Tough at the top – what makes an effective managing partner?

womanonskyscraperWhat are the core characteristics of an effective managing partner?

First and foremost in today’s legal landscape, there is a need for leadership that has a realistic understanding of what the firm is (and is not). Leaders must have an inspirational vision of what the firm can make of itself, combined with the determination to achieve it. If you ask partners what they want most from their firms, many will say that they want to be in a firm which knows where it is going and is determined to get there.

The ability to manage change is equally necessary at a time of unprecedented and (for many) unsettling change within the legal profession. To succeed in doing this requires managing partners to provide pastoral support to their partners in order to build consensus as to the need for change, while at the same time keeping the partnership together and united in its purpose.

A managing partner can and should also become one of the best (if not the best) rainmakers in a firm. Managing partners should carry out a vital client-relationship management role with major clients, as well as taking a lead in business development and profile-raising.

A managing partner should also manage the day-to-day operations of the firm, with particular focus on finance, risk and getting the best out of a firm’s people. Whether the same or a different person performs this role will depend on a number of factors, including:

  1. the people available and willing to take on such tasks
  2. their experience and skills; and
  3. the size and needs of the firm.

The larger the firm, the greater the need to have a full-time managing partner responsible for the overall performance of the firm working with, for example, an executive senior partner or chairman who in turn is fulfilling some or all of the roles described above. Together they will be the key decision-makers within the firm.

How can different leadership styles affect the overall running of a firm?

The style of leadership of a firm will need to change as the firm changes and so there is always the need for firms to ask themselves “What style of leadership will be needed and what roles will have to be performed for the next stage of our development?” The style and abilities of a firm’s leadership need to be aligned with the needs of the firm, the demands of its clients and the aspirations of its partners.

Managing a law firm has often been said to be “like herding cats”. It can be if a firm lacks appropriate leadership and direction because partners will feel free to do their own thing. It is often thought that leadership requires an authoritarian personality. Certainly strength of personality is required, but the kind of authority which will build respect and a willingness to be led, needs to be earned. Law firm leadership is not about telling partners what to do—it is much more about taking partners with you. Partners are more likely to be prepared to be led by someone who has earned their unwritten support, confidence and loyalty. Above all they will need to believe in the person leading them.

The leadership and management of law firms today in particular need to be a team effort. Accordingly, when a firm is considering choosing its leadership it is vital to ensure that there are people within the firm who can develop a strong and purposeful “Top Team” which is capable of building the consensus needed to bring about change and to take forward the firm to achieve its goals. It is for this reason that often we see partners running for election as senior and managing partners on a “joint ticket”.

How can managing partners develop appropriate feedback mechanisms so they can critique their approach?

“Knowing your partners” is one of the most important skills a managing partner needs to develop. Whenever change is mooted, it can be a time of insecurity – particularly for partners for whom professional life may for many years have been a fairly settled existence. Knowing how partners think and how to get through to them to persuade them that there is no alternative to certain changes taking place, is a crucial part of the leadership role in a law firm today.

Vital knowledge for a managing partner will include:

  1. What makes your partners “tick”?
  2. What motivates them.
  3. What makes them feel insecure?
  4. How will they react to any specific proposal?
  5. Do they have strong support within the firm for their views?
  6. How can any fall-out be managed to limit the damage?

Using 360 degree feedback exercises relating to performance and behaviour (including that of the managing partner), together with confidential partner questionnaires focused on partners’ aspirations for themselves and the firm, can (particularly if managed by external third parties who are likely to be seen as more objective) be valuable ways to gather feedback to ensure that a managing partner’s approach is in line with partners’ views.

However, perhaps the most effective form of feedback is obtained by a managing partner and those close colleagues who are his/her “eyes and ears”, keeping very close to partners and above all listening to them. A managing partner who manages by “walking the floors” on a daily basis is likely to find out a great deal about how partners are thinking. Otherwise a managing partner may fail to understand how far and how fast he can take the partners.

What action can a firm take if they have concerns about the leadership style of the managing partner?

Many firms will, as part of their annual performance development review/reward process, gather feedback from partners in relation to other partners’ performance, including the performance of a managing partner. From this a performance development plan can in a positive and constructive manner be agreed with the managing partner to try to ensure that any areas for development or the need to do things differently can be addressed.

However, the legal world is littered with examples of managing partners who did not understand (because often they were not told) that they were not in step with their partners and as a result have been replaced in their roles, and have often left their firms altogether.

If the situation deteriorates to such an extent that the most influential partners of a law firm (in particular those who have strong client bases and are the “big hitters”) lose confidence in the ability of a managing partner to lead the firm, then a typical scenario, which has been played out many times in firms, might be as follows:

  1. a “cabal” of those influential partners will meet secretly out of the office to discuss the options and to plan their move
  2. a small group of the most senior among them will be chosen as the “assassins” to carry out the deed
  3. that small group will meet with the managing partner (usually with no notice being given) by walking into their office and explain that, having consulted the other partners it is clear that the partnership no longer has sufficient confidence in them and that the only course is to step down as managing partner –alternative roles in the firm may be offered (for example being “booted upstairs” to be chairman or a similar titular role) but often a managing partner, rather than accepting such role or attempting to revert to client work, will prefer to leave with a generous financial package
  4. a partners’ meeting will be immediately called for later that day at which it will be explained to the other partners that the managing partner has resigned because it was clear they no longer commanded the confidence of the partners and that [X] will replace them for a given term or (if it is an elected role) until an election can take place

The above method of dispatching a managing partner is not an exaggeration—it has happened in more or less that manner many times and can be quick and effective.

Managing partners beware.

Peter Scott, a consultant specialising in business transformation for law firms (Interviewed by Diana Bentley)

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

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Filed Under: Practice of Law

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