This is my first Fly On The Wall (FOTW) post in a while.
My initial FOTW post describes what inspired the series. And maybe you'll enjoy some of the others:
FOTW #1: Respect, Referrals & Cross-selling
FOTW #2: If Internal Communication is Poor, Can You Still Have a "Great Culture"?
FOTW #3: "We Don't Have the Right People."
FOTW #4: What Happens When People Are in Your Lobby?
FOTW #5: "It's Not Us." (All About Sam)
Today, I want to talk about a recent revelation I've had that a problem I thought I just observed "here and there" is actually so common that I now estimate it occurs in about a third of the 100+ firms I've been exposed to during the past 12 years that I've spent consulting.
Here's the scenario.
Introducing the Partner and the Apprentice
There's a dynamic, successful partner with some of these traits:
- A natural at marketing.
By that, I mean that she makes friends readily and plants seeds with just about everyone she meets. She exudes confidence and is pleasant to interact with. She burns through a box of business cards ten times faster than anyone else. She'll go in for surgery and leave the hospital with a new client or two.
- An expert or niche-practice specialist.
He is considered one of the leaders among peers. Unquestionable that he's good at what he does—solid credentials back up any claims of quality, and happy clients abound.
- Recurring referrals from the same sources.
Referrals keep coming from the same people because the work is that good and the quality is that consistent. Her referrals feed the firm well and the practice area grows. Team members are added to support the practice and do the work that she brings in.
- Meticulous about work and service quality.
He may believe that few people can perform to his level, and trust is limited to a few key people that work particularly closely with him. It makes sense! Quality is how he built the practice and keeping that reputation intact is essential to the continuity of the happy clients and referral sources.
- Tight control of relationships.
She's worked hard to earn the business. The most trusted team members have some client contact, but aren't perceived to be truly "in charge" of the work—she's the primary contact for the key decision makers. Her referral sources either haven't met any of the other team members, or aren't encouraged to communicate directly with them.
Then there's someone junior to that partner. This person has some of these traits:
- Highly valued right arm to the partner.
She's reliable, conscientious, and very competent. Her strong technical skills, consistent delivery, and unquestionable dedication are why the partner relies on her so heavily.
- No book of business.
He was handpicked to work for the partner and support the growing practice. The partner brings in plenty of work and, as the first person the partner turns to for leading the project, there's been no need for him to develop business of his own. In fact, the partner hasn't encouraged him to get involved with the firm's marketing and might even discourage it saying, "we have so much going on, don't worry about that right now."
- Full plate.
Work's lined up for the foreseeable future. There's no need to "shop" internally for other projects to work on, thus no chance to participate in other practice areas. Others in the firm don't consider her as a resource because she never has time to do anything but the partner's work. They may even be a little jealous of how important she is to the partner and how she seems exempted from activites the others are expected to participate in (like marketing).
- Non-equity partner or forever manager or associate.
Maybe he's never been worried about becoming partner or was made partner without meeting some otherwise key criteria (like having a book of business or demonstrating the abililty to bring in clients). The senior partner might have lobbied for the promotion explaining he'd be able to bring in business once "partner" was on the business card. An underlying reason for this hope promotion might have been to keep this important worker from defecting.
- Subdued personality.
She has a reserved nature, rather the opposite of the natural-marketer tendencies of the senior partner. She's happy to have such a great role and the respect of the dynamic partner. And she's glad she doesn't have to do that marketing stuff because it would be uncomfortable and maybe even a little beneath her to do it. Quite frankly, though people in the firm know she's a pro, she doesn't exactly exude "confidence" to strangers. This might be a reason she's not introduced to referral sources.
What's Actually Happening
An apprentice is someone who invests in learning a craft from the skilled employer. And if you learn well, you can earn the privilege of being groomed to eventually take over the practice. There is nothing wrong with this model.
The problem I keep seeing in the accounting and legal professions is that there are too many partner-apprentice situations similar to the one I described.
The "grooming" part is more or less missing.
For years the team approach works well for both people, but what's frighteningly absent is self-sufficiency of the junior person. It's a co-dependency. And everyone ends up hurt in the long run: the junior person, the clients, the firm, and possibly even the senior partner if she really did hope to build a legacy practice (sometimes she doesn't actually hope to).
When the partner retires or leaves, continuity of client relationships in this well-established practice area is impaired or in jeopardy. And new work slows to a trickle because the most logical "next in line" hasn't learned the skills and developed the contacts to keep the pipeline full.
How can this unfortunate situation be avoided?
If You're the Junior
Understand that, even though you probably didn't choose law or accounting in order to get involved in "sales," business development is an absolutely requisite skill set (unless you elect to work in industry rather than practice in a firm).
Without the skill set, you will forever rely on others to create your work. You'll have less control of your workload, less opportunity to explore other areas of practice, and much less marketability to move as a lateral. Your odds of earning an equity owner position are slim without at least a modest book of business and the ability to grow one.
Maybe that's okay with you—you don't aspire to be an equity owner. That's fine.
But it doesn't change the fact that, essentially, your career future is beyond your control and perhaps threatened when your other half retires or moves on.
If you stay but can't lead the practice group, the firm has to either bring in a new senior partner (pray you get along with him and that he respects and values you like the other one did) or the practice group dries up. Maybe you can start working in another practice area, but you then have to start all over learning a new trade. It's too bad you didn't have much exposure to other practice areas in the past.
If you look for a position elsewhere, you're now competing with other professionals who do what you do and have a book, or the skills to develop one. Your only remaining option may be an industry position.
Bottom line: don't permit yourself to become dependent on another practitioner to fill your work plate; become proficient at building contacts and discussing your capabilities with confidence as early in your career as possible. These are skills that can be learned with practice.
You may never by the dynamic marketing type that the partner is, but successful marketing doesn't always look like her. Lots of quiet types are very successful at developing business!
Remember this as you progress in your career: it's far better to get to the point where you bring in work that you don't do than it is to always be doing work that you don't bring in.
If you're the partner, you are doing your colleague a disservice by not urging him or her to obtain the skills and confidence to be self-sufficient in a practice without you.
Even if you don't consider this person to be the ideal future successor, he or she is your right-hand person and if the proverbial bus came along, your cherished clients would all be left in a lurch. Your firm would face the threat of a completely disrupted, significant practice area. And your valued colleague would be stuck in the situation I just described.
To avoid this, begin introducing your protégé to clients and referral sources. If she really doesn't have what it takes to impress, help her acquire greater confidence by creating opportunities to present to people she's comfortable with on topics she's a master of. Practice is critically important. Few people rock at this without repeat performances.
If needed, consider some outside skill development. Toastmasters and the like. He probably won't ever be the dynamo you are and that's okay. He doesn't need to be. Enough confidence to instill trust and to be personable and helpful is the minimum you're looking for.
She should have some exposure to clients, new prospect meetings, and get to know your referral sources and their successors. Your demonstration of confidence in your protégé to include her in these meetings will also go a long way toward instilling a sense of (internal) confidence in her.
In general, if you do expect the person to eventually replace you, be cognizant of the inherent problems when you hire someone "opposite of you" in personality. You're probably setting yourself up for disappointment. The opposite of you is a great worker bee but is not usually successor material unless you are committed to helping him obtain the skills to keep the practice growing long after you are gone.
Seek out a strong worker who is also a people person. He might be harder to tame, but an entrepreneurial spirit will ensure the continuity of your practice.