In this article we consider what motivates partners to take on additional and more formal leadership roles and what questions the organisation, and its current leaders should be asking to identify a pool of future leaders.
All partners could be described as leaders, leaders of people and their part of the business and their clients by virtue of being a partner. However only some choose to take on organisational leadership roles as practice leaders, managing partners, senior partners, or board members. Senior leaders are faced with an issue about the apparent lack of candidates coming forward for leadership positions and are questioning whether they have a big enough pool of talent with leadership aspirations let alone the requisite skills to do well in those roles.
Little L leadership
Whilst it is obvious that the majority of partners do not hold named roles or titles, such as Practice Group Leader, Office Managing Partner or similar the reality is that they are still considered to be leaders by those who look at them and see them as a manifestation of success in the firm. After all, for many, admission to partnership is still a desirable and worthy career goal. This untitled form of leadership we term little l leadership.
Over time partners evolve from leading themselves (learning core self-management skills), to leading people (from one or two individuals to a practice or sector), to leading client relationships, and even accounts. Every firm needs those who step up and lead the organisation – the practice and sector leaders and the MDs and Senior Partners. These roles we refer to as Big L leadership roles.
Transition to big L leadership
The transition to leading the organisation, to ‘big L leadership’, is of a different order. It is partly about scale. The team is much larger. With that increase in size comes both an increase in complexity and a new challenge; leading without being the most knowledgeable or expert person in the room. Partners are leading groups of people they do not know or may not be in simpatico with. They may be covering practice areas they are not deeply familiar with or looking after back-office functions that are viewed as costs rather more than levers or enablers.
Big L leadership is about more than leading a larger and more diverse group of people. While very strong people leadership skills are absolutely vital, they are not sufficient for success in these roles. Big L Leaders also need to be skilled in developing firm wide strategy, culture, and processes, designing and managing organisational structure and reward processes. They need to be great at bigger picture and holistic thinking, creating not just analysing, breaking down walls and integrating ideas and solutions. These leaders need to be willing to make potentially unpopular decisions, and without having all the information they would really like to have. They need to build and communicate a vision of the future that creates safety and inspires others.
Changing the mindset
Taking on Big L leadership in professional services is particularly challenging because of the need to lead, and formally manage, other partners. On an organisational chart it might look like one has positional authority, but savvy leaders find out quite quickly that in professional services, unlike corporates, this authority is very limited.
- Sometimes this is because a selection of partners simply refuses to engage with change, either because they disagree, or more sadly, because they are just holding on until retirement. It’s not uncommon to see established partners who would rather ‘sit it out’ and leave the burning issues of the day to another generation to deal with tomorrow.
- New Big L leaders may lack credibility in the eyes of the partnership – even though this may be unwelcome news! This credibility is adjudged by other partners in terms of how well the leader has performed in their previous or core role? Are they a big hitter generating chunky revenue, an industry expert? Why should people be following them?
- Finally, we need to acknowledge that some leaders are their own worst enemies and unconsciously sabotage themselves. They self-check their actions, aware that they are in a fixed term role, and will probably be back among the partnership as a true peer in time. They self limit how far they will “rock the boat” which diminishes the impact of their changes (and the conflict it might stimulate) as a result.
Leading and influencing in professional services is a mindset. What others see as ‘organisational politics’ successful Big L Leaders see as influencing to achieve strategy execution. What others see as compromise; they see as collaboration. The people others find ‘difficult’ and shy away from, leaders will want to know so they can be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ or perhaps a ‘futurologist’ – a human early warning system.
Asking the right questions
Managing and Senior Partners are worried about the lack of potential leaders in their firms. Who are the next leaders – and how does the firm make it attractive for them to take the risk and step forward?
Every Managing and Senior partner, in looking at the talent in their firm could well do with asking:
- Do we have enough big picture thinkers who care enough about the whole firm?
- Who do we have who thinks systemically and sees the connections between things?
- Does our talent understand that what others see as ‘politics’ is, in reality, relationships and influencing?
- Does our talent pool, in the main, generally, influence and collaborate rather than direct and control?
- How well are they managing their time – doing the right things or doing things right?
- Who wants to see a change in the firm, particularly around the key things affecting growth, performance, and culture, e.g. how to institutionalise clients, how to engage with AI and other technology in the industry, how to attract and develop the best talent?
- Who can take on being visible inside the firm, leading townhalls etc, and outside the firm lead in the market and across the legal industry (an audience that may no longer be only clients, but also the wider legal profession)?
- Who is willing to have tough conversations with compassion and backbone?
- Will they take the ‘flak’ when needed and won’t shy away from accountability?
Most managing and senior partners do not have enough identified talent that ticks all their boxes. Paradoxically, there is, in all likelihood, a wealth of talent waiting to be discovered inside the firm. Resolving the problem of a too small talent pool of future leaders might start with asking the right questions and shifting the mindset to what qualities are needed in a leader.
Louise is a qualified Executive Coach with more than 20 years’ experience coaching senior leaders, including Partners, CEOs, Board Directors and high potential talent, across professional services, finance, and health/medicine. At KPMG for more than 13 years, she was initially Lead Internal Coach and progressed to be EMA Head of Learning.
Mike is a Partner at PSFI and works with professional services firms on designing, developing and supporting change agendas and building improved leadership capabilities in partners. His areas of expertise include helping organisations understand the importance of partners as leaders in building sustainable practices, the leadership and motivation of diverse, high performing teams and leadership across the partner life cycle.
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