Home Practice Management 6 questions to ask yourself about partner accountability

6 questions to ask yourself about partner accountability


By By Bill Penczak, at CPA Trendlines: The managing partner was trying to contain his frustration, but it was evident, even on a Zoom call. We had been reviewing the status of a focused market blitz, in which each of the partners was to come up with only three targets on which they would focus development efforts. When we reviewed the aggregated list, one-third of the partners had not responded to the request.

He was pissed, and I felt bad for him. Neither the carrot nor the stick approach had worked. And he was facing another example of lack of partner accountability, which I’m finding is one of the most common frustrations of firm management, regardless of size or specialty.

No firm runs perfectly, and partners, for the most part, have the right intention of supporting firm initiatives and improvements. But they get enveloped in client deliverables, dealing with unplanned people issues, and trying to keep up with billing, collections and WIP management.

But in speaking with one COO of a midsized firm, they pointed out that the partners who didn’t turn in their timesheets, didn’t keep their expense reports up to date, had the longest DSO and never found the time to enter pursuits into CRM were usually the same culprits. “There are always circumstances that occur, but the same partners are usually the repeat offenders. It sucks up energy, and time and political capital for the partners and the management team – time that could be better spent in any of a million other ways,” they added.

There is no magic bullet for a fully compliant partner group, but here are six areas to consider when trying to herd your highly compensated cats:

1. Do the partners truly support the strategy?  

Too often, new initiatives emanate from the top, down, and many times are subject to failure or the “GF” treatment (look it up in the Urban Dictionary). While the managing partner will never achieve unanimity on all issues, it is vital to solicit input, have a meaningful conversation, agree on the path forward and execute. The partners who are part of the process and either don’t communicate their opinions in the formative stages, or worse yet, degenerate the process after the conversation, need a strong talking to. Passive-aggressive behaviors are the worst, and those partners who continually undermine the wishes of the partner group should be coached out of the firm. A tough call, yes, but I can’t tell you how many times when a managing partner actually takes that step, others in the firm afterward would ask why it took so long to do so.

2. Are the partners properly managing their time?

Everyone understands that the professionals’ first responsibility is to their clients, and that there are always deadlines, surprises and unexpected activities. But how the partner balances their portfolio of responsibilities – clients, their people, managing their book and developing new business – is vital to a firm’s success. The wise managing partner will examine a partner’s skill sets, and seek ways to optimize their highest and best use, and find ways to augment their development areas. Every partner is different, and few possess the complete spectrum of skills. Collaborating with the partner in an open and candid format is the key to helping that partner, and in turn the firm, to succeed.

3. Are any of your partners acting like tenured professors?  

I can’t quantify this, but I have noticed a difference in the behaviors of equity and non-equity partners.The risk with equity partners is that they already have captured the brass ring, and run the risk of thinking they are above the law. Non-equity partners, their youth and ambition notwithstanding, are typically more prone to toeing the company line, jumping on or even leading new initiatives. The conversation turns to the topic of “lifestyle firm” in which some of the partners feel that maintaining the status quo is just fine, thank you. That’s probably the same conversation once heard in the halls of Blockbuster Video. Rather than allowing the “tenured professors” to rest on their laurels, firms should consider allowing them to focus on what they do best – business development, technical review or people development – and even evolve their roles within the firm.

4. Are your partners doing partner work?

The head of the very successful audit practice at a then $100 million firm developed and executed a simple but brilliant way of managing his department. At each level, from staff to partner, there were hour goals for each function (billable, business development, education, administrative), which shifted at each level. Staff was focused on education and billable hours. Partners had a more balanced time budget in those four areas. He was able to determine who was doing what, and if they were fulfilling the responsibilities of each level within the department. He wasn’t so pedantic as to draw lines in the sand about time, but the audit department constantly improved over time to ensure that the firm was optimizing the time and the talents of each individual.

5. Is partner compensation truly tied to firm and individual KPIs?

Every well managed corporation operates with a balanced scorecard of some sort, but I’m struck by how few firms do the same. Having a formal business plan for the firm, service lines and even industries is the first step. (The tool I’ve used with great success was developed by Jim Canfield in his book “CEO Tools 2.0.” Well developed individual development plans, with specific metrics at each level of the organization, are how the corporate goals cascade through the organization. And holding people responsible with regular reviews, dashboards and key performance indicators, tied to compensation, completes the process. Related are open or closed compensation systems, and the level of clarity of the partner comp and bonus model.

6. Do they need more/better administrative support?

Fewer and fewer firms have administrative assistants for cost reasons, or because partners have actually learned to type in the past 20 years. But much of the administrivia that falls on partners’ shoulders could likely be offloaded to administrative support folks. One IT company client of mine uses offshore (India or The Philippines) resources that cost about $7 an hour. At a $300-per-hour partner bill rate, the investment in a virtual assistant becomes cash positive after only one incremental hour of productivity. There are U.S. and Australian firms that can source offshore talent and provide QC on the process, so firms that may be reticent to take this path can find a better comfort level with the concept. (The Big Four firms have been outsourcing for almost 20 years – it’s time for smaller firms to leave their comfort zones.)

There is no panacea for herding the cats, but candid conversation in which you make your expectations clear, provide the opportunity for partners to provide input and create a definitive action plan are some of the keys to increasing the accountability of your partner group.