Practice management – All hands to the wheel

Long observation of professional firms of all disciplines suggests that the incidence of job-sharing varies inversely with the seniority of the job to be shared. A number of support staff and young professionals with children split jobs. But senior managers? Partners? None I know of.

Yet a form of partnership job-sharing may be worth consideration because it makes sound commercial sense.

Almost all partners at present have four main roles: to check their product’s technical content; win work; motivate their staff; and drive the business forward. The problem is that these roles demand inconsistent, almost contradictory qualities. So it is unrealistic to expect any individual to have all of them in full.

Meantime, competitive pressure in professional markets, as in others, has been intensifying throughout the 90s. It puts more pressure on practice leaders to get more focused about how they sustain their competitive edge.

And that may mean dividing the roles between partners, so that each partner carries out one role superlatively – instead of doing all four roles merely adequately.

Tom Burton, a corporate recovery partner in the top 10 accounting firm HLB Kidsons, argues that when competition was gentler, weakness in any one of the roles mattered much less. Today, weakness in any of the roles represents a commercial risk.

It’s easier to see the problem in extreme form, says Jo Oliver, an executive coaching specialist and a director of the training and consultancy firm JSB. “Think, for example, of the ideal actuary. He or she needs a deep understanding of actuarial technicalities, an analytical cast of mind, an instinct for caution, and orderly thinking habits. Given those characteristics, he or she is likely to have a reflective streak. To be someone who prefers a puzzle to a pub.”

The ideal salesperson has a quite different profile. Clearly, it helps if he or she is friendly, enthusiastic and energetic. He or she may be impatient with conceptual, abstract thought. Above all, he or she is likely to like doing things and then moving on to a new challenge.

Outstanding coaches and motivators of people tend to focus on processes. Their key qualities are empathy and sensitivity and an ability to listen. They’re less concerned with hitting a target today than with helping their people to grow the skills and the confidence necessary to hit more and bigger targets tomorrow.

Finally, the best business driver is likely to have a streak of ruthlessness, an instinct for risk-taking, conflict-handling skills, an eye constantly on the lookout for new opportunities, a willingness to live with uncertainty, and the ability to juggle several options at once.

A good partner might master any one of these four sets of requirements. But no partner is likely to master all four.

Of course, recognising that combining the roles doesn’t work well does not, of itself, mean that splitting the roles will work any better. Will a technical partner have to take orders from a business driver – and if he does, where does that leave the collegiate atmosphere of a traditional partnership? Will a winner of work be able to select the delivery team – or will he be subject to the views of the coach?

There’s little experience from the professions of how these questions might be answered. But there is evidence from elsewhere that split roles can work. In newspapers, my own former industry, for instance, three hierarchies operate side by side: the technical (the writers); the people-conductor hierarchy (the sub-editors, news and picture editors, up to editor); and the business driver hierarchy (ad and circulation salesforce).

The split roles work because each hierarchy sees that the others bring separate but valuable skills to the mix.

In the professions, that mutual respect is much rarer. McKinsey, for example, has been trying to construct a workable career path for its own specialists since the early ’70s, and is still tinkering.

The Big Five have adopted a divisional approach, so that each group of partners and staff focuses on a particular industry or sector, with relatively little contact between divisions. Brian Chandler, a consultant who has worked with most of them, says: “It took 10 years to make those changes, largely because of turf-protection behaviour driven by partners’ fears of cutting themselves off from sources of work.”

Burton suggests that the answer is to let go of old habits. “The great god in a professional firm is chargeable time. So we have tended to be driven by the top line instead of the bottom.”

Chandler argues that partners need to learn to trust each other more, and to value their own variety. “Among other things, that means setting up different support mechanisms for each type. Technical partners need to be marketed internally, so that client-handlers can use them properly.

The work-winners need regular applause. Coaches need protection from being hammered for having a low percentage of chargeable time. And the business drivers need recognition for a punishingly difficult job. You have only to watch a change of leadership in a large professional firm to see the brutality of the process, and that any thanks the outgoing leader gets is usually perfunctory.”

At bottom, the challenge is for partnerships to remind themselves of the true spirit of partnership – and for partners to behave as if they really were.

Tony Scott, an independent consultant, specialises in business communication issues.

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