Reluctant Leadership?

Partners often tell me that one of their number one succession concerns is wondering who will ascend to partner.  The perception is that “there is no one interested in becoming a partner these days.”  Yet, when I talk to managers and senior managers (and even staff!), they are interested, but they don’t really know what it means to be a partner. They are also concerned that they would have to be a clone of the current partner(s) – and they’re not, nor do they want to be!

I don’t think we have done a good enough job engaging our young leaders and painting the picture for what it means to be a partner and what exactly they are buying into, the expectations and the risks and rewards.  In this blog, I have outlined five areas that you can address to begin to provide a higher level of understanding for both the current and future partners about what it means to be a partner.

1)    Establish a clear, written vision and growth plan for the firm. Young leaders (and more mature ones, too) want to be part of something exciting.  Partners need to have a clear definition of this “thing” that they would like future leaders to step into and take over.  Your vision and growth plan should reflect your firm’s mission and values and challenge people to grow and not just maintain the status quo.  Future leaders want to be part of a partner team, too, that are unified around the agreed upon direction.  Then, you’ll be able to define the future leader’s role in contributing to the vision and growth plans – they’ll begin to see their place in it.

2)    Involve your future leaders in defining your vision and growth plans. Your future leaders will be executing on your plan for the long term and providing sustainability for retiring partners, securing the future of the firm.  Ask for their input, listen to them, and share reasons for why decisions are made (or not) so they can learn and have greater buy-in to the direction of the firm.  Even go so far as allowing them to input to the decisions and let their decision reign as much as possible. Be transparent in the financial aspects of the firm – and train them on your firm’s economics, what the financial metrics mean, and how they can impact them.  Start doing this early with your staff!  They are genuinely interested and care about how they can affect the firm’s financial well-being and achieve your growth goals.

3)    Establish a clear succession plan.Your future leaders want to know what the impact of retiring partners (or even senior managers or other key leaders) is to the firm, the plan to address the gaps that will be left by partners with specific expertise, business development capacity or other key roles they fill, and how clients will be transitioned successfully.  If this is unknown, future leaders are left wondering exactly what they are taking on if they commit to be a partner.  Having a clear succession plan will also help you identify potential partner openings at the partner table. You’ll also be able to plan for succession all the way down the ranks because any retirement has a domino effect that doesn’t just impact the retiring partner or the current partners – it affects others who will be stepping up to take on responsibilities and fill the gaps that need to be filled, too.

4)    Set clear expectations about what it takes to progress in the firm at all levels up through partner. Focus on the results, skills, experience and leadership behaviors, letting go of “how” when possible.  This will likely mean making changes in work style, using enabling technology, providing flexible work schedules and accepting less face time than you may have worked in the past.  Focusing on results allows your future leaders to tap into their personal strengths and creativity so they can shine.  If you get stuck with “how we’ve always done it,” you’ll stifle innovation.  When you establish and manage against clear expectations that are results based, people will step up and you’ll realize increased efficiencies, process improvements, improved team morale and a culture that’s focused on always striving to get better. And, be sure all partners are meeting these expectations by delivering expected results and exhibiting agreed upon leadership behaviors.  One sure way to develop a reluctant leader is to allow partners to coast and not address performance issues.

5)    Share what you love about being a CPA and a partner in your firm. What do like most about being a partner?  What are the responsibilities and risks?  What are the rewards?  Yes! Share the financial rewards and also share the other “goodies” you experience by being a partner, such as the ability to own and drive something, express your entrepreneurial spirit, contribute in the community, provide for your family, and more.  Tell your future leaders your favorite client stories (or better yet, take them to meet with your clients and let your clients tell the stories for you!).  What else do you love about being a partner? We expect future leaders to see what’s possible in partnership, yet what they often see is the long hours, troubled clients, focus on costs, and sometimes lack of unity between members of the partner group.  While there are responsibilities and risks in being a partner, there are many, many rewards that sometimes we hide or expect our future leaders to figure out on their own.

Reluctant leadership?  I don’t believe so.  I do think we have un- or under-informed leadership.  The good news is that you can do something about it immediately by engaging in conversations with your future leaders on the topics I’ve outline above and scheduling dedicated partner time to discuss the topics, too, driving toward more clarity and definition about what it means to be a partner. And, if you’re a future leader, you can begin exploring these ideas, too, with your mentor or one of your partners.

What other ideas or strategies have you implemented to enroll your future leaders in partnership?  Future leaders, what would you add to this list?  Let’s keep the communication channels open – please post your ideas and share them with others!  Your future depends on it!



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Tamera Loerzel is a partner of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a national consulting firm dedicated to developing leaders and transforming teams through coaching, practice consulting, strategic planning and learning and development.

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