More on consulting partners

I’d written in an earlier post that consulting firms remain young nd dynamic by periodically promoting new people to partnership, and they in their quest to develop new markets and establish themselves, take on risks which can prove useful to underlings who now have a better chance to make a mark and establish themselves.

However, as I’d once experienced a long time back, there can be a major downside to this. The new partners, in their quest to establish themselves, can sometimes be too eager in the commitments they make to the clients. They are prone to promising way more than their team can logically deliver, and that contributes to putting additional and unnecessary pressure on the people working for them.

Nothing earthshattering, but thought I should mention this here for the sake of completeness, so that I don’t mislead you with my conclusions.

Partners and Associates

Last week I’d written this post about managing studs, and while discussing that with some colleagues the other day, I realized that I could reformulate it without touching upon the studs and fighters theory. So let us consider a consulting firm. There is a partner, whose sole job is to solicit business for the firm, and to get the lion’s share of the benefits. And there are associates, trying hard to get noticed and promoted, and working for this partner. It’s the associates who do most of the work. Let’s assume that the firm is in “steady state”, where as long as they don’t mess up, there is a steady stream of business assured.

Under this assumption, all that the partner needs to do is to ensure he and his team don’t “mess up”. He knows that he has the relationships to keep the work flowing, and given that he doesn’t really do any work himself, he doesn’t care about the nature of work, or whether his associates find the work challenging, or interesting, and stuff. As long as the tap is open, and he makes his “partner’s cut”, he’s happy.

Given this, his incentives are towards work that is hard to go wrong. “Steady” work, where expectations are likely to be high, but the downside risk is quite low suits him absolutely fine, and he seeks to find more and more of that kind of stuff. There is little chance that his relationships with his steady clients can go wrong in this kind of a situation, right? So he goes about trying to find work with a “short deep-out-of-money option” payoff.

What about the associates? There will be some of them that are already established, and known to these steady clients. They know that it’s only a matter of time before they get promoted and hit the partnership pot of gold. They’ve made their mark, at a time when they had the opportunity to do so, and now they only need to hold fort till the end of the rainbow. And they hold on, perfectly happy to do work in which things can’t go wrong.

As for the other associates, who are still looking to establish themselves? What they’d ideally like would be the opportunity for “big wins”, which will make them be seen, and noticed, and enable them to make the move up the ladder when the time is right. Given their current standing, they don’t mind taking the risk – they have little to lose in terms of lost reputation. On the other hand they have everything to gain from pulling off improbable big wins. Basically they ideally like the “long deep-out-of-money option” payoff. ┬áBut the stream of projects the partners and other associates prefer doesn’t give them the opportunity to go for this kind of payoff! So they are stuck.

So, if you are working in a consulting firm, which is in reasonably steady state, where the partners don’t take part in day-to-day work, and where you are not yet established, you need to think if you’re in the right place.