Partner performance

When a small firm introduces a personal coaching programme for partners, there are definitely a few who look on cynically. Is it a bit of gimmicky self-indulgence, or is the firm chasing the latest management fad?

Neither, actually. The reasons for introducing partner coaching can be just as compelling in a smaller firm as in the much larger professional services firms, which have made such resources available for the last 10 years. It depends where you are headed and how quickly you want to get there.

There are sound strategic reasons for increased cross-practice business from existing clients and broadening your client base with appropriate new clients. Firms have to retain their people by providing interesting work and clear career paths. The aim is to create a culture and profile that attracts new people. All these objectives will lead to more competitive and sustainable profitability.

In most firms (or practice areas within firms), choice of services alone does not create competitive advantage. Research reveals that clients want more than the valuable personal relationship with, and delivery by, partners. They also want greater depth and breadth of teams, cross-practice area coordination and profile. In other words, success is the result of influencing current and prospective clients to buy, and positively influencing others internally so that strategy is achieved by combining and integrating individual skills, values, beliefs, attitudes, styles and behaviours.

The key to implementing this is, of course, partners. Partners, particularly those more recently promoted, are usually consummately trained as lawyers, but are not necessarily so equipped for the multi-faceted role of a partner. Put like this, it seems obvious that an investment of time and money in unlocking and developing those skills is fundamental to the strategy.

First, a firm has to establish a need and credibility. Partners, being cautious by nature, willingly share their scepticism about any proposals that do not have a directly obvious financial return. Partners might be persuaded, however, to try some coaching, partly because of previous successful work by an external trainer and partly because of the need to support a group of partners.

Then a method should be agreed. There is a need to form a working agreement between those being coached, their practice area heads and the external coach, as well as any management team members who support the programme, to bring coaching skills in-house. Next, hold one-to-ones with the coach to identify objectives and encourage action within a safe, non-threatening environment. Encourage the coached partners to hold peer-group meetings to share their experiences.

The outcome is great enthusiasm for the one-to-ones and peer-group sessions. Coached partners say they help: “with the psychological and practical aspects of getting new business; sort out my own agendas and priorities; create a more focused plan of action and take responsibility; resolve issues about how you work effectively as a team; learning how to take responsibility and control has been a massive help; thinking logically about things; and strategies for turning contacts into work”.

This is not a process for those who fear change – there is no doubt that it raises expectations. There will be opinions ranging from apostle to cynic – we are lawyers, after all. In our opinion the process adds significantly to a partner’s range of skills.

Martin Wright is chairman and head of corporate at Campbell Hooper