CPA INSIDER

United we thrive, divided we fail

Brighten your firm’s future with six unity strategies.
By Jennifer Wilson

Most firm leaders take great care in devising and executing their firm’s strategies and pay little attention to the impact that partner unity and behavior have on their overall success. If you want your firm to thrive well into the future, make enhancing overall partner unity your No. 1 priority in the coming year.

When you do:

  • Your leadership team will accomplish more. Unified teams debate their options vigorously before making decisions. Change is effected with less resistance. New programs are implemented efficiently and thoroughly.
  • You’ll be more likely to keep your best people. Great people don’t want to work for—or with—leaders who can’t (or won’t) pull together and make things happen. And, with the labor market as tight as we can remember, you can ill afford to drive your best and brightest away because your leaders can’t get along!
  • Your firm will be worth more. Internal buyers are more likely to believe in—and invest in—your firm’s future, and your firm’s accomplishments and bench strength also will attract external buyers.  

So if you wonder if your firm is experiencing partner disunity, some common behavioral symptoms include when partners:

  • Bicker and/or behave disrespectfully in meetings.
  • Don’t express reservations with firm strategies or policies in leadership team meetings but instead express them later in other, less appropriate venues.
  • Talk negatively about a fellow partner or partners.
  • Refuse to submit to or follow firm policy, protocol, or procedures.
  • Actively encourage a lack of participation by team members in a firm or department program or policy—the “don’t-follow-that-procedure-on-my-clients” syndrome.
  • Do not consistently attend or participate in leadership team meetings.
  • Engage in backroom politicking to drive decisions or block change without transparency.
  • Don’t stand up to partners who are behaving poorly.

If behaviors on this list ring true for your firm, please know that your team members witness this disunity, and it affects them negatively. It slowly diminishes their respect for firm leaders. It erodes their motivation and excitement about the firm’s prospects. And it diminishes their personal productivity as they begin to spend time discussing the latest partner brouhaha with peers or get drawn into partner politics directly. Ultimately, partner disunity tarnishes your culture and the way it feels to work at your firm.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can encourage—even expect—true partner unity. Here are six strategies to help you get there:

  • Recognize that unity is not unanimity. You are unlikely to achieve 100% partner agreement on all key business decisions. You are not looking for every partner to love every aspect of firm policy and procedure. But you are seeking a mature, supportive response from partners, who regularly place their personal opinions and selfish interests aside and support the firm’s position because it’s what high-functioning leaders do.
  • Document expected unity behaviors. Include these behaviors in your firm’s written partner code of conduct and make adherence to them an expectation to participate as a partner in the firm. Measure unity behaviors as part of your firm’s partner performance appraisal and in your compensation scorecard. Reward great behavior and apply consequences for those who don’t behave as expected.
  • Encourage vigorous partner debate and active disagreement “in the small room” when strategies and policies are being considered. Be open to partner feedback and opinions and make it safe to speak out for—and against—proposed ideas. When you shut down or discourage partner table debate, you guarantee that any debate will occur outside of the room, under the watchful eyes of your team members in the hallways and at the water cooler.
  • Expect unwavering partner loyalty. Once debate concludes, all inputs are heard, and a decision is made under your firm’s governance procedures, expect loyalty from your partners. Expect your partners to support—and submit to—firm decisions as if they were their own, not breaking with the partner line, grumbling, or sabotaging the implementation of the firm strategy or initiative.
  • Develop and distribute a consistent position statement and frequently asked questions document for every significant business change. Support your partners in their quest to stay “on message” with key firm strategies and decisions. Provide them communications aids that enable them to consistently explain the who, what, when, where, and how of firm decisions to team members, clients, and other affected stakeholders. Without these aids, your partners will be forced to wing it and can appear to be “off message.”
  • Discuss the benefits of partner unity with your firm’s leaders regularly. Use the visual imagery of the childhood game Red Rover. Encourage your partners to figuratively “link arms” and commit to hold on—to the firm’s agreed-upon position or decision—no matter the circumstance. Help them understand that when the partners don’t have each other’s backs, it weakens the team, it weakens the firm, and it ultimately diminishes their asset—the firm.

High-potential team members want to believe in their leaders and the decisions they make. They want to be part of a high-functioning team where their leaders compete externally—not internally.

If you’re committed to having your firm be a vibrant, accomplished place where world-class contributors want to work, begin by truly unifying your leadership team. 

Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at convergencecoaching.com .

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