services firms are aging at the top. For example, the average partner age of big law firms is 52, and only 2 percent of partners at these firms are millennials, according to data compiled by The American Lawyer. AEC firms are no different. Our engineering firm’s average partner age is 48. That means that in the next decade a lot of decisions will be focused on the next leadership group.

Handing off the responsibilities of running a firm, especially at partner level, can be a daunting task. Organizational cultures vary and the approach to leadership has changed. Organizational charts and autocratic leadership styles don’t motivate or impress millennials – and why should they? Given societal changes – a values shift that focuses on work-life balance – and definitions of success in defiance of monetary gains or promotions, most millennials seek opportunities that come in the form of meaningful and well-defined professional experiences.

So what does the partner of the future look like?

  1. You must be a good communicator. You simply cannot be an effective leader if you are not able to communicate your message to your constituents, be they internal or external. Your future partner must be honest and transparent with information. Who wants to follow a leader they don’t trust? And they must be able to deliver both good and bad news as not every day is a success.
  2. You want partners who have specific skills. You need partners who bring a broader range of business acumen to the table, including financial, legal, business development, and marketing experience. In our industry, most partners come with technical backgrounds and many firms consider technical prowess to be the sole criteria in selecting future leaders. However, you must consider that you are a business first and the viability of the business is based on making sound business decisions. While technical competency is important, you are asking future leaders to embrace running and growing a business in addition to serving the firm’s clients.
  3. You need others who can share the burden of operating a firm. The day-to-day challenges of operating a firm will persist, and no partner should be in the position of having to solve all of these challenges alone. Although the managing partner is often tasked with this oversight, he or she should have the support of each partner to help carry the load. Problem-solving and risk-sharing are roles that come with the job, and every future partner should understand this, especially if he or she expects to share in the rewards when a firm is well-managed and led.
  4. Certain social skills are part of the mix. Networking with peers, participating in industry conferences, assuming roles within your local community – all require an ability to interact with diverse groups of people. How to dress, how to speak and how to behave appropriately for the profession are important in establishing your firm’s visibility and influence. Being a partner comes with social trappings that some potential partners may or may not want to embrace. You would think that etiquette and proper social skills would not be a challenge, but some individuals just march to a different drummer.
  5. You want future partners who will question the status quo. These are individuals who do not necessarily break the molds or norms, but they ask incisive questions that help improve the firm processes and performance. Having partners who are essentially just “yes men” or “yes women,” or who don’t even observe situations within a firm’s environment that need to improve, may actually impede growth. At the same time, once a decision is made by the firm, these same individuals must be willing to embrace the chosen direction and implement the plan.
  6. You want an informed risk-taker, not a knee-jerk responder. Every successful firm I know is accepting of some risk. Absent that characteristic and your firm will likely just fade away. Therefore, your future partners should be comfortable with taking risks provided the risk is quantifiable and is at a level acceptable to the firm leadership. Moreover, a future partner must be decisive. He or she is going to have to make decisions that can’t be kicked down the street, and your firm and its leadership must live with those consequences. A person who can’t make a decision or take risks shouldn’t be considered for firm leadership.

Being a partner carries a lot of responsibility. You must be able to think about the long-term while managing the short-term issues that present themselves. Just as importantly, you must be aware that, as a partner, you set the tone in terms of performance and leadership. Look for those who care about your culture, can help set global strategies and embrace change – all tall orders but your future partners are out there, ready and willing to lead when you let them.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at slucy@jqeng.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.