The Practitioner: Beware rampant favouritism

MANAGING A TWO-OFFICE practice is obviously not an easy task, even with two partners at the helm.
No matter how hard you try to spend equal time at both offices, you inevitably end up with a favourite office, favourite staff and favourite clients. The more difficult staff members in one of the offices mean that you spend less time at that office and more at the other just to have an easier life. It is not very professional, I know, and is definitely not what I would advise a client to do!
While things are rosy, it is easy to paint over the cracks and think that both offices are doing great and you are a great leader of people. Once things start to slow down, however, and fees are harder to come by, that is when the shortfalls in one of the offices start to jump out at you and you start to beat yourself up about ignoring the problem for so long.

One over the other

We have this exact scenario. We are a two-partner, two-office practice and we have one office overperforming and one that underperforms. And that is me being polite.
This has only really come to light in the past couple of years since the downturn started.
The reduction of fees last year made us sit down and analyse exactly how both offices are performing as individual units rather than always looking at the practice as a whole. It soon became apparent that one of the locations was not being managed correctly. Systems that had been installed several years ago and that were tried and tested were, all of a sudden, not being followed.
The manager in this outpost of tardiness was not managing the staff, they in turn were not motivated, and this together with the lack of the required partner attention on that office meant that the fee levels were falling. Fast.
I had been aware of this for a couple of months and had been keen to sit down with the manager and give him an earful. My fellow partner, however, was not so keen to rock the boat and wanted to adopt the softly, softly approach. Again.
We of course did it her way, after all, she has a way of getting what she wants out of me. It has to do with her being more senior than I, and I ‘bowing to her superior experience’.
I was convinced that the situation called for a big shake up. I wanted to move staff from the other office to the underperforming office to get things into shape. I also wanted to put the office manager on a probation of sorts.
Billing targets, regular staff meetings, WIP analysis every week, and staff work plans were what I thought would solve the problem.
I sat down with the staff individually and asked them what their thoughts were. The feedback I got was unanimous, they were crying out for guidance and for leadership. The manager was definitely not up to the job.
I knew that we as partners also had to step up to the plate and stop avoiding the difficult situation staring us in the face. After all, we have to be able to practice what we preach and lead from the front. It is easier to write than it is to actually do, believe me.

Can’t be bothered

We have imposed weekly staff meetings, billing targets, staff work plans and so on, but still there is a general lethargy at that office that I can’t put my finger on.
There is only so much of that I can take. The low billing level can sometimes be explained and accepted but when managers and staff just do not appear bothered it winds me up.
“Sack the lot of ‘em, and let’s start afresh!” I have found myself saying that at least once a week, normally by mid-Monday morning straight after the staff meeting.
Nothing is improving. If anything, it is getting worse. As the good office gets better, the weaker office continues to deteriorate.
The weaknesses of the manager in question is becoming increasingly obvious and the staff seem to be looking at me in meetings and saying (without saying): “What are you doing letting him run the office in such a shoddy way?”
I look back at them and say (without saying): “I want to wring his neck.”
In the New Year things are going to change whether we like it or not. The practice is expanding and everyone has to up their game. Underperformance will no longer be tolerated.
Well, that’s what I am telling myself, anyway… ?

The Practitioner’s uncensored thoughts come from the coalface of a regional firm in the heart of England



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