Partnerships: Lessons from the Army

A little over a year ago, I read a fantastic book by Thomas Ricks title The Generals:  American Military Command from World War II to Today.  It is a fantastic book on leadership, vision, character, failings, and resurrection.  For over a decade, I have been part of a chorus of colleagues wailing against the Partnership Model for CPA and other professional knowledge firms (PKFs).


As an outside observer of local, regional, national, and global firms, I have first hand witnessed the daily dysfunction that the Partnership Model creates and the carnage it leaves behind.   Partnerships as they are formed are more about protecting their firm’s bounty rather than increasing it.  Partnerships are more frequently about inequality among a band of supposed equals as it about collectively working together for the benefit of the firm.  Partners within partnerships are more frequently rewarded for individual actions rather than firm driven results.  Partners in partnerships more frequently sacrifice others before they sacrifice themselves.  Partnerships destroy more value frequently than they create even when their measured numbers increase, the toxins of the partnership permeate thorough the firm and its human capital.

Compare Partnerships with the Army.  Both have an overall mission/vision.  Both have groups of individuals, each with a personal vested interest in the success of the organization.  Both have to learn how to nurture a process for finding, recruiting, and retaining talent.  Both have specialists.  Both have career paths.  Both have roles that focus inwardly on producing results while others have roles of interfacing outside the organization.  The list of similarities could continue.  Ultimately a Partnership shares a lot with the Army.  Except in one major distinction.  Leadership.

The Army treats ultimate leadership differently.  Yes, the Army promotes within their groups and specialties. The Army rewards for time served and skills learned, just like Partnerships.  Except for the last major promotion, the processes are similar.  It is the last step that separates the Army from the Partnership and it is this last step that truly matters.  The Army transforms a soldier during the promotion to General.  Generals leave the insignia of their specialty behind.  They become Generalists.  Generals aren’t merely superior rank, they are to be the superior leaders of the entire organization and not just their current assignment to a Company, Brigade, Division, or Outpost.  As Ricks writes (p. 35 of 1407 on my iPad (how does one site a page when we can change the font?):

As brigadier generals, the newly promoted officers are instructed in a special course – they no longer represent a part of the Army, but now are the stewards of the entire service.  As members of the Army’s select few, they are expected to control and coordinate different branches, such as artillery, cavalry, and engineers – that is, to become generalists.

Compare the above to Partnerships.  Partnerships promote within their current groups.  They do not promote leaders for the benefit of the firm. They promote within their departments, or offices, and silos.  This is a mistake.  It leads to the continuation of the status quo. It leads the the hoarding that stops cross selling.  It leads to the world of Me instead of We.  It leads to choosing to benefit internally rather than externally.  We promote and reward the specialists at the time and leadership position that requires a generalists.

Substitute Rick’s terms of artillery, cavalry, and engineers for tax, audit, and consulting.  Partners in firms should be leaders of and for the benefit of the firm and not just their department.  They should be able to lead across the platforms and not merely within their chosen field.  Managing Partners should have demonstrated true multidisciplinary leadership by having lead in all departments and divisions with only one goal:  enhancing and protecting the firm.  This is why MPs should never have customer responsibilities.  the firm is the customer.  Partners should have leadership responsibilities first, including vision, nurturing, coaching.  Let the senior managers (think Colonels , Lt. Colonels, and Majors) provide the services, direct customer leadership, and technical review.  That is their speciality.  Partners should be their visionary leader with their hearts and minds on the organization and its components and not about the working papers that are collecting dust on their floor or credenza.

The Partnership Model is broken.  It regularly destroys value and interferes with the firm’s future.  When reality finally sits in and the firm  tires of listening to the mundane voices of the common consultancies, look to the Army for wisdom.  Promote leaders with vision and make the generalists and have them direct across the organization.  In this way, the firm flourishes, egos diminish, and the customer is truly served.






  1. Dan,

    Great post, I agree completely. CPA firms (except for the largest ones) are simply not run like businesses, and they impede their own success as a result. There should be far more attention at the partner level – at least insofar as partners in charge of particular services or industry verticals – to the things you describe. Instead, the focus is on which client relationships belong to who and how many hours are billed. A partner’s success in developing a team that provides great service and can bring in business is recognized less than the partner’s own individual ability to bring in business or bill hours. In other industries the ability to delegate is rewarded; in CPA firms the incentives can actually go against it. In no other business would the top executives be evaluated in this way or expected to be as hands-on with day-to-day customer minutiae. This comes at the expense of superior vision, strategy and growth. Isn’t building a business ultimately far more satisfying than reviewing workpapers?

    Jim Caruso

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