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Taking the Plunge: Do You Want to Be Managing Partner?

Posted in Law firm practices

UPDATE: This article won the BigLaw Pick of the Week award!

So you’re thinking about diving into the election for Managing Partner, eh?





You think your chances are good: you enjoy the respect of your partners, your business judgment is on a par with your legal judgment, and during your term on the Executive Committee, you came up with strategies that helped the firm navigate some rocky shoals and weather some serious storms. You’re seen as a problem-solver who can think outside the box and eschew tradition when necessary to respond to change.

Yet some close friends, your significant other and probably your family are asking, “Why in the world would you want to do that?” What will be the rewards and satisfactions of trying to herd a bunch of self-interested cats fiercely protective of their turf? Why would you back away from, or at least throttle back on, a thriving practice with some solid client relationships? How big a kick in the butt will your take-home pay take, given your firm’s history of undervaluing and undercompensating its leaders? And after your leadership tenure, how hard will it be to ramp your practice back up to the point where it can fund your Gold Years? Why invite frustration and pain?

Push the Pause Button

Before you throw your hat into the firm’s MP selection process, now is the time to pause and reflect on your motivations and incentives for what is bound to be a significant shift in role, responsibility, stature, and quality of life for at least a few years.

First of all, do not fall victim to all the vague reasons people often cite for deciding to become Managing Partner:

  • Larry asked me and I said yes.
  • It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
  • This would represent a triumph in the firm’s internecine power struggles.
  • We sort of rotate the MP role, and now it’s my turn.
  • I’m a little bored with my practice, so this might be an interesting change of scene for awhile.
  • It’s the next logical step up the high-achievers’ career ladder.
  • No one else wants to do it.

Leadership and Management

Although the position carries the title of Managing Partner, to a significant degree it is in fact a leadership role. What’s the difference?  In a nutshell, management is exercising influence and control over present activity and near-term objectives. Management focuses on maximizing here-and-now performance variables and overseeing performers engaged in current activity. It’s about implementation.

Leadership, on the other hand, is resolutely future-oriented: it’s based on the premise that the present is never good enough and that the highest priority should be to guide the troops toward some improved future state. Leadership is about shaping and communicating vision.

Are You a Natural?

Research by Marcus Buckingham has suggested that while there are great natural leaders and great natural managers, very few people are both. Lest you aspire to a position for which you are not well-suited, now is a good time to ask yourself some hard questions about your leadership aptitudes and motivations.

In a landmark piece of social research some years back, emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman identified six predominant patterns in which people exercise influence over others. Two could be characterized as leadership styles:

  • Visionary: “Follow me, I will show the path to the promised land.”
  • Democratic/Participative: “Tell me what you think, and I’ll tell you what I think. Communication is king. Everyone has a voice.”

 The other four really are management styles:

  • Command and Control/Coercive: “I have formal authority.  Do what I tell you.”
  • Charismatic/Affiliative: “People come first. I inspire the devotion of people by caring about them.”
  • Coaching:Let me give you everything you need to perform at your best.”
  • Exemplar: “Want to see it done right?  Just watch me.  I’m the expert.”

Among lawyers, the exemplar style is most common, because lawyers are trained to be subject-matter experts who command respect by the display of their expertise. It is noteworthy that Goleman’s research showed that this style has the most negative impact on organizational culture and morale because the exemplar tends to remain so distant from the troops. In short, if you are naturally a “be reasonable, do it my way” kind of manager, you should think twice about that run for Managing Partner.

An important finding in Goleman’s research belabors the obvious: one size does not fit all. Different settings and challenges call for different styles of leadership, as well as the ability to adjust one’s style as needed.  Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to default to a single, most-comfortable style, which implies that there are likely to be some situations where we are out of our element.

Some Serious Navel-Staring

The best way to reality-test your leadership mettle is not simply to try to catalog a bunch of abstract leadership qualities (e.g., vision, ability to inspire others, resiliency, etc.). Instead, try to construct a vivid template of what your leadership capabilities are likely to look like in action as translated into the Managing Partner position — in your firm under present circumstances.

You can do this by answering the following ten questions (and it helps to write your answers down, so that moments of fleeting insight or inspiration don’t escape working memory):

 If I realize my full potential as a Managing Partner…

1.    What will I be leading or managing?

  • A respected firm trying to preserve market share and status?
  • A firm committed to changing its brand and market identity?
  • A growth-driven firm undertaking geographic expansion and practice diversification?
  • A powerful cohesive culture marked by share goals, values and norms?
  • A firm in distress or caught in the cross-hairs of change?
  • A Swiss verein assemblage of basically autonomous entities?

2.    Whom will I lead? Who are my most important constituents?

  • External constituents – like maybe clients, or perhaps the firm’s banks?
  • The established power elite of the firm?
  • The heavy-hitting rainmakers and business developers?
  • Office managing partners, practice group leaders and/or client team leaders?
  • Equity partners eager for increased PPEP?
  • The successor generation hungry to ascend to power and control?
  • Directors of your administrative and operational infrastructure?
  • The soup-to-nuts rank and file performers central to legal service delivery?

3.    What will be the source of my leadership authority or clout?

  • The powers of your office and title?
  • A power base of influential partners?
  • My “ownership” of powerful clients and relationships?
  • My proven strategic and tactical vision?
  • My thought leadership and powers of rational persuasions?
  • Moral or ethical leadership?
  • My legal experience or subject matter expertise?
  • My charisma, personality, personal charm or irrational attractiveness?
  • My interpersonal and collaboration skills and ability to build trust and support?
  • My political savvy?
  • My ability to keep my head when those about me are losing theirs?
  • Other: _____________________________?

4.    What will be the effect, result or benefit of my leadership excellence?

  • Clear strategic direction for my firm, coupled with effective tactical implementation?
  • Acquisitions, affiliations, mergers or other forms of non-organic growth?
  • More effective organization, structure, policies, procedures, methods and standards?
  • Financial stability and sustainable profitability?
  • Resolution of short-term crises or threats to firm viability?
  • An improved firm reputation for exceptional innovation and creativity?
  • Exponentially strengthened client relationships?
  • Enhancement of your personal reputation and/or power?
  • Creating a platform from which to leverage personal wealth in the long term?
  • Other: _______________________

 5.    What form or style will my leadership take?

  • The inspired and inspiring visionary?
  • The break-the-mold change catalyst?
  • The general commanding the troops?
  • The financial wizard and nuts-and-bolts attender to detail?
  • The great communicator and bridge-builder?
  • The dearly-beloved team builder?
  • The transformative implementer of technology and innovation?
  • The talent recognizer and talent builder?
  • Other: ____________________________

6.    What 3 strengths, abilities, or “differentiators” will be most instrumental in my leadership success?

7.    How will others characterize my leadership?  What will they say about me?

 8.    What personal  rewards and satisfactions will enjoy, near-term and long term?

 9.    What kind of learning, training, support, resources or mentoring will I need to realize my full potential and overcome barriers?

Important Bonus Question

As you contemplate firm leadership, you may have a tendency toward first-things-first: getting elected, buying new furniture for your office, establishing your management/ leadership team, laying the foundations for your span of control.  At this point, it may be hard to envision the future, especially the long-term consequences of your leadership tenure.  However, in order to chart all the coordinates of your motivational map, now is the time to stop and ask yourself a final, utterly essential question: At the end of my day, what will be my legacy?  What will I be known for? How will firm history record my stewardship? What foundations or edifices will we have erected?

And finally, but for me, what would have happened?


© 2014, Pam Woldow, Doug Richardson & Legal Leadership, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without prior written approval.