Seeing beyond the numbers on the road to partner

Feb 10, 2020
Becoming a partner in the firm is often the goal when accountants go into practice, but it’s not a walk in the park. Jackie Banner outlines four key steps on the road to making partner.

Making partner is the end goal for many who go into practice. The status, financial compensation, and endorsement of one’s skills and expertise are all obvious draws to progressing to this level. Then there is the opportunity to effectively become a ‘business owner’ with responsibility and influence over how the firm is run. This latter piece sounds simple in theory but requires the right considerations and capabilities to execute. 

We can’t gloss over the technical competency that is required to make it to partner. Possessing exceptional domain knowledge in your chosen area of expertise is fundamental to any move upwards. Eagle-eyed attention to detail and a holistic view of the business as a whole are also required to consider yourself technically sound. With a rapidly changing business landscape, the burden of knowledge is significant, and can lead a potential partner to focus too heavily on the technical side alone. 

The most common missteps that senior level accountancy professionals make in the race to partner have to do with the investment in their own leadership ability,  relationship management and ability to think like someone who’s running a business or a profit-and-loss account. Here’s how to tackle these key steps to making partner.

Invest in your leadership ability

Over the last six decades, leadership scholars have conducted more than a thousand studies to determine the definitive characteristics and personality traits of great leaders. Out of all the research, not one unanimous, best practice leadership archetype has emerged.

Prevailing opinions on the best leadership styles are replaced as quickly as the latest iPhone. However, there are some common through lines in many of them that you can draw from. Whether it’s Six Sigma, values-led leadership, contingency theory (which in itself says there is no one ideal leadership style), communication methods, humble leadership or any number of other theories and best practices, be sure to establish a combination of leadership qualities that best align with you as a person and as a leader. 

Signalling that you have the right level of ambition necessary is also required. This is demonstrated by how you carry yourself, your communication style, and interactions and relationships with colleagues and clients. Combine these with that aforementioned oft-ignored investment in yourself to build your own definitive leadership style. 

Vision and strategy

The most common piece of feedback we hear from nomination committees or hiring partners about unsuccessful final interviews is that the candidate lacked vision in their pitch. At this level, technical competency is assumed. You will be speaking to peers who are equally, if not more skilled than you. They want a business leader to sit alongside them; someone with a new perspective that can bring energy and excitement that will contribute to business growth. 

Presenting a forward-thinking, clear vision that will grow not only your business unit but add to the company is perhaps the most valuable thing you can do to be perceived as someone ready to make partner. In practical terms, that vision should translate to an actionable business plan. 

When preparing, think strategically about how you’re going to generate earnings, develop a client pipeline, and hit the figures that justify your being chosen as an equity partner. A partner needs to ascertain what those expected figures are for the firm with which they are interviewing. This means crafting a realistic three-year plan to grow revenues at a level that a partner needs to be commercially viable, which is firm dependent. 

Relationship management

We all need a sounding board to bounce ideas off of or to go to for advice. Therefore, your network and your professional relationships should be a priority on the road to partner. Partners, no matter what age or level of seniority, should have a mentor. 
As Chris Outram discusses in his book, Making Strategy Work, you need ‘co-conspirators’ on whom you rely to give their support when it comes to internal decisions and information-sharing across business units. This extends to stakeholder management both inside and outside your firm.  

Putting it all together

In an increasingly “what have you done for me lately?” world, contextualising the human side of the job is key. Trust your team to deliver while driving them towards a coherent vision by demonstrating effective leadership and building a sustainable pipeline of business. 

Sounds easy when you put it on paper, right? There is no doubt it is a huge challenge to make the leap but having a clear idea of what is required and how it should be presented is the first step on the road to partner. 

Top tips on the road to partner

1. Have a plan – Set targets and milestones for yourself to track your progress and professional development. Decide what you want out of your career and then work towards achieving it. 
2. Invest in upskilling – Find opportunities to develop your technical and soft skills. Invest in as many areas as are available to you.  
3. Specialise your skill set – Practice experience is broad and often provides exposure to a wide range of skills and experience, which is great. However, drill down and become a subject matter expert where possible. Be the go-to person in your network for a particular subspecialty.
4. Be flexible – In any business, targets move, circumstances in your or your clients’ business can change quickly. When unexpected events arise or a strategy or project scope moves, always think of yourself as a support for change and not a barrier.
5. Say “yes” – There will always be an element of a job or a particular client you’d rather steer clear from, but don’t. Always say “yes” when asked to take on something new or different.
6. Define your client portfolio and market opportunity – The more distinct your client portfolio is from your peers or your partners, the more likely you are to become a destination for referrals, hold client relationships, and see significant fee income potential in line with expectations for equity partner level.
7. Find a mentor – Find a peer who you admire and who has made choices you respect. Someone who is willing to be your sounding board and provide advice on how to achieve what you want in your career. 

Jackie Banner leads Practice Recruitment for Azon Recruitment Group.