Unicorns and how to create the perfect partner team

Unicorns and how to create the perfect partner team

Advice from learning and development specialists theGrogroup on how to create the perfect partner team in a professional services firm.

Have you heard the joke about the Unicorn, the perfect partner and the Loch Ness monster?


Recently, we decided amongst our team to ‘up the pressure’ on article and blog writing between us, and aim to write as much ‘real time’ stuff as we can. So if we see it and we hear it, let’s just write it. Which is tricky during a day of back to back commitments.


But…. I’m giving this a go. I have just put down the phone following a conversation with an old work colleague of mine. After a brief catch up about what we are both doing career wise (and how much the Learning and Development team at the old firm had helped him build his confidence …. Thank you my friend!!) we moved on to a big question that he was looking for advice on.


“…How do we go about building a stronger partner team…?”


Some background here: His firm is undergoing change, with several partners retiring and is looking to re-brand (something a little more ‘appealing’). There are several senior managers with potential and a couple of very strong ‘technical’ directors who could make it. He also thinks that several of the existing partners (himself included) could do with some support and ‘training’.


This scenario, and need, is very typical of many firms that we have talked to and support. Which is hardly surprising…. strong partners are the key to a strong firm.


Now it would be tempting (and financially rewarding!) for a business like ours to jump in straight away with offers to help. Think Leadership Development, Business Development, People Management and Strategy programmes, Partner Competency frameworks and Partner assessment and promotion processes. And all of these have real value.


But never without clarity around the objective. Understanding clearly what you are wanting to achieve. Diagnose before prescribing.


So… what exactly is a strong partner? And a strong partner team?


And this was the question I put to my old friend.

Him: “well…. Very good at….ermmm client relationships, delivering, business development, driving the business, the people stuff…and ideally strong technically too”

Me: ‘Ok….. anything else?’

Him: “Oh…confident, a good communicator, ideally inspiring… and driven’.

Me: ‘Got it…thanks. And the strong partner team?’

Him: ‘well…. Yes. A team full of these very good partners’


Now I have used slight poetic licence here to help with the theme of this article, but the underlying message is common. When we are asked to help with partner development the starting position is… “they need to be strong at everything.”


We have been involved in numerous partner assessment centres where the balanced scorecard approach has required extremely high scores in every area of defined competence for the candidate to be successful. Which is tough. We have seen some fantastic people with excellent client relationship talents be rejected for partnership as they are not strong at business development. Or natural people leaders turned down as technically they don’t hit the mark.


Is this approach realistic….can the perfect ‘all round’ partner actually exist?


In our opinion, if perfection is defined as being excellent at everything, then no. Instead, if it is defined as being excellent in one or two critical areas which add significant value to the business and drive the firm’s strategy then… Yes.


And if a group of partners with a balance of diverse and complementary areas of excellence can be formed, then certainly a ‘strong partner team’ is very achievable.


So… back to the beginning. The start point for any firm is to define the areas of excellence or business critical strengths that underpin success. And separate out the absolutely essential, core behaviours that are required from every single partner. Here is an example we prepared earlier…



So every partner needs to demonstrate these core behaviours (blue squares). These are a fundamental and certainly not unrealistic, as these are not about skills or strengths, but about how partners act. They are ‘controllable’ choices.


The red circles allow every firm a degree of choice. Every partner does not need to excel in every red circle…the business critical strengths. Because this is just not realistic.  Obvious partner level performance (or excellence) in one or two areas is enough. And each of these areas is of equal importance. If someone is a natural at creating those strategic linkages required to design a business plan or launch a new service line then its important to make the most of that talent. It’s forgivable if people management, no matter how hard they try, is just not their thing. And a partner who runs a great client portfolio doesn’t need to be ‘out there’ in the market or pitching for business if they are uncomfortable and cumbersome doing this. Although they will need to meet the (blue square) capability to cross sell..


What is important is ensuring the right balance within the partner team across all of these essential, business critical strengths.


Once this ‘definition’ process has been completed then development programmes, promotion processes and performance management systems can be absolutely aligned to both the business and the individuals for maximum effect.


‘Who’ can make partner is an argument for another day. Just quickly though…there are examples of firms who have created pathways to enable anyone who demonstrates excellence in business critical strength areas, and adds clear value to the business, to make partner. And examples of front desk staff who have made partner based on their impact on clients and thus the firm’s strategy.


So… the Unicorn and the Loch Ness monster don’t exist. But plenty of partner’s are perfect. It’s just a question of definition and ‘firm fit’…


We would love to discuss how we can help you define the qualities you need to develop your firm to its potential, creating and supporting initiatives to build strong partner teams so please get in touch on 01892 610060 or email alex@thegrogroup.com.


theGrogroup specialise in helping Professional Service Firms grow business results by optimising: strategy, talent, business performance and business development.