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First 100 Days - Transitioning A New Managing Partner


     By Patrick J. McKenna Leading Law Firm Strategist

PhoneCall Patrick J. McKenna at (800) 921-3343 / (780) 428-1052


It may not be fair, but it’s true: Your first few months as Managing Partner—the time when you are just starting to grasp the totality of your new job—may well turn out to be the most crucial in setting the stage for a tenure that hopefully should last for years.
In spite of how well your peers might claim to know you, during those first few months, your formal decisions, informal behavior, and symbolic acts will be closely scrutinized. Everything you do and say will send messages, set tone, establish expectations, and communicate direction about what is of priority to you.

While these first 100 days represent a unique window of opportunity, they also hold the potential of your being easily misunderstood. How quickly you move may have your peers categorizing your management style as either rash, purposeful, or indecisive. Whom you consult with, on your first decisions, will feed the notion that you’re inclusive, authoritarian, or even playing favorites. People may rush to label you as fair or arbitrary; a visionary or a cautious bureaucrat. Some may even be looking to test your authority.

Your initial decisions will shape perceptions of you that may last for years. In addition, the breakneck speed at which everything moves today will allow you little time to ease into your new role. It sounds trite, but the key to your success is to approach this crucial time in a systematic way.

A new managing partner always signals a feeling that change is in the air. The incumbent is often eager to tackle the most obvious and fixable problems. And, a sizable percentage of partners expect new firm leaders to make changes. So how can you, as a new leader, best take advantage of the change-friendly (if not change-demanding) climate? The findings of my ongoing managing partner surveys combined with my working knowledge of how leaders handle (and mishandle) their early days suggests the following action steps for tackling your new responsibilities:

• Begin Before The Handoff

Before you consider what might be your highest priority in the first days of your new leadership position, you might want to think about the period leading up to your officially taking office, the stage I call the “countdown period.” What can you do to improve your chances of hitting the ground running between being elected the new managing partner and finally taking the reins?

I believe your job begins the moment that you are confirmed as the new managing partner, irrespective of the fact that you make not officially take office for a number of weeks (or months). You need to use this time to schedule numerous meetings and consultations with key individuals as well as plan your first few weeks in office.

Position yourself as a leader who is eager to listen to the opinions of your peers. Seek their guidance, and welcomes their advice and feedback. You will definitely want to meet with any partner who was also a candidate for your job to obtain their support and determine how you might utilize their continued involvement. Interestingly according to one new managing partner, “the answers that you get to any questions that you pose to your colleagues will be significantly different before you officially take office as compared to what you will hear after you become the new managing partner.”

Build a working relationship with the departing Managing Partner. Spend time listening, seeking your predecessor’s input, and demonstrating that you appreciate his past achievements and the legacy that he is handing off to you. In many cases your predecessor will remain active in the firm, returning to their practice, perhaps even continuing to sit on the Executive Committee.

Meanwhile, you may want to cancel some initiative that this individual worked hard to put into place or alter a strategic direction that this leader championed. It can all make for a rather awkward and potential conflict of egos. Yet most departing leaders care deeply about the firm and are willing to help their successor, even when that successor in convinced that a new direction is needed. The departing leaders knowledge, insight, ability to anticipate problems and their internal contacts (favors owed them by other power partners) can be invaluable. All they need is for you to appreciate their past efforts, show some empathy for what they may be going through emotionally as they retire from their leadership office, and ask for their help.

Create constructive dialogue with key thought leaders and power brokers within your firm. Many of these individuals may be members of your firm’s Executive Committee. You need to meet one-on one with every member especially those who are your most influential or critical peers and those who may have a direct opinion and impact on your ultimate success. My experience confirms that you also need to identify the “board within the board”- that faction of partners on the Executive Committee that wield disproportionate power.

Prior to your being elected managing partner, if you have not served on the Executive Committee, been a practice group leader or interacted regularly with the firm’s management, your investing time to understand the internal power politics must begin before you officially assume office.

