In the last couple of years I have been honoured to advise nearly a dozen clients on complex governance projects in at least six different jurisdictions. Some of these projects have been driven by tax or regulatory considerations, but most have had effective management and leadership at their core. One of these projects was to help a mid-sized limited liability partnership to modernise its decision-making processes. Another was to create a structure to combine the best features of partnership into what is essentially a corporate structure. Several projects wrestled with complex partner compensation problems whilst other projects related to merger or, in a couple of cases, the firm’s growth which had rendered the historic structures obsolete or no longer fit for purpose. The context of this work has varied from traditional partnerships through to LLPs and LLCs, civil companies, corporations and multi-disciplinary structures.
What I have found is that the increasingly complex world of professional firm governance always raises the question of the qualification for ownership status. Until about ten years ago, professionals seemed to get promoted to partnership by little more than rites of passage and without questioning very deeply their fitness to be an owner. As a one-time managing partner, I have to put my hand up and admit to being at fault in failing sufficiently or rigorously to assess such promotions. More recently, however, equity in professional firms has become more tightly held, and this trend has been accompanied by a growth in professional competency and assessment frameworks, balanced scorecards, promotion criteria and partner job descriptions. Our recent Edge International Global Compensation Survey confirmed this trend, and particularly the growth in importance of business development skills as an essential partner competency.
Even so, firms nowadays are rightly reluctant to elevate professionals to partnership unless they seem to meet some hard-to-define extra qualities – some spark that lights them up. The negatives are easy to establish – no jerks, no journeymen partners, nobody who will impede progress, and nobody who lacks rainmaking skills.
Hardly anybody mentions entrepreneurship – maybe because it seems so difficult to describe in terms that lead to easy partner identification. Here then is a start. Entrepreneurship has been defined as “the identification and exploitation of previously unexploited opportunities.” It is clear from this description that the ability both to innovate and to drive is at the heart of entrepreneurship. In professional firms, this ability can be demonstrated in at least three areas – services, clients, and processes – and prospective partners should be required to show entrepreneurship in at least one of these areas. The ability to spot opportunities in new and emerging services or to exploit twists in existing services may be one such quality. Another might be the ability to re-energise or renew the way the firm interacts with its clients or delivers its services. Less obvious – but of equal importance – is the ability and drive to improve processes, capture knowledge, and create systems and unique ways of doing things.
In their business plans, prospective partners should be required to set out some of the unexploited opportunities that they could create, and how they would see themselves as exploiting and managing those opportunities for the benefit of the firm. I have lost count of the times that I have been told that firms contain partners who should never have been promoted. A more rigorous approach in promoting partners would in my view inexorably lead to more entrepreneurship, faster decision-making and better profitability.