Managing Partner Viewpoints from the Archives, Part II: Motivating Partners, Fostering Consensus

Managing Partner Viewpoints from the Archives, Part II: Motivating Partners, Fostering Consensus

Nothing about the job of the MP is easy. The internal and external challenges are many and the pace of change slow and fraught with complications. People issues can be the prickliest to manage, since by definition the MP solves the problems no one else will.

These were among the many observations to emerge from the anonymous, candid responses of more than 70 MPs to a brief survey from INSIDE Public Accounting awhile back that shed welcome light on some of the most common frustrations and rewards they have experienced in the position. During this current period of uncertainty in the profession, their insights on some of the specific topics from that survey seem worth revisiting.

Partner Motivation

Partners are driven in their work by different things – be it money, recognition, prestige, respect or some combination of these – which is why MPs say a one-size-fits-all motivation theory simply won’t work. But getting to know partners on a “deep personal level” can draw out what motivates them, one MP says.

Many MPs say partners must be involved in setting firm goals, but they also need to be pushed and held accountable. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to balance the needs of individuals with the greater good of the firm, “especially if those actions don’t involve client service,” one MP says. It’s no surprise, then, that more than one MP commented in regard to the challenge of partner motivation: “It’s like herding cats.”

Beyond that common refrain, some of the MPs’ non-feline observations on the topic are applicable to a variety of situations, including:

“I wish someone had told me that most partners are happy with the status quo.”

“Sometimes it’s impossible to motivate partners. You can take away money, prestige, etc., but with today’s personnel shortage, they can just leave and someone will take them on at the same pay rate and benefit level.”

“Most CPAs are hardwired pessimists.”

“Figuring out what motivates them is challenging enough. Once you do that, you have to figure out how to best motivate them and keep the motivating factors aligned with the strategic plans of the firm.”

“Money is the No. 1 motivator that they don’t totally control. All else is based on self-motivation.”

“Not every partner is as successful as they think they are. Find what they need to keep working on, otherwise they coast.”

“Don’t spend time on the naysayers. Move on. Work with those who are enthusiastic and want to make it work. Recognize them, share the results and communicate often. Those who are naysayers will usually come around and adapt.”

“Use guaranteed payments and bonuses as the primary form of compensation rather than draws and distributions.”

“As much as individual partners will agree with required policy or necessary change, when the change touches them, the resistance can be as significant as one who overtly disagrees. The amount of managing partner time and energy necessary to maintain partner buy-in is significant.”

The Importance (and Limitations) of Consensus

When it comes to making big decisions, some MPs seek complete consensus on a range of issues, while some prefer to act quickly and inform partners afterward, and others only go to partners for big decisions. Many MPs said a small, efficient executive committee helps tremendously when the partner group gets too large, with one noting that a “democratic, very inclusive decision process” only works well if the partner group is eight or less.

The first thing an MP must do is determine which issues require consensus. One MP says, “I find the balance by deciding how much consensus to get, based on the issue. It is rarely good to make any decision quickly AND without consulting at least someone or a few persons. That said, sometimes time is of the essence and after at least a brief gut check with one or two others, you have to make the decision and prepare yourself to defend it without changing directions.”

Different MPs, not surprisingly, have different approaches to decision-making in their firms:

“We have set agreements and PICs of certain areas. They can make all decisions over their area and only certain decisions need an all-partner vote.”

“Only large decisions like new partner promotions and a merger or acquisition go to the full partner group. Some partners push back as they feel like they should have a say on all decisions, but that’s just not realistic. We have to get the work done.”

“I seek complete agreement. Will discuss to reach agreement among the group.”

“Communicate. Give everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions, but it must be clear that the MP will do what he/she believes is best for the firm given the fact that the MP knows more about the inner workings of the firm than anyone else in the group. It’s important that partners understand that it’s OK to not agree with the MP’s decisions, but they must accept them and allow the MP to do his or her job.”

One MP warns that consensus is not always best. “Sometimes decisions have to be made that are not popular. Many times decisions directly affect specific partners and they are probably not going to like the result. You are not the managing partner because you always please everyone. You are in that position because your partners trust you and your decision-making with their livelihood.”

Communication is, as always, a critical part of a well-functioning partner group. One-on-one time with partners is important to explain the whys and hows of issues that require tough decisions. MPs appreciate the ability to talk with a few partners who are willing to serve as a sounding board before decisions are made. There’s no such thing as over-communicating, and patience is key. As one MP put it, “Change is slower than you want it to be and never as easy as you expect it to be.”

From finding ways to motivate their people to determining how to best arrive at key decisions amid trying times and challenging circumstances, these are insights that many MPs may find worth revisiting in the here and now.