Some partners are downright difficult. This makes them awkward cogs to fit into the firm set-up,  particularly where they are top producers, run important clients or contribute in other meaningful ways. And let’s face it, all too often they are and do.

Difficult partners are tough cogs to fit into the system. Sometimes exit is not an option, particularly where they are highly respected for their work, client management or contributions in other ways. This calls for thoughtful leadership and management. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is important therefore to work out an approach you can use for such partners.  Simply leaving it to chance, or the passage of time and hoping it will go away, or that you won’t have to deal with it, is not an option. They won’t go away and are bound to come back and haunt you and the partnership from time to time. Far better to be prepared with a sensible framework, and a willingness to take action.

Too often there is something of the bully in difficult partners, and you need to be clear to yourself and such partners that you will not be intimidated into non-action. Otherwise you are sure to lose credibility in the eyes of your partners and of course will not make any inroads in dealing with the challenging partner. You also won’t feel very pleased with yourself and your overall confidence may begin to suffer. Unfortunately, the way law firm leaders and senior managers deal with these situations offer very painful and sometimes very visible tests of leadership.

In my last post I covered a few things you should not do in such situations. Let’s now consider what you should do. In the first instance, there are what I would call fundamentals:

  • make sure your values (or cultural attributes or guiding principles as the case may be) cover things like un-partnerlike or ‘difficult’ behaviour.
  • ensure your partner performance criteria measure adherence to such values and/or behaviours.
  • be consistent in all your dealings. This means treating the difficult partner no differently to others – they still need to be shown the same respect, given a fair hearing and such like. Equally, don’t treat them with kid gloves because they are difficult; other partners who may have slipped up in some or other way and been managed rigorously will be watching whether you are even-handed in your dealings.
  • be clear that the solution is going to come from the difficult partner, not from you, from the firm or some written document. Somehow you are going to have to get him or her in the right frame of mind, and suitably motivated, to solve the problem.
What else should you do?
  • bear in mind these are not clear-cut, black & white situations. Each one is unique.  You will therefore need to exercise judgement right through the process as you decide the best way forward. Also, there is a benefit to having somewhat difficult partners in the partnership – after all, it is often they who ask the difficult questions, demand change and highlight weak points, when others either have not noticed or are too timid to say anything.
  • arm yourself with the facts – this will invariably require you to talk (usually in confidence) to others. Don’t go in under-prepared, armed only with vague assertions. This will also enable you to think carefully about what may be causing the behaviour in question – is the partner in question suffering from a fundamental psychological condition (in severe cases, sociopathic), are they insecure or simply uncaring and impatient? Put yourself in a position so that you can be very specific about the behaviours you are concerned about and why they are troubling to you, the partnership and possibly the firm as a whole. Make it clear change is not only desired, but required. There must be absolute clarity around these points.
  • remain calm. Do not start angry or allow yourself to be angered. Of course, this is easier said than done. You may need to do some training of your own to ensure you cope on this front. For instance, the right style of meditation can be a huge help.
  • be patient but be persistent. You are simply not going to solve issues like this in one sitting, but you will sometimes hear leaders saying things like ‘I have talked to him‘ as if that has solved an issue. Be prepared for the long haul. You are going to need it.
  • appreciate that there may be underlying insecurities causing a partner to be difficult. Try to build trust and open lines of communication and initially do more listening than talking. Hear them out. Ask for their views. Use lots of open-ended questions. Ask them how they feel their particular actions or behaviours impacts others. You may get them thinking – while they may not admit it at the time, you may find this process so gets them thinking that they change behaviour later on.
  • be assertive and rigorous without being ruthless. You don’t as managing partner want to unconsciously resort to the same types of behaviours you are trying to address. This can happen, especially where you are feeling nervous.
  •  try to build to a position where you can explore different remedial options. These may include getting some qualified outside executive coaching or even, in appropriate cases, referral to professional help in the form of psychologists. It may include getting their agreement to undertake a scientifically based diagnostic where some of their trusted and respected colleagues provide assessment. This is particularly important where the partner blames others or denies or avoids the issues or facts. Such diagnostics usually clearly point to such underlying issues which, once identified, can then be addressed.
  • possibly involve another partner in the discussion. However, don’t do this where it is based on your own feeling of weakness in the situation – only do it if the other partner generally agrees with the concerns around the difficult partner and happens to have their respect and possibly friendship. This is always a tricky one – there is no perfect right or wrong here – you will need to exercise judgement in the best interest of the partner and the partnership.
  • don’t ‘special case’ them in future group discussions, simply because they are difficult. As best you can, treat them like everyone else. They will realise their behaviours have not intimidated you or anyone else and that everyone is getting on with firm business.
  • without going overboard, re-emphasise their strengths and value to the firm (of course, what you would like to add, but don’t, is ‘particularly if they cut out the difficult behaviour!’). Of course, this part will be forgotten or glossed over in future post-mortems about these discussions, but it shouldn’t stop you doing it. Also offer your genuine encouragement and support; they need to know you are not attacking them but have their best interests at heart.
  • be prepared to follow-up and follow-through. Don’t expect them to; they likely won’t. But this is another way of showing how determined you are. Part of this is agreeing when you will next meet and what steps will be taken in the meantime.

These situations are never easy to handle. But they are a fact of life in leadership of professional service firms. It is best to be clear about what not to do and equally, what you should best do. Each situation, firm and leader is in a different situation – I would therefore urge leaders and senior managers to use the above list as a starting point and to think about their own framework (if I have missed anything important please let me know). Apart from anything else it will make you look and feel more confident when dealing with them.

Two handy references for further reading around this important topic include my Edge partner Ed Wesemann’s book ‘Looking Tall by Standing next to Short People’ and ‘First among equals’ by McKenna and Maister.

all the best, Sean, Edge International.