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?

It does seem like we have been laying into angry or difficult partners lately – so much so, you (almost) gotta feel sorry for them! (not really, we all know how difficult they can really be and how much time and positive energy they eat up) –  3 recent posts attest to this:

  1. Difficult partners – what not to do
  2. What to do with difficult cogs in a partnership
  3. Angry babies and difficult partners have a lot in common – some EQ tips

My partner Gerry Riskin, founding partner of Edge International provides another perspective in “Defusing the bomb – dealing with difficult partners” (PDF) in our Edge International Review.

The harsh reality is that you have to deal with truly difficult partners - otherwise they are a lighted fuse waiting to go off in small bursts or maybe, at some stage in a severely damaging implosion.

In his inimitable style Gerry deals with:

  • the importance of communicating directly;
  • the importance of listening and trying to understand the perspective of the partner concerned;
  • making an effort to get them to understand the (negative) impact they may be having;
  • extracting an undertaking for them to be more cautious in expressing their views;
  • asking them to limit expressing negative views;
  • in some cases maybe even holding certain meetings without the difficult partner present;
  • considering whether the behaviours are such as to warrant medical or other outside professional assistance;
  • the necessity, sometimes, to address the matter full-on and issue an ultimatum;
  • the fact that sometimes, expulsion may be the only option; and
  • the problem of avoidance and the necessity of overcoming this.

all the best, Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International