Partner boards, chairpersons or managing partners can be heard to grumble quietly that their senior non-partner GM, CEO or COO are struggling to realise their potential, and do not seem to be able to make headway with the partners, particularly on tricky issues. They go on to hint that it may be a failing on the part of the manager. They can’t understand this as ‘he/she is such a good person‘.

Managing partners who complain that their GMs, CEOs or COOs are not making headway with the partners should first look in the mirror before looking out the window to find the solution. It is often to do with the support they are or not providing. (Sean Larkan image 2012 ©)

I remember back to when I was first appointed a senior manager of a large corporate law firm. I was in my early 30s, new to the city, the ‘big smoke’, new to the firm and had a great deal to learn about both leadership and management. The senior partner/chairman invited me to put on hobnailed boots and “knock them into shape“. I quickly appraised him that this simply would not happen; I had a lot to learn and had to earn the trust and respect of the partner group. I did say that with his and the board’s guidance and support I would have a fair chance of achieving that.

I was fortunate. The support was there, there was plenty of space to move in, to experiment and even make some mistakes. In the end it seemed to work out quite well. Looking back, I realise that any early success achieved was due largely to the support I got and the trust put in me by the senior partner and the board. This is crucial.

Some will not agree with this approach – they will feel that senior managers need to ‘stand up and be counted‘ and should be expected to cope on their own. This is short-sighted; partnerships are tricky entities and partners themselves can be a handful. It takes a lot more than this. It is not so much a case of providing a crutch or making up for inadequacies, but senior leaders need to truly support these roles and the incumbents and make it very clear that they do.

Most law firms of 10 partners and more have learned the benefit of appointing specialist managers to lead and manage support service portfolios. Many firms have also taken the next leap and appointed senior GM’s, CEOs or COOs to oversee all support functions. Many of these are highly experienced, talented people.

Why then do we still hear managing partners and chairs of firms complaining that their manager is not coping, cannot deal with certain issues or that when the going gets tough, the partners simply ignore him or her. It is often suggested that this is ‘because they are not a partner‘ i.e. one of us. It is invariably subtly or directly asserted that it is the manager who is not coping or adjusting. This is particularly the case where it happens to be an internal appointment.

On the contrary, the real issue is that the chair, managing partner or board have not vested the senior manager with requisite authority and not openly and strongly supported them to succeed. It is at this time that they need to look in the mirror for the solution and not out the window. It takes time to get used to these roles, and it is imperative that they get this support. Of course it is a given that the GM/CEO/COO have the credentials, and through their personal demeanour, also earn trust and respect.

What are some of the things a managing partner, chair and board can do to ensure the GM/CEO/COO role succeeds?

  • clearly, choose a good one;
  • make clear to him or her and the partners what they are responsible for;
  • make sure that, within reason, they have authority to do the job. They will still of course need to rely on the power of persuasion and other leadership qualities to get results;
  • when partners approach the managing partner or chair in regard to issues clearly within the responsibility of the CEO/CEO they must be warned off – that they are being handled by that CEO/CEO and they should discuss them with the GM/CEO/COO. Anything else will serve to simply undermine them;
  • compensate them accordingly. A good CEO/CEO can easily bring as much if not more to a firm then a partner;
  • realise that a big part of their success will depend on the role, demeanour and attitude of the chair, board and managing partners supporting them, giving them space, taking an interest in them, providing feedback and recognition and making sure they are treated as equals, notwithstanding there may not have the title “partner”;
  • for the chair and managing partner to play more than a benign role. Sometimes they will, with every best intention, hold back, thinking they are giving them space. This can be a mistake – they need to actively support the role and communicate their support for it and the incumbent;
  • where firms are incorporated a good step to consider is to appoint such a senior manager as a director i.e. with the same title and status as a practising partner. A number of firms are doing this; and
  • be even more conscious of these points when the appointment is an internal one, for instance when another support services manager has been graduated to senior general manager, CEO or CEO. They have an even tougher job of it and what the chair or managing partner do or not do can be crucial.

When making such appointments many partnerships talk about doing all or some of these things. Unfortunately this does not happen in practice. The CEO/CEO does not realise their full potential, even flounders, and of course the firm does not get full benefit from such an important appointment.

Fortunately there are some great examples of success stories around such appointments – usually as a result of the combination of an excellent incumbent with the right support and attitude coming from the chair, board and/or managing partner. In such cases, while such senior managers may not be earning fee income from clients, their value to the firm can easily equate to this and more.

All the best, Sean Larkan, partner, Edge International