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.

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare was Right!

Latest blog post about communication and how being more effective at it (which involves taking responsibility for ensuring the message is received) can make a big difference. It can be found here.

How would Charles Darwin see you?

DodoIt isn’t about survival of the fittest. Darwin actually held that the most adaptable were the survivors. So, are you and your business adapting or are you heading down the path of the Dodo?

The current environment is one where there are so many changes taking place that the firm of 20 years ago will find it hard to compete. I know looking at my business and the work we do that to produce our current output, 20 years ago we would have required a heap more people and resources. Thankfully, technology has developed and enables us to create the results etc that our customers want and need.

But, there are two other components that are vital – your people and your customers. Unfortunately, a lot of firms “out there” have taken on (some very grudgingly) the technological change, but they have made few, if any steps, toward adapting their approach to their people or their customers.

Most of my thinking here comes from the “Growth Curve” approach which looks at “Three Gates” – people, process and profit. The technology has helped us deal with and adapt to the process gate, but I am seeing very little in the way of adaptation to the profit or people gates.

The profit gate needs to be adapted to by looking at the way that you engage with your customers, the service you offer them and the methods by which you price and they value what they get from you. The arcane approach that is the timesheet is becoming less and less popular (as can be evidenced by a brief review of other posts on this site) and customers are demanding more certainty, clarity and comfort that they are not signing on to an annuity stream for the advisor whereby they are being charged and billed for the advisor’s inefficiency or learning. In effect, given the timesheet places the customer and the advisor in directly opposed positions, the customer is now waking up to the fact that they want to know in advance what the price for the work will be. Those firms that do not adapt to this emerging reality will find it very difficult to retain or attract customers where other firms out there offer this as an alternative.

The people gate is the other area where firms are finding it difficult or are not wanting to adapt. The blunt object that is the timehseet that is used for performance management in many firms is rapidly becoming redundant. As an example, we recently advertised for an accountant and one of the headlines in the ad was “no timesheets”. We have had some sensational applicants for the role who are currently working in accounting firms in town where they are managed and measured by the timesheet. I don’t know about you, but if my performance is being measured in 6 minute increments, it is going to be fairly meaningless to me. I want to be judged on results and outcomes. Inputs are irrelevant. Hence – particularly with our Gen Y guys – our people want to be and remain relevant and highly valued based on what they have added to the business, not how much time they have spent doing it.

Many of the firms with which I speak are afraid of moving from the timehseet and adapting their business model to what the world is slowly going to demand of them. These poor bastards are going to be wondering what hit them in about 5 years’ time when it will be all to late.

They will have few staff and fewer customers but they will be able to account for every single minute of their day.

They will be preceisely irrelevant.

And a future Charles Darwin will wonder why they chose not to adapt.

Are You a Diamond Cutter?

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Do you cut diamonds in your role? No, I recognise that we’re not really jewellers – we’re dealing with far more valuable and precious things than they ever do.

When someone comes into your business, they can be seen as either an uncut diamond or an unset gem. How you manage their induction and culturisation within your business will determine the sparkle and presentation that they eventually offer to you and the customers they deal with.

Many firms have the archaic concept that they can just give someone a computer and a phone and “let them at it”. With respect, they will then wonder why they have staff turnover issues and the morale and culture in the firm is not great or even toxic.

Selecting the uncut diamonds to bring into your firm is both an art and a science. It requires a deep knowledge and understanding of not only where you are but also where you want to be – as a firm and as the whole team within the firm.

Recruiting someone merely because they have a pulse and a degree/experience ain’t a guarantee of success. Getting to know what motivates them, what matters to them and letting them see the same about you (both at firm level and as individuals who make up the firm) is going to enable a far more successful/less stressful introduction.

I know in my firm, we take at least 3 meetings with other team members before I even get a look at the candidate! If anyone has reservations, they are tabled and addressed. We need to remember that everyone needs to work together and the new hires will either add to or detract from the culture that you have worked hard to establish (or are working hard to improve!) – getting it wrong can be a disaster.

