The Right Stuff To Be Partners: 12 Must-Haves

What IS the right stuff…to earn a promotion to partner?  Ask 10 partners from different firms, you may get 10 different answers.  I have worked the following script dozens of times at partner retreats:  I ask the group everything it takes to become a partner and write their responses on a flipchart.  When we’re done, one of the partners yells out “Oh no.  None of us qualifies!”  And because the truth is often said in jest, this retort is no joke.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every partner in every firm was a star partner?  For almost all firms, this is an impossible dream.  So how high should the bar be raised – realistically – to become a partner?

This post lists 12 traits that the better firms commonly identify as the right stuff…to become a partner.

  1. Build great relationships with clients. So much so that clients are equally comfortable calling or talking to the partner potential than the PIC.  This is not limited to sociability.  It’s about partner-potentials being able to show clients that they are sharp, engaging, responsive professionals that have the knowledge and experience to truly help solve their problems, that they add value.
  2. Credibility with the staff for being a great trainer, supervisor and delegator; someone the staff see as being able to help them in their career, not just someone who has a higher title.
  3. Ability to mentor staff and help them learn and grow. This is different than #2 above, which is how the staff see the partner-potential.  This is about what the partner-potential actually does to develop staff.
  4. Good communication skills. Able to be clear and effective in oral (face to face and telephone) and written (emails and texts) communication.  Ability to be persuasive with clients, staff, partners and referral sources.
  5. High energy; great attitude about their work and passionate about the firm. Willing to do what it takes to get the job done, while still maintaining a work-life balance.  Healthy work ethic.
  6. Trustworthy. This is not about stealing money or committing other illegal or unethical acts.  Instead, this is about partners feeling they can trust the person’s judgment, that they will not take shortcuts, will not put the firm in danger.   And finally, it’s about other partners feeling good about being able to call the partner-potential “my partner.”

    CPA Firm Succession Planning: A Perfect Storm is a must-read for firms focusing on staying independent.  This book addresses ►how to assess your existing staff ►leadership development ►MP transition ►governance structure needed to remain independent ►client transition ►partner buyout plan ►partner buy-in plan  


  7. Team player. Is this person a “me” person or a “we” person? Looks to do what’s good for the firm before doing what’s good for themselves.  Helps others – not just “willing” to help others, but actually helping them in areas such as cross-selling, involving others in their clients, not hoarding billable hours and clients, etc.
  8. Be a self-starter. Develop a reputation for reliability and timeliness.  Someone who gets things done.
  9. Self-confidence.
  10. Leadership. The world is made up of leaders and followers.  There are way more followers than leaders.  That makes leaders special and that’s important because, to be a partner in a firm, one needs to be special, to stand out from all the rest of the staff. People want to follow leaders.
  11. Comfort with practice development. This doesn’t mean a person needs to be a rainmaker.  But they truly believe in the adage “you can’t not try” when it comes to developing business.  Should have a healthy attitude towards PD and actually devote a meaningful amount of time on a continuous basis to PD practices that are effective (i.e., not taking your best friends out to lunch all the time).
  12. Perform work at a high level. This does not mean that to be a partner, one has to be technical guru.  But it does mean that when partners have technically complex, demanding tasks or projects, they are comfortable delegating them to the partner-potential because of the confidence they have in them to perform at a high level.  Acid test:  For the most part, when the partner-potential submits work to a partner for review, very few changes are required.
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