Many professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, and other consultants, although allowed to incorporate in most jurisdictions, still operate, in effect, as partnerships. Even though most young professionals joining such organizations have a goal of becoming a partner, the majority do not make it. Sometimes it’s because they don’t sufficiently develop their technical skills, sometimes they choose not to become partners, but often it’s because they don’t master the art of being an effective business partner.
The art of being an effective business partner is comprised of a complex mix of skills and attitudes; but they are skills and attitudes that can be learned and developed. Set out below, in no particular order because their importance changes depending on particular circumstances, are some of the skills and attitudes that need to be developed before you can become an effective and appreciated business partner.
Business partners need to understand that they own the business and that its future depends on them continuing to build the practice; no one else is going to do it for them. They need to always take the unselfish, long-term view when making important decisions; individual sacrifices often need to be made for the overall good of the firm. Partners have to have the confidence to evaluate and the courage to act; you can’t abstain from taking part in making difficult decisions and executing the solutions, no matter how unpalatable some of them may be. Because not all of your ideas are going to be accepted all the time, you have to be able to take “no” for an answer and to accept criticism without becoming discouraged.
No one can be all things to all people all the time, so you have to learn to trust your partners. It’s equally important to understand that even people you trust will let you down from time to time, and when this happens you need to react with the same graciousness you will want to receive when you’re the one who drops the ball.
As a partner you have to be able to keep your spirits up when things go wrong, not only for the sake of the other partners, but also for the sake of the firm’s staff and clients. Partners need to be able to keep completely cool in emergencies and maintain their enthusiasm no matter how difficult a particular set of circumstances may be. They never waste time trying to find something or somebody to blame, they just get on with the task at hand.
All partners in a firm need to play some sort of leadership role, which basically means having an idea of where they’re going and having the ability to get others to follow. Effective partners are able to motivate staff to do superior work. They’re able to inspire people to change from what they are to what they should be, and to achieve this without seeking the credit for doing so. They also need to be able to persuade clients to do the right thing. To do all this you have to develop superior communication skills, including a deep understanding of how people feel and what influences them. It almost, but not quite, goes without saying that partners need more than a modicum of diplomacy and tact. Partners should have above average presentation and writing skills, and must be able to effectively chair a meeting.
As a partner you can’t spend too much time worrying about the possible negative results of a tough decision. The burdens of leadership include being unpopular from time to time.
Although in a professional firm partners must always respect the rights and worth of everyone, never treating staff as being inferior, sometimes you have to let people go. If your key people aren’t top-notch, when the firm is in a difficult situation it will not have top-notch people to help get out of it.
Here is list of ten good habits for effective partners in professional firms. If you want to be a partner, start acting like one.
1. Be approachable and easy to talk to.
2. Always listen with a view to understanding what the other person is actually saying, not simply with the view to deciding what you’re going to say.
3. Never pass up an opportunity to show appreciation to others, or to make them feel important.
4. Check the business section of your paper every morning before starting work. At the very minimum, peruse the index for references to your clients or your firm.
5. Remember that even if you can’t do everything right now you can do something right now.
6. Make notes. The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink.
7. Be sure your diary has room for the unexpected as well as some time for you to think.
8. Spend at least an hour a week networking.
9. Always dress just a little better than the occasion calls for.
10. Read something at least once a week that’s outside your field.