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Is ‘climbing the greasy pole of professional partnership’ an appropriate metaphor?

a man climbing

My Inbox has been twitching after I plagiarised Benjamin Disraeli’s ‘greasy pole’ as a metaphor for the launch of myPartnerCompass.

Maybe it was a bit cheeky. And had I still been a managing partner perhaps my mildly miffed reaction might have been “it’s not a greasy pole in my firm.”

Or would it be fair in my defence to explain to my former self that for most partners in most professional firms it can sometimes at least feel like a greasy pole, notwithstanding all managing partner best efforts otherwise? I will leave that to the comments contributors to debate.

But whichever side of the line you come down on, there is no doubt that too many partners do not realise their ambitions, unnecessarily, sometimes repeatedly in different firms and always at cost to them personally, their firms and the sector. It’s easy to get wrong.

And this goes to the heart of why I’ve developed myPartnerCompass as a problem-solving methodology.

Becoming a partner in a professional services firm is hard-won, hard work and potentially exceptionally rewarding in all sorts of ways. But becoming and remaining a successful partner, and accessing those rewards, requires mastery of a very different challenge - navigating your career through the partnership.

So what exactly is so special about professional partnerships?

Professionals, for a start. They (we … ) are a unique combination of characteristics – typically bright, very driven, highly trained, disciplined, free-thinking people with both personal regulatory obligations and personal client relationships.

And then there is partnership as a means of doing business – an arguably anachronistic construct which is ill-equipped to respond to the demands of a fast-changing, globally competitive, increasingly capital-hungry and consolidating world of modern professional services.

And so putting professionals together in partnership as owner-managers is a fantastically unique business concept which, surely, should no longer work?

But it does - and often very, very well, generating enormous value! And professional partnership’s star is showing no sign of waning notwithstanding the occasional noisy blip of a flotation or private equity investment. One could even argue this star has a long way to travel yet before it reaches its zenith.

We can debate the reasons why that might be, but the consequence of bringing professionals together in partnership is the creation of special challenges, especially around:

- Leadership: leaders typically come from the partner ranks, are elected by the partner ranks, report to the partner ranks and eventually go back to the partner ranks;

- Followership: independent, free-thinking professionals will rarely be led where they don’t want to go;

- Ownership: every partner’s financial interest in the business is typically centred around annual profit share not long-term capital growth, and

- Risk: professionals are frequently more comfortable advising about risks than taking them personally.

And so every professional partnership has evolved, frequently over decades, its own peculiar ways of accommodating those challenges - on top of which one has to layer the moving feast of personalities, pressures, priorities and politics of the time. And the whole goes to make up a unique, often complex, opaque and continuously evolving ‘system’ within which every partner in that firm has to operate, in real time. Indeed, one might argue that it is the ill-defined, shape-shifting nature of each ‘system’ which makes professional partnerships so effective and capable of withstanding strong gravitational forces otherwise.

So it’s always struck me as odd that so much time and energy is invested in training professionals in their ‘professional careers’ but so little is usefully spent training and equipping partners for their ‘partnership careers’. Too many partners are left to figure most of it out for themselves and too many struggle as a result.

Because a lot of this stuff is neither obvious to, nor natural for, many people. And understandably. Running two successful careers in parallel isn’t easy, but this is what is being asked of partners in professional services firms, even if it’s not being sold that way. And busy managing partners can’t be everywhere.

I spent 15 years climbing my own partner career pole and then another 10 years as a managing partner trying to degrease career poles for others. And, no matter the firm or the profession, there are some very strong common themes around what successful professional partners tend to do differently in their partnership careers.

But please don’t assume that by ‘successful’ I mean the biggest rainmakers or those at the top of the equity.

I simply mean partners who are thriving personally and professionally, who are getting the best out of themselves and are getting the best out of the amazing opportunity which partnership can offer. Because we can ask no more of ourselves or our fellow partners. And managing partners give their eye teeth for ‘good partners’ like this because they are the stable, reliable spine around which every effective professional services partnership forms.

