Will a great employee become a great partner ?

In support of Burwell Consultants, William M. Burwell writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Design; Marketing, Firm Management and Project Management.  Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com

Practice Management Post 1.5

Of course the answer to this riddle is a resounding but qualified YES !  I have seen small and large firms give out the lofty title of "Partner" like Boy Scout Merit Badges with little or no regard to any standing definition of what it takes to be a partner.  I like to start by asking founding partners to look at their own roles and job descriptions.  Likely, if an individual starts a firm, they have reasonable talent or skill and deliver it well while keeping the client happy.  They get paid for the service and then find another client - lather, rinse, repeat.  However when granting partnership to others, it is sometimes done with the most casual disregard of these very same self-possessed traits and talents.  I have had principals say they made someone a partner because they had been with the firm for some time frame 10 - 15 - or 20 years. Likewise, I have experienced "legacy partners" such as shareholders or even grown children of founding partners thrown into leadership by situation.  All excellent attributes but not necessarily enough to become an equity owner of a firm.  Read on. 

Of course, the best definition for equity partner and most helpful to the firm, is a person that emulates the talent and skills of the founding partners as one who can market, design, manage and contribute to the bottom line - these are the reasons a founding partner should allow another individual to share in the equity of the firm.  Others with incomplete skills may share in the profit, but perhaps should not share in the equity of the firm until they exhibit the full skill set.  By the way, sharing in equity also means sharing in debt, loss, lease obligations and risk of salary or earnings.  This is why it's called "Making Partner" because they are indeed made, developed, educated and literally grow into the position.  But employees do not experience this growth without clear rules and guidelines and leadership by example to set them on the correct path.  

To be prepared for the inevitable question, take the time to write down the attributes of a partner in your firm, keeping in mind that the position will be an equal to you.  There can be many beyond marketing, and design and may include firm management understanding, the ability to manage a team of professionals including consultants and others.  As you review partnership candidates over a period of time, note any areas of deficiency and discuss in detail, providing the importance of each attribute. Explain why the firm needs these attributes from partners in order to prosper and survive.  Do not allow strength in a single partner attribute to cloud your judgement or decisions.  Develop a partner track to allow candidates the opportunity to succeed, but only reward that success.  Making partners with less than complete skills only insures that the firm will suffer in leadership and certainly later on in leadership transition.  How do you transition firm leadership to folks with no marketing skills or other missing attributes?  It is an age old issue that has affected firms forever, especially first generation firms.  Don't set this trap as the only person that will get caught is yourself.

William M. Burwell  is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture in sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff.  Bill retired in 2014 and began a Small Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years.    He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence.