Achieving partner unity

Firm leaders need to be on the same page to bring optimum results to clients.
By Cheryl Meyer

Keeping a firm’s entire leadership on the same page can be difficult. These tips from experts can help firms develop the cohesion that leads to success.

Create a common understanding. How should partner unity be defined? "It's an agreed-upon set of values," said consultant Steve Erickson, CPA (inactive), who specializes in resolving partner and people issues at accounting firms. It's about partners giving "unanimous approval of any program or venture or decision," said Gregory Porter, CPA, co-founder of Berntson Porter & Company PLLC in Bellevue, Wash. According to Gary Adamson, CPA, president of Adamson Advisory, a CPA practice management consulting firm based in Centerville, Ind. "It means realizing that my personal views may not always win," but that the betterment of the firm takes precedence.

Follow the same path. Each partner's goals and efforts should reflect the firm's direction and strategy — and what is expected of partners should be defined early on. "All partners should know the goals of all the partners, which also encourages collaboration," Adamson noted. "Understanding what accountability means between partners is key."

Keep gripes behind closed doors. It's not good practice for partners to stay silent in meetings and then grouse later. "Speak up in the meeting and not in the hallways," said Rita Keller, president of Keller Advisors LLC, a CPA management consultant in Dayton, Ohio. She recommended that partners avoid venting later to employees not involved in the decision-making process. Partners also need to accept decisions made by the partner group, whether or not they agreed with them. "Grumbling outside of your own partner group is just a recipe to make your firm extremely undesirable," Porter said. "It's a cancer that infects the entire firm."

Develop a decision-making process. Don't throw an issue on the table and watch partners react and wrangle. Instead, put a practice in place for making key decisions. "I suggest that firms develop a decision matrix for each essential operational position in the firm which defines the decisions that will be made at that specific level," Erickson said. That's exactly what happens at Berntson Porter. For instance, partner compensation decisions start and end with the firm's executive committee, while decisions about who is admitted into the Principal Path Program start with the two founding partners and president (also a partner) but end with equity and income partners and the COO.

"The decision-making process starts at the highest level appropriate (or as defined by our LLC agreement) and trickles down to the appropriate final consideration level (or as defined by our LLC agreement), requiring consensus at each successive level," Porter said. "Regardless of where the final decision takes place, there is transparency of the issue and the decision to the entire principal group and, where appropriate, the employees through our monthly 'fireside chats.'"

Establish a performance-based compensation system for partners. Ensure this system is linked to your firm's strategy and goals and, if necessary, incorporate leadership training and coaching for partners. "Did Tiger Woods have a coach? Of course he did," Adamson said. "Why should we be any different? We can all perform better."

— By Cheryl Meyer, a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA associate director, at

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