Jennifer Wilson

Do you have what it takes to become a partner?

Seven tips show you how.

July 30, 2012
By Jennifer Wilson

In most firms, up-and-comers want to understand the decision criteria their leaders will use to select a new partner. Partner groups are struggling to define these criteria—and with good reason. Make that two good reasons.

  1. There is no such thing as a perfect partner, and when the leaders look around at their partner ranks, they realize there is no “one-size-fits-all” description.
  2. Each partner “opening” is a unique, point-in-time placement effort, and the needs of the firm and partner group at that time must dictate the exact criteria used to identify the right candidate.

That being said, leadership teams must provide their young leaders with a set of guidelines for what constitutes partner-level performance. This article provides seven potential elements to include and also identifies some pitfalls to avoid when rolling out your partner candidate criteria.

Potential criteria

When defining your firm’s partner candidate criteria, consider including these seven elements:

  1. Leadership behavior. What behaviors are expected of your firm’s partners? Adherence to your firm’s core values? Committing to your partners’ code of conduct? Treating others with respect? Keeping their commitments? Following as well as leading? Define your must-have behaviors for being considered to sit at the partner table and look for up-and-comers who display these behaviors before they are being considered.
  2. Client service skills. What do you expect in terms of client service, relationship development, and management, as well as the example the individual sets for others? How can you objectively measure this? Ideas include client satisfaction surveys, client retention statistics, existing client revenue growth, and upward evaluations from staff.
  3. Technical abilities. Technical ability can be measured by the person’s mastery of a specialty service or industry niche, his or her capacity for assimilating new standards and changes, and his or her ability to navigate complex client needs and projects. In my book, if a partner has the ability to develop people and/or new business (more on this soon), then the depth of his or her technical abilities should be a less important factor. I have found an inverse relationship between technical ability and people development in most CPAs I’ve met. The super-technical person often does not have the patience or manner to effectively teach, manage, and motivate others.
  4. Financial performance. To make partner, up-and-comers must demonstrate the ability to consistently generate revenue for the firm. By the time an up-and-comer is ready for partner consideration, he or she should be independently managing engagements and, ideally, complete client relationships. The dollar amount partner candidates are managing, or have the potential to manage, should approach $1 million, though this will vary depending upon firm size (smaller in smaller firms and larger in larger firms) and the candidates’ other responsibilities.
  5. Administrative abilities. Firms don’t tend to see the basic administrative abilities of time entry, billing and collecting, and responding to email and voice mail as “partnerly.” But partners who haven’t mastered these basics can cause real problems. Avoid these by requiring proven, base-level administrative ability in your partner candidates. Beyond this, candidates who demonstrate a willingness to invest time in firm initiatives, committees, and other important administrative tasks to advance the firm’s strategies should be considered above those who appear unwilling or unable to undertake this effort.
  6. People development skills. My colleague Michelle Baca wrote a great blog post that extols the importance of people development as an even higher priority than client service. The idea is that if you can invest in your people and build up their abilities, client service and revenue production will take care of themselves. I couldn’t agree more. Up to this point, the elements we’ve covered all contribute to the firm’s current production or its ability to run well today. People development and business development contribute to a firm’s future capacity, or its ability to sustain itself into the future. The ability to develop people enables a firm to more effectively leverage and retain talent and manage succession. It is a very valuable characteristic. But, as noted earlier, not all people were born to be people managers or mentors. It’s likely that only about 30% of your partners are “real” people developers, so we wouldn’t recommend this as a must-have element for all new partners in your firm. Instead, you should be sure to at least replace all people developers with people developers to ensure that you do not take a step backward in this important area, one that becomes more important as the market demand for talent heats up.
  7. Business development skills. Most firm leaders will tell you that they don’t want to make a new partner who cannot develop his or her own business. I understand this, because those who cannot develop their own business have to be “fed” by others. As the profession expects to lose many of its rainmaking entrepreneurs to retirement in the coming years, more firms will face an inability to sustain unless they can replace these important skills, including the ability to source new leads or opportunities, the ability to close new engagements, and, for the select few, the ability to build entirely new practices for the firm. But, as with people development, the percentage of “true” business developers in any partner group rarely exceeds 30%. Your partner group will need to honestly assess your firm’s succession profile and identify how many “true” business developers you’ll need to replace and when.

Pitfalls to avoid

Avoid these five pitfalls as your leadership team prepares to share your partner candidate criteria:

  • Making a perceived promise. Make sure your program document explains that leadership reserves the right to prioritize partner-candidate criteria differently at different times in the firm’s life, depending on market conditions and succession demands. Ensure that your up-and-comers understand that new criteria also may emerge for consideration.
  • Allowing your criteria to grow stale. The fact that the average book of business under management by partners has grown steadily in recent years is an example of how market factors will drive changes to your criteria over time. Review this document annually and publish any changes you make to it.
  • Factoring in tenure. Realize that your best partner candidate at a given time might not be a senior, based on the needs of the firm and partner group. Don’t be afraid to let a “junior” up-and-comer leap-frog someone with seniority who meets many criteria, but perhaps not those that are most important to the firm at that moment. Be clear that seniority is not a criterion.
  • Being hypocritical. Be sure not to publish criteria that do not match the existing partner group unless you expressly acknowledge this and explain why it is that you have changed expectations from when your current members made the grade.
  • Publishing and discouraging. This program is intended to provide clarity and motivate maximal performance in those who desire to become partner one day. Be sure your partner criteria are not so lofty that even your finest professional will feel uncertain or discouraged. It’s OK to hold a high bar for performance, but again, not higher than you can cross yourself.

According to the AICPA’s 2011 PCPS Top Talent Survey, the career attribute most valued by prospective and existing staff is the opportunity for career growth. For many, this career growth means getting on, and staying on, the path to partner in your firm. Help your potential partners find their way by defining and publishing your firm’s partner admission criteria today.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success.