Luck needs organising – How to start building your partner case

Martina Weinberger on February 29, 2016

I had lunch yesterday with one of my coachees. He had just heard back from his firm, confirming him as new partner. Over a glass of wine and amidst humongous smiles, I asked him playfully, what advice he would give to younger professionals:

“What does it take to make partner?”

And his response was:

“Luck and being in the right place at the right time”.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression: He is a very hard-working and brilliant young man. I had the pleasure of working closely with him, so you can take my word for it. This is also the answer of a naturally humble person. He would not want other people to feel bad; and he knows that not everyone  can get promoted. So of course his answer is true, yet it is far from the whole truth. As my favourite grandaunt used to say:

“Luck needs organising”!

So let me share with you what I have learned over more than 10 years of working with senior professionals, partner candidates and new partners. What did it take for them?

8 Tips for building your partner case, or “how to organise luck”.

1.    Start early.

  • The right time to start shifting gears and becoming more strategic? A good three years ahead of the point when partnership is a realistic option in your firm.

2.    Know the “rules of the game.”

  • You can only be strategic, if you know the “game” you are playing.
  • What does it take to be promoted in your firm? What is the process? The official one? What are the “hidden” rules? What does your firm look for? A proven business development track record? “Potential”? If so, how do they define potential? Likeability is always important, but different systems “like” different types. Working very hard contributes towards being liked in all professional services firms I have come across, but it is never enough. Some firms’ processes are very informal. It might be enough to have a few powerful supporters, others have intricate and extended vetting processes. They might formally or informally consider a whole range of things, BD, client leadership, team leadership, market knowledge, financials, etc.
  • How can you get clearer about what it takes, in your firm? You don’t know? What conversations do you need to have to find out? With whom?

3.   Become known – internally.

  • “All things being equal, people do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust” says networking guru Bob Burg. In my experience this is also true for partner promotion processes.
  • What can you do to develop a wide-enough internal network of people who know, like and trust you? Where will you start?

4.   Don’t make enemies.

  • This tends to be difficult, especially for some of my highly ambitious coachees. They are often experienced as too pushy. Most partnerships like success, but they do not like it if it comes dressed up aggressively.

5.   Manage your gremlins.

  • It is completely normal to ask yourself, is this really what I want? Most people feel gremlins and they feel them for many different reasons. So far all good and normal. The question is: What do you do with your gremlins?
  • I would advise to listen to them and use the energy they give you.
  • Honestly explore what partnership truly means, and what other options look like, when you look behind the scenes. Your gremlins are there for good reasons. (You can also refer to my blog https://www.togunaleadership.com/the-uncomfortable-comfort-zone/ if you struggle making up your mind about what to do).  To have a meaningful life or a great career, it is most certainly not necessary to become partner. It is not your only chance of professional fulfilment.
  • But beyond exploration, I would recommend managing your gremlins fairly closely. Share them with your coach, and a few trusted friends, of course. But if you have not completely ruled out partnership, do not broadcast them. Why not?
  • Pushing candidates at any professional services firm is hard work. It takes considerable commitment of more than one partner to truly back you. Unless partners are sure you actually want to see it through, they will find it difficult to stand up for you.

6.   Have a “story” and learn to tell it.

  • There are many people “doing the work” but not many entrepreneurs. How will you build your entrepreneurial “muscle”?
  • Most people find writing a personal business plan useful at this stage. Not necessarily easy, mind you, but useful. It will help you find the answer to some crucial questions, such as: What is it you really want to do? How you can best build on your strengths? What do you want to learn next? Which relationships you want to establish and build further? Ultimately a personal business plan will help you tell a convincing story about why you should be a partner.
  • Think in categories of growing current clients, cross selling, winning new clients, building your market profile and contributing internally… and start having more entrepreneurial conversations about these topics.
  • You don’t know how to go about writing a business plan? Drop me an email(martina.weinberger@toungaleadership.com). I am happy to send you an easy guide for a first plan.
  • It is not about the “perfect” plan, it is about developing your thinking. Getting focused. Preparing for different kinds of conversations with clients and colleagues, conversations beyond imminent projects.

7.    Beware: “the-safe-pair-of-hands” trap.

  • You excel at what you do? Your partners can rely on you completely? For anything they put on your desk? This is of course excellent. And yet: you might be in what I call “the safe pair of hands” trap. Your partners have much to lose if they promote you, but not much to gain (yet). What would you do in their shoes? Promote you? Maybe, but maybe not.
  • Ask yourself: What needs to be in your personal business plan that will shift this balance? What needs to be different to make promoting you a win-win?

8.   Enjoy yourself.

  • And of course my very wise coachee is right. It is also about luck, about being at the right place at the right time. So whilst luck needs organising, you will not have 100% control, no matter what. This might be frustrating, but it might also help to take some of the pressure off.

How about giving yourself permission to think differently about “success” and “failure”?

Most people have a tendency to blame themselves for failure, and attribute success to good luck. Which of course is the best way to make yourself miserable in the long run.

  • How about being more realistic and kinder to yourself? Give yourself a real chance “to be lucky”. Apply the above tips, do what is useful in “your system”.
  • When you succeed, you can honestly and without reservation congratulate yourself and give yourself the “luck-needs-organising-award-of-excellence”.
  • And if, when the time comes, despite your best efforts, there is no slot for you? Well, you have learned many useful skills, way beyond being a good or even an excellent professional. Moving on, you know it was a case of being unlucky. You were right, but the time and place were not.

I hope you will enjoy taking concrete steps towards organising your personal luck. And I am curious to hear:

What is working for you? Where do you struggle? What else do you think does it take to organise luck? I very much look forward to your comments.

In the meantime, keep smiling

Martina