The secret of successful managing partners: challenge the norm

by Rob Lees

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13 Aug 2012

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THE PROBLEM with being a managing partner in most firms is that there isn't any clarity about what is expected. As a result, the incumbents do the job to the best of their ability – but all too often, not well enough to make a truly positive difference to their firm's performance.

Our research clarifies exactly what is needed and this article outlines how managing partners can ensure their tenure is deemed a success.

Recent research into what differentiated successful managing partners from their peers was undertaken by Aquila Global Advisors and Møller PSF, which interviewed 150 practicing and managing partners across Europe and the USA. ‘Successful behaviour' is described under five broad headings: setting direction, gaining commitment, execution and personal example, and context. The one thing that every partner said they wanted from their managing partner was to be a visible, accessible leader who helped them become better leaders of their own people.

So what is the secret of success? According to the research, a set of six basic principles is what most, if not all, the successful firms' managing partners brought to the table.

Provide a compelling vision and the strategies for getting there

This ought to be the easy one, but surprisingly it isn't – mainly because too many firms see their vision as a simple statement, which it isn't. If a vision is going to be compelling, it has to describe somewhere the partners want to go, how to get there, the steps along the way, and a positive answer to the "what's in it for me?" question. It also has to persuade partners to "walk together" – to take shared responsibility and accountability for making the picture of the future a reality.

Constantly engage with your partners

Successful managing partners are always on the road, engaging their partners and reassuring them that the firm is going in the right direction. These are the people who will deliver the vision, so they continually stress that partners and not the managers are the most important people in the firm.

Focus on partners who want to go with you

Too many managing partners make the mistake of initially focusing on "the whole", rather than the partners who want to go with them. In doing so, they slow the journey and dissipate focus.

Take the tough people decisions

This came up in every interview. While we know why managing partners often try to duck this issue, they absolutely shouldn't – because of the negative impact on the rest of the partners.

Help the partners be effective leaders

This requires clarity about what being a partner means. It also means providing the partners with help and support, as they try to grasp new ways of working – ways that engage their own people and persuade them to join the partners on the firm's journey.

Ask for help when you need it

Even the best of the managing partners are not always certain which course of action to take on every issue. But what differentiated the successful managing partners was that they asked for help, and had created a high challenge/high support culture in which help was seen as a positive – a way of helping the individual and the firm, rather than a sign of weakness.

So managing partners beware – if you don't develop these characteristics, and apply them appropriately given the competitive context the firm is facing, don't expect to be lauded as a success at the end of your term.

Rob Lees is a founding partner of Møller PSF and consultant to leaders worldwide.

For a full copy of the report "Leadership at its strongest: What successful managing partners do", please contact

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