What I Wish I Knew…Advice From The Trenches

Everyone needs a mentor. Even MPs.

As the rigors and challenges of leading a firm become more complex, we thought it would be of interest to tap into the collective wisdom of newly appointed MPs.

No MP comes into the job with the illusion that leading a firm will be easy. Taking over the top job brings complicated challenges; some of them expected, some not. IPA asked four MPs, all fairly new to the position, to talk about “what I wish I knew when I became managing partner.” The result is a candid, wide-ranging conversation about the realities and rewards of the role.

What do you wish someone told you when you became MP about the reality of partner motivation, and the best way to approach it?

I have a strong sense on a personal level of what the interests are of the partners, so to some extent that makes the job easier because I know their strengths and weaknesses.

Trying to build consensus is difficult and maybe not even possible.

At some point you’ve got to balance getting everyone on board with making decisions and moving through the process.

Our partners are highly goal-oriented. They’ve achieved a certain level of authority and responsibility, and I’ve found that money – this is a shocker – can be a motivator.

For some, you could pay them plus or minus a certain number and I don’t know that you would change the result at all. For others, they’ll move heaven and earth for an extra $5,000.

You need to make sure the compensation is structured around the goals you want them [partners] to accomplish.

Every successful partner, and some not so successful, believes they do things the right way. Changing their practices is not something they want to think about even though it may be more profitable for the firm and/or make their life easier.

Understand that every partner is different. They all have their pet issues. A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.

You have to use the strategic plan as the rallying point. I mean, look, this is what we all agreed to, we hashed this out as a firm, so everything we do is going to run through that filter.

What have you learned since taking over that you can share with others?

Every meeting goes longer than you project.

I’m not sure if there’s anything more important in the job than trying to organize this tremendous set of talents and this collective energy in a way that one and one equals three.

I’ve always felt it’s best to be direct, and be careful how much you sugarcoat issues because they just don’t go away.

Be sure you let people know when you are analyzing or talking through an issue. Many times they can conclude that you are communicating your decision. Many, out of respect for your position, will not give you honest input on the issue if they think you have already decided. Some will.

Partner motivation is absolutely the hardest thing in the world to do. You’ve got a lot of successful people who truly believe that their way is the only way.

You’ve got to listen to the group, no matter what they’re saying, and they’ve got to feel like when you’re talking to them they’re the most important people in the whole world. They want an outlet, and they want you to listen.

Find a way for them to have a voice, no matter how big or small. If they have that, they’ll buy into the process. Include them and communicate to the point where you think, ‘Man, if I say this again, someone’s going to throw up because they’re tired of hearing it.’

You can’t over-communicate, and it’s got to be granular.

One of the problems is passive-aggressiveness. No one will say anything in the meeting, but when it comes time for the rubber to meet the road, you find they didn’t like it.

You’ve got to understand the other person’s perception. If you understand that – whether it’s reality or not – if you can put yourself in that position, then every problem is solvable.

Any time there’s a problem, it’s generally two people not communicating. What is this person trying to say to me that I can’t see? If I can figure that out, I can mold my message to fit that.

I didn’t feel prepared on the first day to say, ‘OK, I got it all figured out, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I took the first year spending a little too much time managing and not enough leading, but I think it was time well spent.

Go get a psychologist, even if it’s a corporate psychologist. Have someone you can go to to say, ‘This is what I’m dealing with.’ He/she can help craft your message. I tell you, that is gold.

I think the thing is to have a clear direction. The biggest thing we’re in the midst of now is getting more focused on niche development and niche marketing. Our partners are spending a tremendous amount of time retooling themselves. In the past, we’d go after business on a geographic basis.

I spent the first year building a foundation and now I’m prepared to lead.

You need to go through a good long-range planning process within the first year. Part of this process is to inventory the opportunities and threats of your firm and to identify the internal issues both positive and negative that your partners are concerned about. You may find that you already knew about many of these issues or opportunities but you will probably find out there are some that you do not.

We do quarterly firm meetings where we quiz people on the strategic plan. We gave people $1,000 for a perfect score on it. We have partners team up against staff on who knows the strategic plan best. Unfortunately, the partners consistently lose (laughs).

You’ve got to do some different things. You’ve got to make it fun. If you’re just beating people to follow the strategic plan, people are going to shut down.

Spend a few days on your strategic plan and refresh it every six months.

Some hard decisions are part of the job. Do the best job you can in analyzing the circumstances and then make the decision and get on with the implementation process. “Shit” happens, deal with it.

What’s the hardest thing to accept/adapt to regarding your role/efforts with motivation?

