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The Boomer Bulletin - 2009
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The Partner-Manager Relationship

Posted By Sandra Wiley, Tuesday, November 24, 2009

As the age of retirement nears, partners downsize their work loads and seek out the best equipped successors. A typical transition plan suggests to first consider those with the most experience in the firm—its managers. Partners, however, do not always understand those in management today and are hesitant to pass the firm’s reins off to them.

Most partners cite the following areas of concern with today’s managers:

  • Communication difficulties
  • Generational differences
  • Work ethic (or perceived lack thereof)
  • Lack of business experience

Let’s explore each of these and consider solutions to resolve them within your firm.


Consider this scenario. A partner and manager sit down in January and discuss expectations for the year ahead. Yearly billable hours, responsibilities for staff, training plans and client development are among the big goals.

The manger asks a few questions for clarification but does not balk at any item on the list—even if he or she has concerns. The meeting breaks with the partner feeling good about delegating, while the uncertain manager merely resolves to do his or her best.

Occasionally during the year they have brief discussions and review a few reports together, but the busy firm life ensues. At year’s end they meet again, but this time the partner is not so positive or happy. Billable goals went unmet and other responsibilities were not fully executed.

Moreover, while staff completed CPE courses, there is no visible sign that knowledge is being used productively. And while client relationships are not deteriorating, new business is nonexistent. There is no question that a lack of communication between this partner and manager has kept them from working together to reach their goals.

Communication Solution

The effort to ensure effective communication must start at the top—with the partner. In this example the issue is not the work required of the manager—it’s the lack of consistent and honest communication.

Conduct goal-setting and planning sessions at least quarterly and follow up each week with a short review time. Discuss progress (or lack thereof) at each quarterly meeting and consider any adjustments to ensure goals are met. There should be no surprises at the end of the year.

Encourage each manager to come not only with concerns but also potential solutions for the issues they are facing. These meetings are not for the partner to dole out new instructions, but to work together on solutions. The partner should protect this time by putting it on the calendar and focusing solely on each manager’s need and concerns.

Generational Differences

We all have experienced the tensions that result from the exceptional differences among Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y individuals. We simply don’t always know what to do when "They” work and think differently than "Us.”

Partners must accept that change is here, and the sooner we embrace it the sooner our firms can flourish regardless of the makeup of its workforce. The reality is not as bleak as you might think. Those from Generations X and Y want you to know the following about them:

  • We are intelligent!
  • We are more than willing to work hard—we just don’t want to work all the time.
  • We love technology and will find increasingly better ways to use it.
  • If we are not doing something right, tell us and let us help solve the issue.
  • We love learning—don’t hold us back!
  • When we tell you something is not working, listen and help us find a way to make it work.

Generational Differences Solution

Generation differences present ongoing "teachable moments” for both partners and managers. Partners must work against themselves not to say things like, "That will never work” or "That is not how we do it here.” Sometimes managers have great ideas that will move your firm forward, but partners do not always listen to them.

Allow your managers to consider and suggest new ideas—let innovation become a part of your firm’s culture. Some will fail, but failure begets wisdom and even better ideas. Form a task force comprised of all ages and levels to study your firm’s culture and the ways generations interact. Consider reading It's Okay to Be the Boss,by Bruce Tulgan. Before long tensions over generational differences will diminish if you take steps to address and resolve them.

Work Ethic

Partners believe that most managers today do not have the same work ethic as firm leaders in the past, and in one sense they are right. Partners developed their careers at a time when many homes had two working parents, and childcare was an emerging industry.

To get a life better than one they had growing up required an investment in education, working long hours and pursuing the American Dream. Consequently, they expect those who want to sit in their chairs someday to have the same mindset.

When managers say "No” to working long hours, partners automatically interpret that response as lack of work ethic. The reality is that Generations X and Y do have a strong work ethic—just different rules about how to apply it. They will work very hard while at the office, but they want to balance that effort with time spent doing things they enjoy.

They do not want to work the 7 to 6, Monday through Friday with an occasional Saturday and Sunday thrown in for good measure. Think about busy season. Not long ago it was acceptable to work 70 to 80 hours a week—as long as the work got out the door on time. Today, many firms are finding alternative ways to cut the number of hours because of the increasing pressure from the emerging workforce.

Work Ethic Solution

First refer to the solution for communication. At the root of most misunderstandings about work ethic is a basic lack of communication between partners and managers. Solving that challenge can go a long way in solving this challenge.

Also ensure that each manager has a positive and trusted mentor within the firm—someone with whom they can have an honest and open relationship. When a manager exhibits behavior out of alignment with firm policies or culture, that mentor can help determine the cause and offer solutions.

In some cases a manager may simply be looking for someone to hear his or her gripes, or perhaps that individual needs additional training. A mentor may also need to address the manager’s efforts and offers suggestions to improve. Whatever the case may be, it’s critical that each manager have somebody to whom they can turn to for counsel.

Business Experience

Partners need managers who understand the basic concepts of running a business—from client development to dealing with personnel issues. Unfortunately, they do not often see these basic understandings among today’s managers. Most managers would concur that they do not have this knowledge and wisdom – yet – but they are not afraid to learn. They just need someone to teach them, and there often is no one doing that.

Business Experience Solution

This solution is the most simple of all. While serving as trusted advisors to our clients in how to run a business, we neglect to do the same for those within our own firms. Teach your managers the way you teach your clients. This is a time consuming task, but it is critical to ensure a viable future for the firm.

Also considering sending your firm’s managers to at least one industry conference where they can learn and cultivate a more comprehensive view of the industry. Most importantly, enroll them in a training program that combines instruction, peer networking and bona fide firm projects.

Top 10 Ways to Boost the Partner-Manager Relationship:

  • Review individual goals with each manager quarterly.
  • Protect those quarterly meeting times; focus on each manager’s individual needs and concerns.
  • Encourage managers to seek out solutions; don’t just tell them what to do.
  • Form a task force to study generational issues and offer solutions to the most common tension points.
  • Fight the "Us” against "Them” mentality—it can devastate a firm.
  • Ensure every manager has a relationship with a trusted mentor.
  • Teach managers the basic fundamentals of running a firm—transfer the knowledge!
  • Send each manager to an industry conference once a year.
  • Enroll managers in a training course that covers the fundamentals—(e.g., the Performance3 Management Program from Boomer Consulting, Inc.)
  • Ask them how they are doing at least once a week!

Today’s managers are tomorrow’s partners. Nothing will make you feel more satisfied than to see a manager with whom you worked and helped develop become successful. These few simple suggestions will get you on your way.

Tags:  management  partners  Sandra Wiley 

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