Tie up loose ends with key clients. You will want to meet with your most important clients to explain in-person the transition you are making with your responsibilities and how it could likely affect the manner in which you will interact with this client in the future.

Try to deal with sensitive problems before you take office. There may be those occasions where you will be faced with either needing to remove an incompetent individual (administrator or practice leader) soon after assuming your new position, or having to wait a respectable time before taking remedial action. An overlooked alternative is to have the Executive Committee or departing managing partner make the necessary changes in advance of your first day. In one case the exiting managing partner convinced a couple of dysfunctional practice group leaders that she and they should retire their leadership positions together in order to allow for new blood to flow freely through the firm.

• Plug Your Gaps

Figure out what you need to know and learn it as rapidly as you can. Several managing partners have reported that they wish they would have had a chance or made the time to acquire some important skills or know-how that would have made their new lives easier. The period before you officially take on the new job may be ideal to assess and compensate for any identified shortcomings. One managing partner told me that not fully understanding accounting was his mental block file. “I wish I had spent a couple of days away at a course learning how to interpret the intricacies of monthly financial statements.”

Consider that there may be a wide range of methods available to you to address any shortcomings. You could take a crash course in a particular skill area; meet privately with an external industry executive or technical advisor; hire a personal coach or consultant; or get mentored by the former managing partner or current executive director. Whichever route you choose, you must carefully assess whether your past experiences and skills have prepared you or whether there are some gaps that you should address before actually starting the job.

Establish your advice network. Those who have an interest in your success can provide vital feedback and counsel. And, if you have internal trusted advisors who enjoy credibility within the firm, they can be influential in serving as a sounding board, guiding your actions, supporting your positions, and encouraging compliance to implement your agenda.

In a few instances (far too few I believe) a managing partner has been known to look outside the firm, to obtain both impartial and experienced counsel, from accomplished business leaders who have often experienced similar challenges and have a feel for what works and what may not. (See my article: The Logic For Having An Advisory Board)

• Establish Performance Standards

You will want to determine with the Executive Committee as a group, their perceptions of the firm’s current situation and what they think your priorities as a new managing partner should be. You want to define the specifics for how they expect to make decisions; how they prefer to receive information (e-mail, voicemail, in-person, or some other mode); and the frequency with which they would wish to receive progress reports. Your primary focus should be directed toward listening, probing to obtain a deeper understanding and not offering any opinions.

Negotiate your specific metrics for success. It is vitally important to identify and agree upon what you and your Executive Committee perceive as the new managing partner’s mandate and what the new managing partner must do to be successful. These specific metrics will serve to help you formulate your short-term burning issue and longer term management priorities.

• Seize Your Day

On day one provide an outline of what people might expect and promise only what you are fairly sure you can deliver. One managing partner confided that projecting confidence without necessarily making promises was his hardest challenge on the first day.

Pay attention to personal habits. Imagine yourself projected on a 50-foot screen by a video camera. Every move you make as firm leader will be subject to discussion and interpretation. That includes how early you arrive at the office, how you relate to people in the hallway, how you allocate your time, and how thoroughly you prepare for your first meetings.

In those instances where circumstances demand that the new leader take quick decisive action, scheduling some kind of forum where people can all hear what that you have to say, at the same time, goes a long way toward clarifying communication and squelching unproductive rumors.

Within days of his appointment at Anderson Consulting, the new CEO held a partners’ meeting in which he and several members of the Executive Committee took questions from their colleagues, broadcast via satellite to 39 locations around the world. This monumental effort gave everyone access to the new CEO all at the same time and created excitement about his new appointment.

Make symbolic gestures. One managing partner, in acknowledging the accomplishments of her predecessor with respect to growing the international side of the firm, announced that she wanted to schedule the next annual partner’s meeting in London to signal the continuing importance to the firm’s growth of building overseas markets.

On his first day as president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, Chris Komisarjevsky went to the basement of worldwide headquarters in New York City and shook the hand of each employee until he reached the executive floor-13 floors above.

