Let’s face it, the role of practice group head is a really important one. They are the skipper of the ship. Yet firms seem to put so little effort into developing the talent to carry out this role well. I’m not sure why this is.
If firms have talented practice group heads they’ll generate highly motivated partners, working well as a team and with a clear strategy. In most firms though, the position of head of a practice group is seen as a poisoned chalice! Lots of potential grief with few upsides!
Why is this? Mostly it’s down to the culture in professional firms. Management activities still aren’t regarded as a respected contribution, certainly compared to perceived technical expertise or client following. And that’s a tough one to change.
Sometimes the heavy hitters take on the mantle, perhaps because they think it reinforces their power. Often such people lack the skills to be effective leaders.
Sometimes the role is offered to the younger, more organised partners. They’ll get on top of the WIP figures, but will struggle to have the clout to deal with the more senior partners.
I think firms should attempt to recognise budding leaders earlier than they do. They can attend leadership develop programmes and they can shadow existing leaders and they can be given cross-firm projects to cut their teeth on.
So what should you do if appointed as a practice group head? Here are ten suggestions:
1. Get clear what you’re expected to deliver and what budget you’re allowed.
Many firms tend to be a bit vague about what’s expected. This can lead to unnecessary stress for you as you wonder what to focus on and wonder what management are thinking of your performance.
2. Get support from management for any special challenges you might face.
If you are a more junior partner, it might be more challenging to deal with under-performance from a more senior partner or particularly maverick behaviour.
3. Try to get involved in succession activities.
I’ve commented on this idea above. There are potential roles such as marketing, HR, finance, knowhow partner that would be useful experience before taking on the big role.
4. Get a mandate to lead.
This is a critical step. Talk to each of the partners about what they’d like from you as their leader, and what they don’t want from you. By doing this you’ll effectively get a contract to be their leader.
5. Develop a vision for the group and from this produce a 3 year plan and a 1 year plan.
This is best done in a practice group meeting. If you’re not confident leading this process, ask your BD support person to do it.
6. Get partners to volunteer to lead on the various initiatives.
This works much better than you dishing out the jobs because they’ll be more motivated to the tasks they’ve volunteered for. Get another partner to support the lead partner. This helps engender greater teamwork and means that if the lead partner gets busy on client work, the number two can fill in.
7. Give praise where it’s due.
Firms don’t give praise enough. But a simple ‘well done’ often doesn’t work. Be specific and be timely.
8. Be merciless on inaction.
This is another important point. Partners can easily have an excuse for inaction. Client work will always tend to come first. But partners will have 500 or more non-chargeable hours in their budget, so there should be zero tolerance for not making progress on whatever the partners have volunteered to implement on the plan. It should be made clear that they’re letting the side down.
9. Keep reinforcing the vision.
You might think that once you’ve told everybody where you’re sailing the ship, they’ll know it. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Just like advertising, we need to hear the vision several times before it sinks in. One clever practice group developed a vision ‘In 3 years, we’ll generate £3million in fees and be in the 3rd tier in the directories’. This at least helped make it more memorable.
10. Be a good role-model.
Bear in mind that the associates and other partners will do what you do, not do what you say!
I believe most firms are missing a trick here. If there was more focus on getting effective leadership in place at the practice group level, performance would significantly improve. Is it really that hard?