Issue: August, 2006
Author: Henry Dahut
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Choosing Your Managing Partner: Common Mistakes
Choosing the next managing partner has historically been a knee-jerk response in most firms. Usually the choice is between either trying to fill the void by promoting the next best rainmaker, or going with a firm workhorse or a partner with particularly strong administrative and financial skills. Some choose a copycat of the previous managing partner. But, filling the most important leadership position in your firm is not a decision to be made lightly or frivolously. Finding a new leader with the right combination of clout and charisma to reshape your firm is a tremendous challenge which is critically important to the firm’s future. Don’t fall into the common trap of seeing the incoming managing partner as merely a replacement of the old one.
The copycat works on filling the big guy’s shoes by maintaining the status quo. A few personality changes here—a tuck, a fold—and soon everyone believes the “Great One” has been resurrected. Or so it seems. But, replacing a managing partner with a copycat is destined to fail. Cloning personalities is impossible, even in laboratory rats. The reality is that only the predecessor can be the predecessor—and that person has left the building. Pretending that his persona lives on through his successor is unhealthy, and it will polarize a firm.
The Super Administrator
Perhaps the most distracting of management personalities is the super administrator. For this partner, great management means great administration. Leadership is measured by the proper allocation of yellow-pad spending or the cost savings found in recycling case folders. Like an office manager on steroids, this personality busily works at forming new committees, rewriting hiring policies, penciling budgets, and relocating water coolers.
When firms choose a super administrator to lead them, at first everyone is relieved because someone has finally taken control of the details. But, people soon realize that the changes being made are superficial and, in some cases, downright childish.
This type of managing partner tends to apply Band-Aids to firm-wide problems, rather than getting at the root of the problem. Super administrators rarely rock the boat, and their own style of leadership (or lack of it) will not bring about the hard changes that are fundamental to firm growth and prosperity.
Just because partners generate high levels of billing revenue, and have a strong work ethic, does not automatically mean they have the requisite skills and expertise to effectively lead and manage the firm.
Managing partners who are workhorses may expect other members of the firm to follow their lead. Unfortunately, while leading by example is admirable, it rarely has staying power. The “Be like Mike” approach may temporarily stimulate more work activity among lawyers and staff, but rarely does it result in lasting change. Furthermore, it often causes resentment on the part of the new managing partner, as he sadly realizes that the firm’s lawyers are not taking his cue.
One partner shared this experience:
“I came up the ranks by tracing the footsteps of our top guy. He was always the last to leave and the first in. I thought being like him would get me to the top. It did. But when I got there, the lawyers I managed didn’t care about tracing my footsteps, or emulating my work ethic. Most wanted to know ‘What’s in it for me?’ before they broke their backs.
“A managing partner should spend time managing, leading, and marketing the firm, but spending more time managing and less time with clients takes an otherwise productive senior timekeeper away from generating revenue. Firms should think seriously about the consequences of this type of situation.”
It is a common mistake to believe that a star rainmaker will make a star managing partner. Actually, many firms have found that quite the contrary is true. There is little to support the contention that those who can make rain will also be great managers—in fact, they are typically poor managers. They can be great communicators and sometimes even great relationship builders, but they often lack the patience and discipline necessary to cope with the challenges of building and leading their firms to new heights, and it is difficult for them to lead in the face of adversity and rise above firm politics. While rainmakers understandably wield much power, the reality is that the ultimate success of a firm will depend on an entirely different type of leader with an entirely different set of skills.
Let’s take a look at rainmakers, since they are typically the replacement of choice.
The Rainmaker’s Legacy
Great rainmakers, known simply and affectionately as the “Great Ones,” have always been valuable commodities. The question is whether or not they make great leaders and managers.
It’s true that firms have often experienced great growth at the hands of great rainmakers. Almost mythical in stature, some of these mega-lawyers have single-handedly elevated their firms to great heights. In doing so, they became the heart and soul of the firm’s persona.
In my discussions with lawyers about the character traits of their firms’ rainmakers, however, a pattern emerged: Rainmakers don’t delegate well. They hoard knowledge. They are highly political, stubbornly independent by nature, and mavericks by impulse.
