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Jennifer Wilson
Jennifer Wilson

What Does It Cost to Keep a Producing But Problematic Partner?

June 28, 2010
by Jennifer Wilson

Let’s say you have a partner who manages a significant client base and consistently brings in new business. He or she produces more than the average partner in billings (either personally or under management or both) and is as bright and talented in their area of specialty as any other partner you have. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Ah, but let’s suppose this performing partner also exhibits un-partner-like behavior. Maybe he or she is snide or rude to others. Perhaps he or she is controlling and does not trust, so is not delegating, leveraging or developing others. Maybe your problem partner steamrolls conversations, stalemates decisions or dominates the groups he or she participates in internally. Perhaps your partner is selfish and insists on getting the lion’s share of compensation, shares, points or whatever units you use to drive the division of profits. Maybe your problem partner doesn’t always tell the full truth or complains about his or her fellow partners or leaders to others.

Unfortunately, firms with a producing, but problematic partner are not uncommon. As we’ve worked with partner groups with one or more problematic, but producing partner, we’ve observed that these groups often lack the courage to manage the producing partner to begin demonstrating agreed-upon behaviors. Some want to avoid the upset and conflict that will come from engaging in performance discussions with the problematic partner. Others fear that addressing the issue will further exacerbate the firm’s financial challenges, losing the partner’s production in the process. But while these firms endure their problem partner’s less-than-desirable behavior, their losses begin to mount, including:

  • Inspiration and motivation costs. When a partner group endures a problematic partner, people begin to lose the mojo for their work. These people no longer love coming to work and they begin to dread encounters with their fellow leaders, where performance may be discussed and conflicts arise or where the negative behavior is demonstrated and ignored once again.
  • Innovation and production declines. When you feel embattled and “stuck” with a problem situation, your ability to innovate and create declines, which can hamper your firm’s ability to compete and nimbly react to market shifts. As inspiration and motivation decline, so does your overall productivity, thus affecting the bottom line.
  • Erosion of respect for standards. When partners are allowed to behave in ways that are outside of agreed-upon standards, those who observe these “outlying” behaviors begin to believe that the rules of the group were made to be broken for those brave or “special enough” to do so, eroding respect for the standards themselves.
  • Reduction of respect and trust within the team at large. Most team members are aware of problematic partner behavior. These people want their leaders to protect them from bad behavior and adhere to standards of conduct that can be regarded and respected. Frequently, leaders with a problem partner talk about their disappointment or are upset with others and “gossip” without action erodes team respect and trust.

Affect of Problem Partners

If you’re not sure of the affect your problematic partner is having, evaluate him or her on the character and competence scale, which is a generally accepted way of measuring someone’s leadership abilities. Some put the relationship as a multiplication problem, in which

Character x Competence = Leadership Influence.

In The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M.R. Covey shares how important both character and competence are to building and maintaining trust.

We’ve been trying to illustrate the various character and competence combinations that may appear in partner groups and firm-leadership decisions around those partners. Below is our attempt to illustrate this and the performing, but problematic partner is in High Competence, Low Character quadrant:

High Competence, High Character

High Competence, Low Character

Making decisions on these partners is easy — you pay them well, promote them to further responsibility in the areas in which they are gifted and are happy to have them on your team. For many, partners that fall in this quadrant are the leaders of the firm.

Making decisions on these partners is the hardest, because they appear to have “all the right stuff” on the financial, client, technical and/or business development side — important areas! But these partners can sap your firm’s most precious resources — motivation, inspiration, innovation, trust and respect, too. Carefully weigh the cost benefit of partners that fall in this quadrant.

Low Competence, High Character

Low Competence, Low Character

Making decisions on these partners is harder, because you generally like them and feel they “fit in” well, but they don’t have the skills or abilities to pull their own weight. Most firms will invest in additional mentoring, coaching and education and move partners around in this quadrant to try and find their niche, but are still faced with sometimes having to ask a partner with lower competence to move on. Making decisions on these partners is also easy because they aren’t performing well and they don’t fit your standards for behavior. Most firms counsel them to either improve or leave the firm.

Conclusion

If you are avoiding a confrontation with a high competence, low character partner because you’re afraid of the financial consequences, you are not alone. I understand those concerns and would not counsel you to act rashly. You should consider the costs of accepting un-partner-like behavior and carefully examine whether the benefits you gain are truly worth enduring the problematic performance. I believe and have experienced, that the long-term benefits of addressing these partner performance issues far outweigh any short-term discomfort you’ll experience as you do it.


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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that specializes in helping CPA and IT firms achieve success.