Convey basic information. It may be too early for specific details about your plans, but you should convey the basic values that will serve as your framework for making future decisions. This is a good time to identify one or two aspects of the firm culture that you want to preserve as sacred. Answer questions honestly. This is also the time to be clear about your management style. Doing so will save everyone from wasting valuable energy trying to figure out how to best work with you in your new position.

• Set Your Agenda

It has often been said that as a new leader, you will get a short honeymoon period in which to determine your direction – in other words, no one expects you to do anything much, too quickly. However, as increasing numbers of your partners begin to put pressure on you and your time with each passing day, your ability to control your schedule will evaporate very quickly.

As one managing partner cautioned me, “there is a natural desire to be establish yourself as highly responsive to issues brought to your attention. There are times, I have found, that being responsive has served to drag out issues that, if I had done nothing for a couple of days, would have resolved on their own without my input. Thus, while somewhat counterintuitive, there is some wisdom in not trying to immediately solve every issue that is brought your way. The art to it, of course (and the part that is obviously the most difficult to figure out) is deciding which issues need the managing partner's attention and which will resolve, perhaps more elegantly, without that attention.”

Identify your one burning imperative. While you may have a number of important objectives to tackle, to satisfy both your and the Executive Committee’s requirements, start with establishing only one key imperative. When people talk about getting everyone on the same page, this is the page they are talking about.

Your imperative should pinpoint that one critical area in your firm that demands attention; that area that offers the greatest opportunity to contribute to a dramatic improvement in performance.

Get critical partner buy-in. Draft a written statement of your burning imperative, why it is important and what impact it would have on the firm if action were to be effectively implemented. Share it with your key partners, one by one over the first weeks of taking office, and invite them to improve upon it. Collect their suggestions and support, and incorporate their views and suggestions into your final draft where appropriate. A shared priority can serve to drive everyone’s attention. Ensure that it is compelling enough to obtain your partner’s support.

Develop an action plan to implement your initiative. Start planning what you hope to accomplish by specific milestones.

One new managing partner, wanting to ensure that everyone understood that his number one declared imperative was to build strong practice teams, subsequently spent the first month visiting with every group, and attending every group meeting that was scheduled. He exposed himself to hearing about which groups were working effectively, which were dysfunctional, which were in need of extra resources or executive support, and which required a change in group leadership. He set out his vision and then asked people to help him realize it.

Launch a pilot project. Look for an area where you might initiate a pilot project that can be instigated immediately. Your project can serve to expose partners to new ways of operating (internal) or have them envision new approaches to viewing their marketplace (external). A successful pilot can set your overall plan in motion, energize people and yield some quick improvements.

• Exploit Early Successes

Equipped with a clear picture of your most important priority, you can proceed to create detailed plans for how you might secure and exploit some quick successes. Early wins are all about credibility and confidence.

Identify something that would not have happened had it not been for your burning imperative. People have enormous faith in leaders who are able to deliver even the smallest success. The brutal truth about executing on your priority is that it will always take more time than you think and it will usually take more resources than you expect.

For a new managing partner to publicly honor and call attention to significant milestones focuses the firm on priorities. In the early weeks call attention to small successes that align with what you identified as your one burning issue. You need to consciously be on the lookout for reasons to celebrate winning events.

Stay On Track

Fortunately, the first 100 days is more a term of art than a day of reckoning. Most managing partners report that their performance is only really evaluated after their first full year in office.

That said, you should think about what you need to do in three phases: get well connected with the views of your peers before the official handoff occurs; build your personal credibility within the first 30 days; and then focus your energy on achieving small successes towards the realization of your one burning imperative in the following 60 days. Look at this as a distinctive time when your firm has a tolerance for change and you have a unique opportunity to imprint your legacy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick J. McKenna
Patrick J. McKenna is a Principal of Edge International Inc. Since 1983 he has worked exclusively serving law firms and has worked hands-on with at least one of the top ten largest law firms in each of over a dozen different countries on issues associated with developing competitive strategies, improving profitability, client service excellence, and systems for effective practice group governance. Patrick is co-author of the International business bestseller, First Among Equals.

Copyright Patrick J. McKenna

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While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.
For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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