Want Fast Growth in a Partnership or Talent-Based Firm? Lead Quietly
- Volume XXI, Issue 72
- Executive Insights
When revenue and growth are generated by and depend on the buy-in of multiple producers and stakeholders, the most effective leaders take a different approach.
These individuals are quiet leaders who empower their people to think and act like owners, take responsibility for outcomes, and take pride in their contributions.
Quiet, supportive leadership may at first seem a lot less appealing than the traditional top-down directive approach to leading an organization.
But if done right, it can be extraordinarily rewarding both for the leader and for the broader organization.
What does a successful leader look like? We all have an image in mind — it might be Henry Ford or Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch. Whatever the differences in their style and substance, there’s a common thread that unites these and other model leaders — their ability to command a room, focus a crowd, set an agenda and drive an organization or a nation or a movement forward.
But is that the only way to lead? Not at all. And in the case of certain organizations — especially talent-based organizations, such as professional services firms, investment firms and even nonprofits — it can actually be counterproductive.
When revenue and growth are generated by and depend on the buy-in of multiple producers and stakeholders — lawyers, traders, consulting partners, employee-owners, or nonprofit staff members deeply committed to the mission — the most effective leaders take a different approach. They don’t direct. They don’t sit at the head of the table. Instead they listen, encourage and create the conditions for the key stakeholders to drive their own success. They are quiet leaders who empower their people to think and act like owners, take responsibility for outcomes, and take pride in their contributions.
How does this work in practice? Consider a professional services firm. The firm’s partnership by definition is a peer community of highly accomplished, highly motivated people. Partners often have limited appetite for being directed. But they have plenty of ideas for what everyone else needs to do differently. They understand the benefits of working as a team. But they want to maximize their individual success. They demand resources and support. But they also want to maximize their own income and profitability. They know there are benefits to investing in new capabilities. But they focus on short-term rewards and outcomes.
It is the leader’s job to get the partners and the organization to successfully navigate these contradictions and tradeoffs. But in a partnership setting, a directive approach is often counterproductive. Instead, an effective leader is one who listens, learns what the partners need for success, and then helps them create and embrace the conditions that allow them and the organization to perform. The leader supports the individuals he or she is charged with leading.
This form of leadership isn’t passive — it involves a strategic push toward an ambitious agenda, and confronting issues rather than glossing them over — but it is quiet, focused on empowerment and outcomes that the leader and the partners achieve together.
To be an effective leader of a partnership or talent-based organization, remember to:
There are tradeoffs involved in adopting this leadership model. Decisions can take longer. It requires a highly aligned group of managers and professionals. It gets more difficult to apply as organizations grow in size. It requires more humility and effort from the leader. But the upside is that it creates a highly motivated team of people with an attitude of “This is my challenge and I am empowered to do what is needed to succeed.” Change is actually easier when those responsible for implementing it have already bought in. There is no better way for an organization to achieve its full potential than when every professional thinks and acts like an owner.
Quiet, supportive leadership may at first seem a lot less appealing than the traditional top-down directive approach to leading an organization. But if done right, it can be extraordinarily rewarding both for the leader and for the broader organization. Machiavelli said that a leader should ideally be loved and feared, but since it is hard to unite both in one person, it is better to be feared. But in a partnership or talent-based organization, success comes when you create that ideal combination: a leader to be loved but an empowered organization that any individual should fear.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the CEO Today website.