Nick Jarrett-Kerr is a member of Edge International, a leading global consultancy to professional service firms. Together with our CEO, Ray D'Cruz, Nick presented at our Equity Partner Contribution & Compensation roundtable in 2020 on Managing Poor Performance and Underperformance. One of the key issues arising from that roundtable was how to integrate new partners into the firm. Nick has authored this article to help firms grappling with this ongoing challenge.
Lateral hiring in professional service firms has an uneven track record. Statistics consistently show that hiring a ready-made partner from another firm often results in disappointment both for the firm hiring them and in terms of the new partner's own expectations.
There are four main tactics to avoid the usual traps.
One principal reason for failure is that the new partner's business plan misfires. Even glossily prepared plans can prove to be unrealistic over optimistic. The Partner may expect to bring over clients or staff and everybody is disappointed when these arrivals do not actually transpire. That is often because the old firm manages to take steps to protect its client base and because team members often decide to stick with the old firm. Hence it is important that the business plan of any new hire should be tinged with a large dose of realism. Even where the plan is realistic and sensible, firms and their new partners often mutually misunderstand how long it takes to bed the partner into move to full productivity and to generate revenue and cash flow.
Failures can occur when the firm is blinded by what the prospective new partner can bring by way of client following or specialism. The firm then fails to take the necessary steps to ensure that their new partner is someone who will fit in to the firm. Proper on-boarding processes are important to ensure that the new hire is left with no opportunity to hide away in a corner or to operate as a sole practitioner within the new firm. Some lateral hires seem to make little or no effort to espouse the new firm’s behaviours or to take part in firm activities. Care should therefore be taking in the early on-boarding and induction processes to gain early warnings of possible trouble. Particular attention should be paid where there is any risk that the new partner might tend towards being an individualist "lone wolf" who may find it hard to fir into the firm’s collegial culture. Conversely, where the culture and values of the firm stress and reward individual effort over team performance, persistent communication channels may be required where new partners are used to working as part of a team and consequently might struggle to be left entirely to their own devices.
In tightly knit firms, practice groups, used as they may be to their own friendships, informal rules and patterns of behaviour, can find it difficult to admit a new person to their inner circle and hesitate to make insufficient effort to integrate new people. The new partner may try to force his or her way in but find it easier said than done. I hate to say it, but many groups still suffer from latent prejudices when faced with new partner from different backgrounds, diverse ethnic origins or even different genders to the majority. Some firms can still be categorised as bastions of white male privilege. In this connection the firm's leadership can often give a firmer steer to communicate both the standards of behaviour that are required and the ingredients for integration success. The integration project should be treated both as a change management program and as a team building exercise. It sometimes helps to use a cultural inventory to create action plans and to work out areas of difference between the practice group and the new partner which may need development. In this connection the project is not finished and cannot be signed off until you’re absolutely sure that you can say “he or she is truly one of us“.
Professionals should of course be self-starters, but some firms are too quick to adopt a "sink or swim" attitude to new hires. It is about twenty years since I was a managing partner, but we introduced a rule that we would always try to find the first engagement for the new partner from the firm's existing resources and client base. This was partly to ensure that the new partner felt welcomed but also to assure new partners that we were not expecting them to rely entirely on their own efforts. Support can also be missing if the firm turns out to be the wrong platform for the new partner - I recall one experience when my firm hired a pensions partner to a practice which had insufficient client or work type synergies to enable the new partner to thrive.
The brutal truth is that despite all efforts not everybody will always fit in or be successful. However, it is seldom too late to work on integrating new people and it is worth checking with recently hired partners how firmly are woven into the fabric of the firm and what more can be done to enhance relationships.
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