Rainmakers resemble what business thinkers call “Phase-One Entrepreneurs.” These are core-level players. They get things done—often by imposing their will on others. They never say die. They are obsessive and have great tenacity, but at some point, the management and business skills necessary to take their organization to the next level are simply not compatible with their nature or desires. Ironically, the character qualities found in top rainmakers are often strikingly different from those found in top managers.
In large firms, rainmakers who are also managing partners are famous for letting the firm’s business be managed by executive committee—not because committee action is superior, but because rainmakers would rather not be bothered with such headaches. However, an executive committee can never replace the leadership and management strength necessary to take a firm to a higher level.
One very prominent Los Angeles rainmaker described his role as managing partner:
“This firm was built on my reputation, and to this day, it runs on my reputation. The main role of the managing partner, as I see it, is being able to keep the discontent factor of my other partners to an absolute minimum.”
To most rainmakers, marketing means reeling in new clients—preferably big ones with substantial and broad-based legal needs. For firms with such a rainmaker as managing partner, the rainmaker is the firm’s marketing. That is, until the rainmaker leaves.
When “Great Ones” Leave
When Great Ones leave, a large void is created. Great Ones leave behind not only their legacy, but also firms without leaders. All too often the space they vacated is left unfilled by the remaining partners. The truth is, these types of powerhouse partners are hard acts to follow, and their absence can loom as large and as real as their presence once did.
Uncertainty often follows the departure of such personalities. For most partners, it’s a very unsettling experience. The next in line—the replacements—often perceive their new positions after such a transition as temporary holding stations until the next best leader can be resurrected, hopefully in the image of the Great One.
Taking the helm, especially when a firm is under stress, has destroyed otherwise promising careers. Some newly ordained managing partners decide to just wait it out. They are managing partners by default, and their sole interest is to stay the course.
These types hedge their bets, keep an active caseload, service the big clients and, if time permits, try to manage the firm. Like good soldiers, they keep their heads down and ears open.
So What Makes A Great Leader?
If your firm is seeking a new leader, look for a team player who is honest, inquisitive, imaginative, cooperative, communicative—and, above all, one who wants the firm to soar at many levels. Remember, leadership is a state of mind.
The most dynamic types of leader are perspective-driven. These intensely inquisitive people need to know what actually helps their firm to grow and prosper and, just as importantly, what causes it to falter. They want to know what clients think about the firm—what clients actually experience when they visit and do business with the firm.
Perspective-driven leaders seek to discover new ways of serving clients and making them feel valued. They are painfully honest and realistic when it comes to evaluating performance—including their own. These leaders do not claim to have a monopoly on knowledge. They know that to completely understand a major challenge, they must turn to people who think in a variety of ways; thinking in teams is usually more productive than thinking individually.
True leaders have personal visions that incorporate the firm’s vision. They believe in the firm. They have the courage to make tough decisions—including showing toxic partners the door. True leaders strengthen the firm from the inside out—starting by working with others to define its core values, and then by moving toward making those values an intrinsic part of everything the firm does and every impression it makes.
They are great listeners; they don’t bark out orders from behind their desks. Real leaders find ways to develop strengths in the people they work with. They work through people, by understanding and evoking their intelligence, creativity, and participation. Especially for firms in the midst of great change, leaders must be able to manage through teams of people, delegating work and rewarding performance while encouraging persistence. Such leaders encourage excellent performance at every level.
The most successful managing partners I have seen rarely dominate the group; rather they support the group by keeping it focused and on task. Such leaders rely on others to help them stay organized. Watch a leader and a trusted secretary interact—can you tell who is managing whom?
Exceptional leaders work hard to remove barriers in communication among their key people. They see their role as smoothing out the processes. They are facilitators, not dominators. They think about ways of making others more effective and productive—making it easier for them to do their jobs. And when their effort results in success, these leaders rarely take the credit, instead giving it to the group where it belongs.
Finally, know that finding a partner with all of these traits is next to impossible—but it does provide you with a meaningful basis from which to predict who among your partners is best suited to take the helm.
Henry Dahut sits on the Executive Committee of the Law Practice Management and Technology Section. His business and legal experience spans over twenty years, and he is the author of Marketing the Legal Mind –A Search for Leadership. For more information, visit his web site at www.HenryDahut.com, or write him at Henry@HenryDahut.com.
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