At first, Elliott Lee didn’t think being a partner was much different from being a senior manager. “The first three months after I made partner I felt like nothing changed,” he said. “I was still primarily worried about executing my day-to-day work.”
Then, a director he once reported to came to his office and said, “I’m looking to you for direction on where the firm is going.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, I really am in charge now,’ ” said Lee, a CPA who has been a partner in the disputes and investigations group at EisnerAmper in New York City for about a year and a half. “It gave me pause in terms of how I viewed myself. I realized I had to shift my mindset from simply doing my job to creating new business and forming a niche for myself in a saturated market.”
A whole new world
Firms put much time and effort into preparing prospective partners for their new role. Yet, as Lee can attest, the transition from senior manager to partner requires a significant change in outlook that isn’t easy to completely digest until an accountant actually becomes a partner. New partners must view themselves not just as employees, but as business owners. They’re no longer responsible just for themselves and their subordinates, but for helping set the direction of entire practice areas. They’re asked to create business, drive strategy, grow as leaders, act as firmwide role models, and become more involved in their communities. And, after rising through the ranks from a junior role to a senior role to a management role, they’re now tasked with setting and realizing their own career milestones.
The change in mindset required of new partners is so significant that it sometimes can take them a year or two to settle in to their new roles. Steve Kangas, CPA, who has been an audit partner with DK Partners in Austin, Texas, for four years, found he had significantly more responsibilities as a partner than he did as a senior manager. “I went from meeting the expectations of my bosses to meeting the expectations of my clients, as I was now running the business aspect of things,” he said. “I spent my first couple of years coming to terms with my new responsibilities.”
New partners need to learn that they can no longer handle both their new and old responsibilities and be successful. As driven, ambitious people, they can find it hard to relinquish control over aspects of their jobs.
But learning to delegate is a necessary skill, said Jodie Hewitson, CPA, who has been a tax partner at Tanner LLC in Salt Lake City for three years. “We like to think we’re all superhuman and that we can do everything ourselves,” she said. “But when you’re given new responsibilities on top of your old ones, you realize you have to hand a lot of your old duties over to others. You realize that certain people are now better suited to handling aspects of your job than you are because they have different skill sets, more time, or are ready to take on new challenges themselves.”
Aligning goals with firm objectives
To become partner, accountants progress through a strict hierarchy, climbing the ranks from junior associate to manager to senior manager to director. Once they become partners, though, career milestones typically aren’t as clearly defined. “You do feel uneasy when you’re no longer moving through a set structure,” Lee said. “It’s a different world. You determine your own objectives based on the things that the firm tacitly expects of you.”
Some firms do have formal goal-setting procedures at the partner level. At Tanner, partners report to a managing partner with whom they have regular accountability meetings. At audit partner Jean Smith’s firm, Ketel Thorstenson LLP in Rapid City, S.D., partners have yearly evaluations. At these meetings, Smith, a CPA, said, “We have fun and challenging discussions about our career paths. We set goals for everything from staffing issues to process improvement, soft skills, technical skills, marketing, and client development, and we track our progress on them throughout the year.”
New partners soon discover that their role enables them to set goals based on their skills, personalities, interests, and their firms’ needs. Hewitson, for example, who is her small firm’s only female partner, has focused on improving the organization’s onboarding process and increasing the visibility of female associates. Kangas is helping his firm make the transition to a perpetual life firm model (one that will continue after its founder retires). Other new partners set their sights on attaining new titles such as practice leader or managing partner, or seek to become the heads of committees at their firms or state societies.
Smith became partner at a time when her firm had just acquired another practice, and so focused on “melding the two cultures.” Now, she’s turned her efforts toward change management. “The way we operate the firm is changing, technology is changing, and we have different generations of employees who need different things in their careers,” she said. “I have a lot to offer in terms of helping the firm grow as the environment changes.”
