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PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FIRM PARTNER SEARCH: DIFFERENCES

By Jim Carlisle, Western Management Consultants, A Member of WorldSearch Group.

What is different about doing a search for a Partner of a professional services firm?

As many of you know, I spent 12 years as a consulting partner with Ernst and Young. The firm culture was strong, impeccable ethics, bright people and state of the art tools. Within my search practice, both at EY and now with Western Management Consultants, I have been fortunate to do a number of partner searches for audit, professional engineers, and law firm partnerships. They are different from the private sector, and here are my thoughts about what you have to do differently in these searches.

Getting to know the client:

You will likely work with a search committee comprised of 2/3 partners. Try to keep it to that number. One of the partners should be the point person and the one best qualified to “pitch the firm”.

Make sure you have thorough briefing meetings with key decision makers and influencers. Don’t short change yourself, as the following material is critical to your understanding of the firm:
• Culture
• Business mix
• Revenue
• Strategic plan initiatives
• Profile of successful Partner/performance criteria
• Expectation on chargeability
• Partner compensation package and capital requirements
• What is the firm’s commitment to technology and professional development?
• What do clients say about the firm?
• What is unique about your firm to attract a Partner from another firm?

Playback of your interviews:

Produce a report and get a sign off from the search committee. My experience is that partners forget what they say and this can be messy at the end. Anyway, they like something in writing.

Sourcing the candidates:

Although sourcing is critical to any search, it is everything in this kind of search. Every search I have done in this field is highly confidential and that is why you need a good script to profile with targeted individuals. You will have to use your judgment with a potential candidate as to when you say whom you are working for.

Based on a good telephone call, suggest an informal meeting live. These are delicate transactions and you really want to learn about the hot buttons over and above their qualifications. Consult more than interview. This is not unlike a search for a board member. The shortlist will be short and you need to pre-condition the client to that fact and are ready to move quickly.

The assessment and courting process:

Once you have buy in from the client as to candidate(s), a meeting should be set up with the candidate, client and yourself. The candidate at this stage may not be declared, so it is useful for you to be the facilitator and see if there is common ground. Assuming you achieve that level, determine how the two parties want to proceed. If it is a go, normally the client would bring one or two other partners into the process for the next meeting. Let that stage happen but help the client out with an agenda and get the candidate’s input. My experience is that these folks need a lot of handholding.

This next meeting is a two way street, that is, open book on both sides. The candidate is under the microscope, and the client is opening up more on the partnership. As the search firm, you will likely want to introduce behavioural interviewing into the process at this time

If this goes well, the client has to then think about how they present this situation to their other partners. If the candidate is warm at this time, you will need their permission to allow this to happen. Again, as the search firm, you may want to be part of a presentation on the credentials of the candidate and what it will take to make the deal. Reference checking should then take place. In our most recent situation, we in fact were able to speak discretely with clients.

The closing stages:

At this point, the candidate may need a lot of coaching help. You can help check off on motivations and do they match with the client and if so, begin to advise on exit strategy. This is when it gets complicated. How do I resign, what happens to my capital, particularly if there is not an exit strategy? Help the candidate script the exit meeting with as many options as possible.

The deal is pretty much between the candidate and the firm, and you just have to make sure they are in the right ballpark.

On boarding:

I would be very insistent on this stage. Again, professional services firms can be very loose on phasing in the candidate, and structure, timetable and expectations are critical to success.

In conclusion, the elements of the search process are the same, but attraction, courting and closing process are more complicated.

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