Helping partners play to their strengths

Ray D'Cruz
,
CEO
,
Performance Leader

Firms ask a lot of equity partners.

They ask them to hit individual and team financial targets, manage people, develop client relationships, win new business, collaborate, innovate, adapt and much more.

To articulate these expectations, most professional services firms establish a partner contribution framework. Invariably, it’s a one-size-fits-all contribution framework, no matter what the partner’s strengths, interests and stage in the partner lifecycle.

However, there is a better approach: helping partners to play to their strengths and interests.

Gadens is an Australian law firm that has recently worked with Performance Leader to implement a strengths-based contribution model for its partners. As Mark Pistilli, Gadens’ Chief Executive Officer, explains:

Partners in law firms are not as happy as they once were. One of the reasons for this is that we expect them all to be ‘all-rounders’ and to do every element of what we expect from the partner group.
The reality is that each of them is good at some things or likes doing them, and they are not so good at other things or dislike doing them.
Allowing partners to play to their strengths has two benefits – they are happier because they are doing less of what they are not good at or don’t like, and the team is more effective because each key role is being performed by someone who is good at it and has a passion for it.

Happier partners

We know that autonomy is important for employees. For partners with ownership status, it’s generally even more important.

A sense of autonomy requires decision-making authority and choice. The one-size-fits-all contribution framework limits both by mandating along list of contribution expectations, regardless of the partner’s strengths, interests or stage int he partner lifecycle.

Martin Seligman, the positive psychology guru, researched depression in legal profession over 20 years ago. In Authentic Happiness, he argued that allowing lawyers to play to their signature strengths could be a strategy for improving mental health in response to low decision latitude.

The one-size-fits-all contribution framework loads partners with responsibilities. A recent survey of high performing equity partners by Thomson Reuters (Stellar Performance – Skills and Progression) highlighted the frustration many partners feel from their constantly increasing non-billable workload. In that research, equity partners said that they now had 10-11non-billable tasks, and ideally would like to drop four. The report authors argue that giving partners more choice over their non-billable tasks will make for happier partners.

The other issue with one-size-fits-all contribution model is that it creates a standard of perfection hardly anyone can hope to attain. That’s not good for the high achievement personalities who dominate professional firms. Keeping this cohort happy is critical as they are key to driving firm success. In fact, in When Professionals Have to Lead, Tom De Long suggests that 67-85% of professions have a high need for these personalities.

Instead of setting up high-achieving partners to fail, a strengths-based approach sets them up for success.

More effective partnerships

In effective project teams, everyone plays a role according to their specialisation and experience. Unfortunately, that obvious logic is rarely applied to partnerships – which are, after all, teams of partners.

Thirty years ago, David Maister made the case for finders, minders and grinders co-existing within a partnership. But examples of firms adapting and operationalising Maister’s concept are rare. One firm that has done that isLewis Silkin. This UK law firm has built on Maister’s concept by adding a further three roles to create six in total. Lewis Silkin partners now choose from those six roles in consultation with firm leaders.

In Smart Collaboration, Heidi Gardner also made the case for partners playing to their strengths, explaining that it enhances team collaboration. Gadens’ Mark Pistilli picks up on this point:

This one-size-fits-all approach may have made sense when law firm partners were operating more like sole practitioners before the 1980s, but now that we have built large collaborative teams and firms, the approach has put us at odds with how other high performing teams are built – around combining complimentary skills and allowing team members to play in a ‘position’ and to their strengths.

Implementing a strengths-based model

Designing a strengths-based contribution framework is the first step to operationalising a strengths-based model.

A strengths-based contribution framework has two elements: baseline expectations for all partners, and strength-based contribution areas for individuals.

Baseline expectations reflect the non-negotiables. They set fundamental standards for people, clients, financial management and risk. These non-negotiables also mirror the core competencies of the firm – what it’s known for in the market.

Ideally the individual strengths-based contribution areas are framed around a current strategy. This aligns individual partner strengths and strategic impact and ensures that discretionary effort is valuable and valued by the firm.

Once the model is agreed, leaders work with partners to identify and agree contribution areas, set objectives and KPIs. For leaders, a mindset shift is needed: contribution is now a team-based concept, not just an individual notion. The governance model will depend on the size and shape of the firm.

With each partner having clarity on the model, strength-based contribution areas can be progressed, discussed and reported on. Again, the governance model will help decide how this works. Technology platforms, such as Performance Leader, can play a vital role in helping build, inform and maintain momentum around these conversations.

At the end of the financial year, a detailed picture is developed by firm leaders covering both baseline expectations and individual strengths-based contributions. This is the firm’s performance story, which closes the loop by providing a strong evidence base for leaders and supporting further changes to be identified and implemented.

The strengths based approach to partner contribution is featured in our book, The Partner Remuneration Handbook. For more information about supporting partner performance and reward with software built for the professions, talk to us.

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