In the consulting world, becoming partner is seen as “the pinnacle of a professional’s career”. Rob Thomas, in a LinkedIn article in November 2017, described it further as follows: “Making partner is about getting as far as your skills will take you, and being rewarded for it.” Rob is from Cavendish Stuart, and is an “executive search consultant specialising in partner and team acquisitions” which gives him broad understanding of the professional services market, and specific insights into the journey to becoming partner.
This post shares thoughts from Rob’s article, as well as Protagion’s experiences in working with our members from professional consulting environments, including at the Big 4 (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC) and more broadly at other major and specialist consultancies. It is intended as a resource for those who are currently working in a professional consulting firm and those who are considering moving into one (recognising that it can take many rounds of discussion, interviews and vetting to join).
The appeal of becoming partner can include:
Among potential drawbacks are:
Given these drawbacks, some of our members as well as commenters on Rob’s article warn that partnership is not for everyone. Individuals should reflect on whether they have the ability to operate at partner level and the willingness to sacrifice other aspects of their lives. To sustain success, you must be happy doing what you do, and recognise the energy you will need to reach and maintain partner level. Rob warns: “fewer people are getting promoted, and it’s taking longer to be admitted”.
Rob highlights the following (overlapping) skills as necessary for partners at professional services firms, all supporting the ultimate aim of successfully running every part of your business area:
The ability to generate fee income is crucial to being a partner, both to meet immediate quarterly targets, as well as to grow revenue sustainably over the years. This is the biggest difference between the requirements of a director and a partner: “The ability to sell… is the most important attribute of a Big 4 partner. You can always find someone to do the work – it’s generating the work in the first place that’s the difficult part.”
While a change in behaviour and focus is needed when transitioning from director, the extra pressure can lead some new partners to change behaviours negatively – in order to be a successful leader for your teams, you must learn to manage these stresses. Rob advises: “In order to be a successful partner, and leader of the business, you must have a set of strong values. One of those is to treat your staff as well as you treat your clients. This is not just morally correct, but it is also important for long-term success, as the only sustainable competitive advantage that you have is the quality of your people (their skills, experience, attitude etc). It is important that the entire team buys into the vision for the business, and shares a common sense of purpose.”
The nature of consulting
Professional consulting works on a “leverage model” (explained by Pallav Chatterjee in the comments on Rob’s article as “where one individual leading a practice builds a chain of other professionals who grow working for him and replicating in [a] standardised and predictable way, only then [the] practice multiplies”). This underscores how critical people development is - “people are the core ingredients and what is being sold is intangible; therefore having good, motivated, successful people working for a leader works best to deliver excellence!” Rob agrees, adding that “financial rewards should also be shared throughout the team - ...in professional services the only sustainable competitive advantage you have is your people. Look after them!”
Sales in a professional consulting context
So, what does it take to generate fee income? Rob argues that in a professional consulting context, “sales come from hard work, resilience, asking the right questions, clearly identifying client problems, developing practical solutions, and exceptional service delivery. You must become an acknowledged subject matter expert, but knowledge is not enough. You must be out in the market building your network, developing long-term sustainable relationships. You must become a trusted advisor. In short, you should be a professional that sells, rather than a salesperson.” This balance of expertise and relationships is echoed by Protagion’s members, recognising that the importance of external relationships increases significantly as you reach higher levels, including partner. The career strategies of depth vs breadth in consulting were discussed in a previous Protagion article: “In Pursuit of Knowledge: Specialising vs Generalising as a Career Strategy”.
Suggestions for those who want to become a partner
Further suggestions for those new to partner level
Those of our readers at professional consulting firms, please share your experiences with us (even if under a pseudonym), including where you:
The original article by Rob Thomas can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/becoming-big-4-partner-rob-thomas/