Even in a relatively small group like we have, there’s a great deal of diversity. One thing I’ve learned is that I had some idea that if I said something sensible and backed it up, people would automatically see the value of it and agree to it, but it’s become abundantly clear that it doesn’t work like that.

What you have to do is figure out what your compass is and trust your judgment and be willing to take the reasonable consequences of doing that. At any point in time, nearly every decision you make might only please a minority of constituents.

The hardest thing is to motivate people who are more senior than I am.

It’s about balance. It would be nice to think that you could measure yourself by the degree of unanimity you get around your decisions, but that’s pretty clearly not realistic.

It is hard to accept that you don’t always know the answer. But decisions have to be made to move the firm forward. Few decisions are perfect, but you have to make the decision and then work to make the results work anyway.

Marketing yourself…all that means is asking for something and then doing whatever it takes to get it.

You need to focus more on subgroups within the firm in terms of actually developing a vision that’s attuned to their circumstances, and at the firm level you need to bring it all together.

Most of us agree we don’t want or need to make sweeping changes. We need to do a number of things we’re dedicated to doing and get even better at them.

As part of my association affiliation, I interact with MPs from other firms…I get a sense pretty readily of the commonalities that we experience.

With me, it’s building personal relationships with individual partners. So I try to spend a lot of time with them.

I have a great appreciation for partners who just get to the job and get it done. No excuses, no exception, no explanations as to why their situation or client base is different and therefore deserves special consideration, they just get to it. This group of partners deserves strong compensation and firm leadership roles.

This is what I tell my staff now. You’ve got to tell people what you want. On the flip side, the worst thing you can do is tell people this is what you want and not put in the effort.

What do you wish someone told you when you became MP about aligning the firm behind a common vision, and the best way to approach it?

Five years ago, if you could find the bodies you could make it all work. So the common vision that might have prevailed eight years ago, or five years ago, probably is in need of some revision.

When you talk about a common vision it’s a challenge to find the element of commonality that might resonate with groups facing very different things.

You need to focus more on subgroups within the firm in terms of actually developing a vision that’s attuned to their circumstances, and at the firm level you need to bring it all together.

The string of events that led to the point where I got elected might have been in part premised on the fact that I managed a smaller firm. Also, I was at a point in my career where I’m able to put the firm ahead of my own interests.

You need to get a good set of golf clubs and use them. You need to find something that lets you ‘leave’ when you leave.

I give a vision or a direction to my management committee, they give me feedback and we roll it out to the partners. Most of the time there’s some discussion, but there has not been any pushback.

A major part of the MP’s job is to develop the long-range vision and goals. If you’re as fortunate as I’ve been, you inherit a quality firm structure with solid goals and objectives in place, but you still have to introduce your vision or twist to those objectives. Even then you must work to get buy-in to your changes and to why those changes are worth the diversion.

No one is going to tell you what they really think in a group setting. They won’t do it. No matter how hard you try. Whatever you hear may not be what is actually happening.

I will say this, in a smaller firm, it’s a lot easier, but in a larger group of partners sitting around the table and we have a day or two devoted to the strategic plan, half of them won’t even talk.

If you’re not growing, you’re not providing new opportunities. The firm has to be growing or it just doesn’t work.

We have an ice breaker we do before every partner retreat, where we go around the room and talk about something like, What do you want out of your life? Or, when you’re dead, what do you want people to say about you? Every time we go through that exercise, we find that we really aren’t that different.

Most of us agree we don’t want or need to make sweeping changes. We need to do a number of things we’re dedicated to doing and get even better at them.

What has been the hardest thing to accept or adapt to regarding your role and efforts with aligning the firm behind a common vision?

This is not a surprise, but in the end, there’s more work than you can do, so you need to be able to balance what you can do and what others can do and what’s just noise – and you don’t always get those answers right.

I always felt I could make decent decisions relatively quickly, and it’s useful in this job, but there’s certainly a lot of decisions that need to be made. If you can’t make them quickly, you’re going to fall behind.

I have become surprised by what I think is not uncommon, but I haven’t really experienced it before – a resistance to change or a fear of change that’s rather prevalent.

I think people talk about loving change, but what I think they really mean is they want change for the other person, but not for them.

You’ve got to tell the same story over and over. They don’t follow you only because they see your actions, you have to be vocal about it.

Self-doubt. Do I really belong in this role? When are they going to find out that the emperor doesn’t have any clothes? I’m nervous. I’m as scared about what I’m saying as they are about what they’re hearing.

Learning that I got this role for reason, that I do deserve it…that’s been tough for me to learn.