“We have a two-speed firm! There’s one group of partners who are ambitious and willing to spend the extra energy necessary to win new business. And then we have another group, who work hard but are broadly happy with the way things are. In reality, they expend far less energy than the first group. The problem is we’re all rowing the same boat. Rowing at different speeds makes us go in circles, not forward.”
Does this sound familiar?
The expectations of partner energy, commitment, speed, fire-in-the-belly, etc. are missed in most strategy discussions. You might have motivational words in your purpose, vision and values statements. Your goals might include stretch revenue and profit targets. But, if you look carefully, there’s nothing there on how much petrol needs to be spent by each individual partner. It is just ASSUMED that every partner will be equally committed and energised.
Five key reasons
I think think there are five main reasons why energy expectations are not adequately discussed:
- Remuneration model: the view in some firms is that those willing to invest more will be paid more, and therefore there’s no need to talk about it. The problem is that discretionary reward, on its own, is a very blunt (and lazy) performance management tool. Over time, it entrenches a multi-speed firm.
- Measurement: there’s no easy and accurate measure of energy level. Firms may have proxies like billable hours or hours worked, but these measures can be gamed and do not really capture the temperature of belly fire. As firms introduce different business models and new flexible work arrangements these measures become even less relevant.
- Confrontation: talking about energy expectations inevitably leads to heated discussions as to whom is contributing more or less. Firm leaders often prefer harmony over harrowing debates around relative commitment.
- Autonomy: in many firms partners believe their autonomy is paramount and should not be questioned. As owners, they should be free of “big brother” accountabilities around how and where and how much time they spend.
- Outputs over inputs: some people will argue that assessing energy feels like clock-watching – a focus on time spent rather than outcomes achieved.
#1 Focus on partner engagement
The conventional solution to address a two-speed partnership is to shine the light on the “under-performers” and hope that this will shame them into speeding up. This is often coupled with a stern conversation around accountability and the threat of sanctions. In my experience, this approach seldom has enduring success and often ends badly.
An alternative approach is to shine the light on everyone in the spirit of support and development. The idea here is to frequently check-in with the whole partner group on questions like:
- What’s going well?
- What’s causing you the most stress at the moment?
- How’s your team’s strategy implementation going?
- What support do you need?
- What are your key priorities over the next period?
- What things might get in the way of success?
The logic there is that through greater transparency and a more supportive leadership style there will be a positive impact across the board. This approach is aimed at growing the overall pie and reducing dissonance between the fast and the slow.
The reason this approach is seldom attempted, or, if it is, implemented badly, is that it requires the firm leaders to do some serious heavy lifting. It’s practically impossible to do well in medium and large firms.
There are a range of new applications, like Jobvibe (an Australian start-up), Wethrive and Culture Amp, that allows for easy frequent check-ins to assess how people are feeling at work, and to identify and resolve issues quickly. The trick is to tailor the questions for professional services and for the partner group in particular, and to run it out of the managing partner’s office, not HR.
#2 Agree a partner charter
A complementary approach is to agree the social contract between the firm and its partners. As Nick Jarrett-Kerr explains, these partner codes or charters should agree explicit expectations for each partner in regard to :
- their dealings with the firm, for example, to accept the spirit and the letter of the firm’s strategy;
- their treatment of the firm’s clients, for example, promoting the highest standards of professionalism, truthfulness, integrity and trustworthiness;
- their dealings with fellow partners, junior staff members and support staff; and
- their personal learning journey and commitment to ongoing development, improvement and innovation.
I’d suggest adding a fifth dimension which describes the expectations around commitment and energy levels.
#3 Team profit contribution
Some firm’s have shifted focus away from individual revenue targets to team profit contribution. Rather than set individual budgets, the core accountability is for the team to deliver a specific profit outcome. Team members need to work through the optimum approach, roles and requisite energy levels. While there are many positives to this approach, it may further entrench silos and factions. It may also hide enduring aberrant behaviour by some individuals.
Call to action
I don’t think there is a magic silver bullet to address the issue of variations in partner contribution. It’s a complex, politically sensitive problem. The key is not to ignore the problem as it festers rage in the fast, and facilitates a victim mindset in the slow. Without active positive leadership, you’re charting course for a circling boat.
Photo sourced from dreamstime.com