For these people, partnership is still a career pole to be climbed but it’s not greasy. Instead, they tend to be nurtured, well supported and looked after, and remuneration rarely seems to be a problem.

So what do they do differently which makes their lives easier?

What successful partners do differently is control their partnership careers by finding and managing good ‘fit’ between themselves and their firm in three key ways:

1. Commercial fit

Successful partners have a clear, realistic, continually evolving and well executed business plan for their professional career, and that business plan maintains alignment with the firm’s direction of travel. This is the cornerstone of every partner’s value, internally and externally. It’s about understanding relative external market positioning, keeping growing, keeping up, staying commercially relevant and keeping all options open in a fast-changing world. But partnership careers are frustrating and ultimately on borrowed time if a partner’s commercial value and what the firm regards as important are pointing in different directions.

2. System fit

Successful partners understand the evolving system in their firm, they work within that system and they manage their own behaviour to enable them to work within that system. They know that what worked at A&B LLP will not work at X&Y LLP, and what worked at A&B three years’ ago may no longer even work at A&B. They master the rules of the game and how those rules are applied in practice - and then they play the game whether they like it or not: they accept it for what it is. They do this by understanding themselves, playing to their behavioural strengths and managing their behavioural risks - they just do what works, no matter how unnatural that may be for them. And if they won’t or can’t do this then they find another system in another firm which they can work within.

3. Ambition fit

Successful partners have clear and realistic ambitions for, and expectations around, both their professional and their partnership careers, and they have to believe they are reasonably capable of being achieved within their firm. They know what they want and need, and they have to know they have the headroom within the firm to realise that. So if they feel their ambitions or capabilities are outgrowing the firm, they will likely look elsewhere.

And, as an aside, I would say that what successful managing partners do differently is help their partners find and manage ‘fit’ in these areas. That’s the nub of the job.

But all of us as partners will struggle with some of this to some degree at some point in our partnership careers. All of us will at some point drift, stall, go too fast, lose our way, feel blocked, stop growing, feel frustrated, feel under-appreciated or misunderstood, stop enjoying it or start feeling undue pressure – often without knowing why or what to do about it, and we risk making unwise career decisions as a result. I’ve been there myself.

These are all symptoms of the ‘fit’ between us and our firm in one or more of these three areas showing signs of breaking down and career control starting to be lost as a result. And that’s when the partnership pole becomes greasy. Whereas when good commercial, system and ambition fit between us and the firm can be found and managed in harmony, it doesn’t even feel like a climb. And that’s in everyone’s best interests.

This isn’t a pipe dream, but it is a process. And it’s a process we can all follow by taking the time to stop, stand back and approach our partnership careers with the same analytical discipline and honest detachment we bring to our professional work, and then make well-informed decisions to make the right, often subtle, adjustments accordingly. Diagnosis – Strategy - Execution.

myPartnerCompass is dedicated to being a specialist, safe, independent, objective, non-judgmental external friend to help partners do that, and so take career control.

Do please subscribe to my blog via the website if you'd like to know more about the way I see our partnership world or, better still, I’d love to chat and hear your take on what’s important so do please message me on LinkedIn or contact me on: Email: Website: ABOUT JONATHAN: Jonathan Watmough, 53, trained and qualified as a Solicitor at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain. Practising in M&A and equity capital markets, he became a partner at 30 and a full equity partner at 32 before becoming managing partner at 38 and spending the next ten years transforming what was regarded by some as a 'sleepy' City of London law firm into an international, multi-disciplinary professional services business. And the firm won awards and plaudits along the way for delivering not just five consecutive years of double-digit top and bottom-line organic compound growth but this being as a result of a unique people-first strategy. These included winning Law Firm of the Year three times, winning the Managing Partners' Forum's strategic leadership award and being named five years running as Best Legal Employer. Jonathan was also twice named personally within the 'Hot 100' lawyers in the UK. Since retiring as a managing partner he has been consulting to professional services firms and their partners, and he has co-founded Quintillion, a UK-based technology group which is developing and exploiting cognitive and behavioural analytics products designed to help people and teams make high quality decisions and promote wellbeing.


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