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When It’s Time for a Partner to Move On

Alex was one of two founding partners of practice deemed successful by staff and outside observers, but the remaining other four partners — one founder and three of the second generation — thought that he had considerably reduced his contribution. All five considered themselves to be good friends and putting the topic of partners' performance on the table proved difficult, so much so in fact that they asked The Coxe Group to help.

We met individually with each of the five and learned that all five felt good about the success and growth of the firm. We also learned that as the firm grew, Alex, a thoughtful and introspective practitioner who thrived when focusing on projects, became less comfortable with the obligations that went beyond project and dealt with firm strategy and operations. We also learned that the other four partners valued his creative contribution to projects and wanted to find a way to keep him engaged, but in a role and compensation that appropriately reflected value.

We identified and explored various options, ranging from all partners sharing in wide ranging responsibilities (the current situation), to Alex serving as a creative resource to many projects, to Alex having his own studio, to Alex leaving the firm and consulting to the firm on a project specific basis. We facilitated discussions among the partners and helped them conclude, with Alex's full concurrence, that he would head a studio that would undertake projects that he brought into the firm (under an "eat-what-you-kill" philosophy). In doing so, Alex and the other partners acknowledged that the role warranted lower compensation and lower ownership level than the others, and reductions to both occurred. The partners also left the door open to the possibility that Alex might want to return to his former role, and in doing so, if performance in the role were satisfactory, his compensation and ownership level would elevate.

The model worked well for two years, during which time Alex essentially had "a firm within a firm". As the firm within a firm became more and more self-contained, Alex decided it made little sense to take up space in the larger firm, and the partners concurred. As a result, Alex sold his remaining ownership and established a small firm. The partners remained on good terms thereafter, and occasionally Alex collaborated with his former firm on a project specific basis.

Some observations:

  • Ownership roles and structure that work in a small firm don't necessarily continue as firms grow and evolve.
  • A firm benefits when issues at the ownership level are resolved…and suffers when they are not.
  • Allowing partners the prerogative of deciding individually whether they are subject to the performance input of their colleagues isn't likely to work well, despite what might be viewed as a privilege of ownership.