The process of taking an uncut diamond (or even a rough diamond) to a sparkling gem as per Wikipedia – take the following and apply it to how you deal with your people – from initial assessment through the process of refining and cutting to produce a valuable gem that people want:

Mined rough diamonds are converted into gems through a multi-step process called “cutting”. Diamonds are extremely hard, but also brittle and can be split up by a single blow. Therefore, diamond cutting is traditionally considered as a delicate procedure requiring skills, scientific knowledge, tools and experience. Its final goal is to produce a faceted jewel where the specific angles between the facets would optimize the diamond luster, that is dispersion of white light, whereas the number and area of facets would determine the weight of the final product. The weight reduction upon cutting is significant and can be of the order of 50%. Several possible shapes are considered, but the final decision is often determined not only by scientific, but also practical considerations. For example the diamond might be intended for display or for wear, in a ring or a necklace, singled or surrounded by other gems of certain color and shape.

The most time-consuming part of the cutting is the preliminary analysis of the rough stone. It needs to address a large number of issues, bears much responsibility, and therefore can last years in case of unique diamonds. The following issues are considered:

The hardness of diamond and its ability to cleave strongly depend on the crystal orientation. Therefore, the crystallographic structure of the diamond to be cut is analyzed using X-ray diffraction to choose the optimal cutting directions.
Most diamonds contain visible non-diamond inclusions and crystal flaws. The cutter has to decide which flaws are to be removed by the cutting and which could be kept.
The diamond can be split by a single, well calculated blow of a hammer to a pointed tool, which is quick, but risky. Alternatively, it can be cut with a diamond saw, which is a more reliable but tedious procedure.

After initial cutting, the diamond is shaped in numerous stages of polishing. Unlike cutting, which is a responsible but quick operation, polishing removes material by gradual erosion and is extremely time consuming. The associated technique is well developed; it is considered as a routine and can be performed by technicians. After polishing, the diamond is reexamined for possible flaws, either remaining or induced by the process. Those flaws are concealed through various diamond enhancement techniques, such as repolishing, crack filling, or clever arrangement of the stone in the jewelry.

When having a read through the process outlined above, it occurred to me that the way we treat our uncut diamonds is vitally important to the outcome of the final gem. We also need to recognise that the setting into which the gem is going to be placed needs to be carefully considered – this has a big bearing on the design of the cutting process.

But, do we really adopt this process in the firms we run? Do we really value our people as potential gems worthy of admiration and even as objects of (for us vainglorious types), envy?

Or do we treat them as rocks – a commodity which is generally processed roughly (if at all) and not valued?

I know how I view this process. The jewellery bench is a wonderfully creative and deeply satisfying place to work. Far better than a quarry.

Ego is a Dirty Word

Do you treat your people like mushrooms?

I was speaking to a firm recently where the Partners would not let their staff meet with customers. They would not let anything go out of their office without the Partners reviewing it and signing off on it. In short, they were putting a lid on their people and effectively “bonsai-ing” their growth. Unsurprisingly, they were having trouble identifying people who could develop and create a succession plan for them and their firm. There was also an issue with staff turnover.

We have just been going through the Growth Curve X-ray process in our business and one of the aspects that we have identified is a deliberate “personal brand” development strategy for everyone in our business. This will see us work with each person individually and collectively to build their personal brand internally and externally. We are doing this because we have a fantastic group of people working with us and by investing in their development they and we will reap far greater satisfaction and engagement.

Many Partners and managers in firms seem to be afraid of developing the people they work with from a fear that these people might actually be better or more capable than the Partner/manager. Their ego is controlling the business and stultifying the firm as a whole. Effectively, the personal “issues” of the leaders of these firms will restrict the opportunity for the firm to flourish. I view this as akin to abuse.

How do you treat your people? Are you working with them to develop their “brand” under your brand and reputation? Or are you sitting on them and restricting their development?

I know which approach will create a happier, healthier and more successful workplace. And it will then mean that the only mushrooms you have are in your salad or the sauce on your steak.