Not every young professional is left to fend for himself on the road to becoming partner. Some enjoy rich apprenticeship experiences along the way, but that is rare, now more than ever. Today, most partners are out chasing business themselves; in this fiercely competitive and opportunity-laden economy, they have to. Thus, young professionals seeking to make the leap are often left with snippets of vague advice, the most common being: ‘If you want to be a partner, start acting like one’. Worse, many professionals often receive two contradictory pieces of counsel: ‘Just act like I do’ and ‘Just be yourself’.
Technically speaking, none of these shreds of counsel is wrong; they are all just maddeningly unhelpful. Certainly, partners know more, but usually their insights are the kind of tacit knowledge that can be hard to express in words. Perhaps that is why, when pressed for additional advice, they offer vague suggestions such as ‘Keep working on your confidence’ or ‘Try to improve your presence’. True, becoming a partner requires a professional to change not only her skills but also her communication style. But the transition requires a deeper, personal transformation, too. And it is here, in the creation of an identity, where aspiring partners flounder and need the most help.
Consider the case of a professional in my study who was known in his consulting firm as an excellent analyst. After five years of grueling assignments with clients around the world, it was time for him to ‘grow or go’, as he was told. “To be really successful at this game, I need to let go of the image I have of myself as the one who knows all the facts. Instead, I have to think of myself as, and be perceived as, the adviser to the client,” he said at the time. “But it’s just such a different role for me. It’s like my whole basis for existence is cut away if I can’t rely on the data.”
This consultant felt panicked, but he ultimately continued to advance quite well along the road to partner. Like others in my study who made their way up the ranks, he used a strategy that initially seemed erratic, but upon closer examination proved to be a three-part iterative learning process of observing role models, experimenting with new behaviors, and evaluating the results of those experiments.
To illustrate this process, let’s consider two other professionals: Robert Foreman, a 29-year-old consultant, and Liz Brenner, a 27-year-old investment banker. A look at their different approaches to the same basic strategy will highlight the more effective one. (Both Foreman and Brenner represent participants in my study; their names, like all others in this article, are fictitious.)
For six years, Robert Foreman was known as a stellar associate — great with numbers and capable of solid market analysis. But as the time for being named partner approached, he was told he needed to improve his presence with clients. Immediately, Foreman set about searching for role models. His first choice was his boss, a partner named Joe McDuffy, whose personality was diametrically opposed to Foreman’s own laid-back style. As Foreman described McDuffy: “He is very direct about what he thinks needs to be done. He’ll even tell clients bluntly that they’re wrong.”
Foreman tried to emulate McDuffy but quickly found out that he could not adopt that style. At one meeting, for instance, Foreman overcompensated by being arrogant with a client, which backfired. He decided to stick closer to his own style and search for other models. In doing so, he discovered that the partners’ styles could be arrayed on a continuum from aggressive to exploratory. As he explained, “Both ends of the spectrum work, but the majority are on the aggressive end. McDuffy, Lewis, Roberts, Foxworth, and Richardson, for example, are all very directive and driving with clients. Madden defines the other end of the continuum. He’s the exploratory, ‘let me take you on a journey’ type.”
In meetings over the next few months, Foreman took every opportunity to try different behaviors, which he learned from closely watching a variety of people: “Richardson was useful on how to have the guts to confront senior people,” he recalled, “and McDuffy gave me some pointers about focusing clients on the critical issues. I watched how Madden manages one-on-one client interactions.” By mixing some of their behaviors with his own style and trying them in client meetings, Foreman started to feel better about expanding his repertoire. For example, he combined McDuffy’s direct approach with his own more laid-back style: he told clients when he thought they were wrong but softened his words so as not to offend them.
As he experimented with a variety of behaviors, Foreman noticed that his senior colleagues were giving him constructive tips more frequently. One partner even asked him to run a series of meetings in her absence. Foreman’s clients also seemed to respond favorably; they asked his opinion more and more and often recalled particularly salient points he had made in previous meetings. Within six months, Foreman said, “Not only have I figured out how to be good at this, but I’ve figured out how to do it without really compromising who I am.” He had created a new identity by being true to himself and by emulating others.
Liz Brenner also had a reputation as an excellent associate, with particularly strong skills in technical analysis and time management. But during her third-year review, Brenner was told that she should be taking a more active role in client meetings. The advice did not surprise her; she knew she tended to be shy in client situations. “With the people at my firm, I’m argumentative, rigorous, and demanding,” she said. “But when I’m with clients, I become careful; I’m less inclined to give my own opinion. That’s why I have trouble getting new clients to focus on the issues and establishing a presence right from the start.”
Brenner knew instinctively that senior executives in the firm could show her what it took to become a partner. But the problem was that she just couldn’t find an appealing role model. Since joining the firm, she had worked with Daniel Morris, a managing director, on almost every deal. But she didn’t like his style, which she considered abrupt and arrogant. “Daniel is successful,” she noted, “but I don’t respect him as an individual.”
Brenner had also worked closely with Brian Finn, another director, whom she admired a great deal for his friendly approach. But again, she felt she couldn’t use him as a model. “Finn is extremely laid-back with clients, almost not asking for the business. But it wouldn’t work for me. It only works for Finn because he already has the years of experience behind him,” she explained.
Unable to find someone to emulate, Brenner decided to work with what she had. She knew that her strengths lay in her analytical skills and therefore focused on how best to display those skills with clients. Prior to meetings, she spent hours researching the client’s industry from every possible angle. She walked into meetings with better-designed charts and more comprehensive reports than usual. Unfortunately, in several cases, the client’s questions were not the ones she had prepared for, so she remained in her usual supporting role.
For 12 months, Brenner struggled with how to present herself to clients. Before each new client meeting, she pored over data and analyses. She even took courses on how to make better presentations. Over time, Brenner found that most of her clients came to trust her knowledge and expertise. But in the meantime, as her formal evaluations pointed out, she was unable to grab clients’ trust and attention from day one. Although she felt good about maintaining her integrity, she noticed that she wasn’t receiving as many pointers from her senior colleagues as she had when she first started with the firm. And she didn’t seem to be getting repeat business in the way that some of her more aggressive counterparts were. Brenner often felt that she just wasn’t cut out to be an investment banker, since it required her to forgo her natural style. “I’m just not one of those people who loves talking about things they know nothing about,” she said.
As time went on, Brenner continued to focus on the ‘substantive’ style she had cultivated. But she gradually came to rely a little less strictly on data analysis. In preparation for client meetings, she started to spend more time with senior colleagues who understood the particular intricacies of the client’s field. But she continued to feel uncomfortable in client situations. By the end of my study, Brenner was still in the running for partner, but she was progressing much more slowly and was certainly enjoying the process less than Foreman.