Shifting focus from self to others
Perhaps the biggest mental shift new partners have to undergo is learning to concentrate on the firm’s growth as much as they do their own. “As a partner, you’re no longer the center of your universe,” Lee said. “Your actions affect so many other people that your priorities need to shift. It’s no longer about how you make yourself relevant, but about how you drive business and create strategy.” His decisions, he said, had a direct impact on morale: “I saw that my attitude and whether I won or lost business did affect the staff.”
Partners often find they need to focus on others’ professional growth as much as, if not more than, their own. “As a partner, your role is more about leading and helping others deliver on their expertise than being the expert yourself,” said EJ Nedder, a partner at McGladrey. “You manage client relationships while growing and mentoring people.”
Hewitson jokes that her new role as partner makes her wish that she’d taken more psychology classes in college because so much more of her job now involves “coaching and developing people and attending to their emotional needs.”
“There’s an art to working with employees,” she said. “Some days I take care of employees as much as I do clients.”
New partners may even find themselves mentoring the next generation of their firm’s leaders. “You have to think about how you help that next person become partner,” Nedder said.
Soft skills are essential
Accountants need both technical and soft skills to advance to partner. That development doesn’t stop after making partner. Most young partners have an area of expertise they’re known for, be it technical knowledge or business or staff development. After being named partner, they tend to concentrate on becoming more well-rounded by improving their skills in other areas.
“As a young professional, you’re a generalist,” Nedder said. “Then, you become a deep subject matter expert with the skills needed to do the technical work. As you grow into a leader, you start becoming a generalist again.” Hewitson sums it up this way: “One of the biggest things you learn is you can’t just be a technician and be a successful partner.”
New partners also must improve their soft skills. “I have had to build stronger relationship skills, especially with staff,” Smith said. “It’s different when you’re a partner. People don’t come and talk to you as much. You have to push yourself to become part of their world.”
Smith has found that she needs to be more proactive with both staff and clients. “The big picture is changing in accounting,” she said. “It’s not just crunching numbers and dealing with software. You have to work on improving your relationships with clients.” She’s working on training her staff to adapt to these changes in the profession as well.
Networking is another skill that is even more vital to new partners, who often work to become more visible and involved in their communities. Hewitson, for example, has joined a Utah Association of CPAs task force to help retain and advance women in the profession. Nedder serves on his company’s board, gives presentations on technical topics, writes articles, and attends networking and industry events.
“You’re the face of the firm,” he said. “You need to be out in the market. The more so, the better.”
What new partners need to know
To help adjust to the changes, newly minted partners should seek guidance from more experienced colleagues. “When you make partner, you sometimes think that you’re supposed to know everything, but really you don’t,” Lee said. “You can’t be afraid to go to resources within your firm and ask for help.”
Hewitson also found it helpful to lean on those around her for support. “Develop your own personal board of directors that you can share your concerns with,” she said. “They give you additional confidence and advice to help you adapt to your new role.”
New partners sometimes feel they need to prove themselves by working extremely hard. But the young partners interviewed for this article counseled against overwork, noting that taking on too much can lead to burnout. Nedder said that finding balance is a key to success. “Be well-rounded, not just in your professional but in your personal life,” he said. “Don’t think you’ll be successful just by working harder all the time. You need down time to regenerate.”
How can new partners know whether they’re successful? “You need to look at both the metrics and the intangibles,” Nedder said. “The reality is, this is a people business and a service business.
“Measure your success in terms of the growth of the business, in client satisfaction, and in how well you’re developing your people,” he said.
Courtney L. Vien is an associate editor for the AICPA. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4125.
- “How to Speed the Path to Partner,” March 2014, page 28
- “The 10 C’s of Great Leaders,” June 2013, page 33
- “How to Drive Partner Accountability and Unity,” Feb. 2013, page 32
Emerging Partner Training Forum, June 18–19, Durham, N.C. (#EPF15D), or New York City (#EPF15NY)
For more information or to register, go to cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.
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