The partnership conundrum

Written by: Matthew Emerson, Blackmore Four
Published on: 18 Apr 2023

In partnership culture, as is so typically the case in accounting firms, people are often given a seat at the table at the highest level because they've brought in a lot of business and are leaders in their field – their skill set is about delivering revenue. But there is not necessarily a correlation between the ability to deliver revenue and the ability to be a successful strategic leader in business. This piece by specialist consultants Blackmore Four, explores how accounting firms, the majority of which are set up as LLPs, can deal with this challenge and affect real and positive change in their businesses.

Step One: Overcoming ‘group think’

It’s maybe not surprising that ’group think’ is a common challenge for partnership organisations. By the time employees are invited to be partner, having been initially selected as like-minded individuals (typically from a similar background, education or professional training), those making partner are broadly the same as everybody else on the board. From a leadership team capability perspective, this can result in extremely narrow leadership expertise, when what is needed for the business to perform at a higher level is a team with the breadth and diversity of new capabilities.

But those individuals at the table are different people with different experiences and perspectives, so we can use that to do two things: firstly, we can help people on an individual level to develop the skills necessary to take a different perspective from that which comes naturally. But there also needs to be some reflection on what types of skills are actually necessary for the business. If the point has been reached where the leadership team are already broadly similar in thought, with similar skills, the chances are that while these might be totally relevant for the primary board objectives, they might not have the skills to tackle any others.

So secondly, to break that group think, the leadership team needs to develop a way of working together collectively that utilises the skills of individuals to be more critical and challenging. It's also important to honestly appraise the skills gap and when it's appropriate to hire in new people. Even if you've only got one or two alternative voices around the table, if they bring distinctly different skills and behaviours, then that will change the dynamic.

Moving or changing a culture can be challenging, and it’s something a lot of partnership companies are likely to face. That environment, fixated on billable hours, is not necessarily geared around how to prioritise and manage the workload, and the changes needed to make a business work really well.

Step Two: Aligning strategic priorities

Strategic priorities should be wedded to a business’s aspirations, but often become detached from practicalities. Transparent conversations amongst the leadership group about the ultimate ambition of the business and what it is trying to achieve are crucial, and the priorities should be falling out of these. So even as part of your basic business planning, when setting your vision and mission you need to be thinking about strategic goals; how they fit, and how they all hang together. You need to be able to flex when those priorities change, because conditions change, or you realise you've started something that isn't working.

It is necessary to reflect on the medium and long-term goals and then ask what is needed in terms of leadership skills in order to achieve those. One of the things Blackmore Four does is help clients to figure out what is actually going to have an impact or is really going to change the way the organisation operates in line with their strategic objectives. We look at what is mandatory because it's about external regulatory compliance, and what is just an improvement on what is already being done. What is a ‘good to have’ but isn’t critical to where the business is heading?

For some organisations, that's a big cultural change. The accepted behavioural norm can be to start a project and keep going until it is done, instead of consistently and continually reflecting on activity and input, and critically evaluating that against the organisation’s strategic goals.

Ensuring you’ve got the right people for the right roles, with the skillset, attributes and personality to achieve the business goals is essential. We would always start with the design of outcomes, look at how the organisation is structured, and then put the people with the right potential in the appropriate role.

Step Three: Measure the right things

Metrics are part of the story, and some businesses want to make sure that any element of their business can be measured numerically through hard facts and data. But the reality is that some aspects do need to be measured by what you see and feel. If you're working in the leadership team, a check and balance needs to be made to ensure what is felt and seen is articulated consistently, with genuine objectivity.

But how do you measure whether you're making the right progress? The only reason you would look at reorganising your team, your employees, is if you think that their effort is not sufficiently aligned with what you‘re trying to achieve, and this is usually flagged up because you're not achieving key objectives. This is the point to start defining the things you want, then determining how you are going to see them.

And then you have to look at every item on your list of strategic priorities and be able to say, ‘Who is accountable for making sure we achieve that?’.----

Blackmore Four are an independent consulting company, offering specialist advice, leadership insight and tailored solutions to businesses looking to improve business performance. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business.

If you would like to talk to us about the ways that we can support you in assessing and developing the leadership capabilities in your business, book a call here or call 07734 920 222

Matthew Emerson, Managing Director

Blackmore Four Limited