How 17 Great MPs See Their Jobs

I recently updated my research on the role of the Managing Partner.  How better to do this than to poll great MPs from across the country? So that’s what I did.  I received responses from 17 MPs: three from firms with revenue exceeding $50M; 5 firms were $20-50M; 6 firms were $10-20M and 3 firms were $5-10M. As I expected, I received very eloquent, powerful and somewhat diverse advice.

The group cited 5 main areas, not listed in any order. 

Make the partners effective.  The common thread was this:  As the partners go, so goes the firm.  This is not to say that staff are unimportant because nothing could be further from the truth.  But like any great organization, success emanates from leadership and the partners are the firm’s leaders who drive success.

Old school thinking might have said:  “We’re partners.  We don’t need to be managed.  We know our job is to drive the firm and we know how to do this on our own.  We don’t need or want help from anyone.  In fact, we resent it if someone tries.”

New school thinking says,”Hogwash!  Everyone can improve their performance.  Sure, some partners are excellent performers on their own.  But the majority of partners perform better when they are accountable for their performance and behavior.  Partners are not entitled to an automatic waiver from oversight and guidance on their performance.”

Our MP group feels that making partners effective is a critically important part of their job.

  • Build a cohesive partner group.  If the staff see the partners working together, they will work together as well.
  • Help partners achieve their goals.
  • Hold people accountable and make them feel good about it.
  • Get the partners to understand and accept their roles; this way, they perform better and have a better chance of succeeding.
  • Don’t get too far ahead of your partners; if you do, they won’t follow.

Build great staff.  Firms today often say their staff are just as important as their clients…but only the well-managed firms actually walk the talk.  Sure, developing great staff involves the HR department and the mentoring of partners and managers.  But, it starts with the MP who must be active and visible in the firm’s staff-building efforts.  Here’s what our MP cadre said:

  • Be transparent; project excitement about the profession and the firm’s ability to thrive.
  • Effective listening; show the staff that you find their thoughts meaningful.
  • Ensure that the staff understand their paths.
  • Teach leadership throughout the firm.  Give staff great training in soft skills.
  • Effective college recruiting to get the right people on the bus.
  • Make everyone feels good about doing their job; create job engagement.

Communications.  Not only making sure people at all levels know what’s going on in the firm and what’s ahead.  But it’s also saying it in the right way. 

  • Transparency in communications creates trust; it must come from the top.
  • Be the face of the organization; the master communicator.
  • Be able to say no to people and not have them walk away mad.
  • Managing expectations.

CPA Firm Management & Governance is a must-read for partners who want to run their firm like a real business.  The book addresses ►Best Practices for managing and structuring the leadership group ►how decisions are made ►voting, ►how the Board functions ►partner role and expectations ►the Managing Partner ►organization structures for various firm sizes ►job descriptions of key management positions ►partner accountability


Strategic planning.  It was wonderful to see this show up so strongly in the response.  Poorly-managed firms often see strategic planning as something to do in your spare time.  This attitude usually leads to poor implementation and accountability.  But our MP group clearly sees strategic planning as integral to the firm’s success and are highly committed to it. 

  • Think strategically; long-term thinking vs. short-term.
  • Innovation and keeping the firm relevant; challenging the status quo.
  • Look forward and identifying problems and opportunities not yet on the radar.
  • Take risks and be OK with failure.
  • Conveying the vision throughout the firm is a great way to build consensus.

Management style.  Every MP has a unique style.  What works for some may not work for others.  We received an array of comments that I decided to group under the category of “management style.”  Here are the group’s pearls of wisdom:

  • Delegate duties; avoid the trap of the MP getting involved in everything.
  • Make decisions crisply.
  • You can never talk about quality too much (I love this one!)
  • Ability to make important decisions without knowing 100% of the facts.
  • Passion.
  • Ability to lead by example; the face of the firm.
  • Be humble and have thick skin.
  • Take none of the glory and most of the blame.
  • Be a servant leader.

WHAT WASN’T MENTIONED – AND THIS SURPRISED ME

  • Succession planning – doing things today that ensure the firm will succeed to the next generation.  Building future leaders.  This was cited by only 3 MPs.
  • Mergers – This year’s 20th Annual Rosenberg Survey  shows that 1/3 of CPA firms’ revenue growth came from mergers vs. organic growth.  MPs across the country are clearly devoting a substantial amount of energy on mergers, yet it was cited by only one MP.
  • Driving the firm’s growth.  Cited by only 2 MPs.

My interpretation of these “surprises” is this:  Clearly, these areas are very important and most MPs are addressing them.  But the 5 areas with the heaviest responses are more overarching, foundational and penetrating.  Perhaps these 3 areas with the low number of mentions are seen as operational items and as such, aren’t seen on the same level as the 5 heaviest items. Another possibility is that MPs see these three areas as subsets of the top 5.  In all fairness, I instructed the MPs to keep their responses short and sweet.  They listened!

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