Your Partners

Nov 11, 1996

I had a revelation the other day: I don’t know of a single top manager in an A/E/P or environmental firm who is completely thrilled with every one of his or her partners, shareholders, or fellow top managers in every way. There’s always something that one of these peers does or doesn’t do that justifies the complaint. You may not be surprised to read this. And the truth is, in many cases, the griping is legitimate. Someone isn’t carrying his weight, isn’t running a tight ship, isn’t selling new work, isn’t confronting performance problems, isn’t collecting the money, isn’t doing performance appraisals on time. Or, someone is annoying by his lack of business sense, or says stupid things in front of clients, or wastes too much time on trivia at board get the idea. Though this griping about specific top people in the firm by other top people in the firm is as common as a white Ford Taurus rental car at a Hertz airport location, this dissatisfaction ends up ripping many companies apart. It has to be stopped, and it’s the CEO’s job to stop it. How do you do that? Here are my suggestions: Talk about how destructive it is. In-fighting tears up firms, especially when it’s at the top of the company. When lower-level employees see top management complaining about each other and bickering with one another, they lose their confidence in the organization. That’s very bad if you want these people to be motivated, to work hard, to put the company’s interests above their own personal interests, and to stay with your firm. The fact is, in-fighting costs money. Remember the enemy is outside the firm, not inside it. None of us can hear this often enough. No one who works for the company— especially an owner— wants to see bad come of the firm. It’s self-destructive. But too often we forget that, and we develop false notions about our fellow partners and what their motivations are. Sure— occasionally, I run into a self-destructive jerk who cares more about his ego than he does his mental health and pocketbook, but it’s rare. Get people to think about what the firm would be like if the person they were complaining about abruptly quit. I always like to ask a complainer this question, and their responses can be very telling. It also might get some of these complainers to think a little more rationally. Because let’s face it, it’s hard to find good people today. It’s also impossible to find someone outside your company who knows everything about what’s inside it. It takes a long time to get someone up to speed, and that costs the firm time and money. Ask if the person who is being complained about has always been a problem? If not, what changed? If there’s a partner who’s gotten moody lately, perhaps there are problems at home that affect the partner during his or her working day. If there’s a partner who’s not selling any work, but sold millions in previous years, perhaps he is going through a dry spell marketing-wise that will eventually turn around. If the partner is heading up a losing office or division, has the division or office always lost money? I think that the answers to these questions are really critical to your determination of whether or not to crucify someone, or worse, run them off. If someone who was a proven performer in the past is having hard times with whatever they are supposed to be doing, I would be a lot less critical of them than I would someone who never showed they could run a profitable group, never sold a job, or never really proved themselves. Think about it. Consider combining the work groups, offices, departments, or other organizational units of the complainer and whomever he or she is complaining about. Make them part of the same team. Make the two offices a region. Combine the two departments into one super department. Adopt a new client-based organization structure and put both managers in the same market sector group. This may be exactly what it takes for a complainer to understand the other guy’s problem. Don’t rule out the possibility that the complainer may be right. I offer suggestion numbers 1 through 5 above with some trepidation. I don’t want to give the CEO or managing partner justification for ignoring performance problems that the top people in the company may be having. It’s entirely possible that drastic action needs to be taken, and that someone may need to have their stock bought back, be reassigned, demoted, or let go. I just don’t want to see these options considered as a first course. Originally published 11/11/1996

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