Succession spiral: Ensuring a smooth leadership transition

After 37 years of service, Julian Wilson, Thompson Smith and Puxon (TSP) head of clinical negligence, recently retired from the practice and has been succeeded by long-term colleague and fellow director, Steve Webb. While this transition process was very smooth for TSP, it reminded me that this has not always been the case.

Although this tends to feel like the natural course of things, professional services firms have a tendency to fail to plan early enough for successful succession, or can perhaps suffer an unexpected departure that throws the firm a curve ball.

A law firm’s partners often offer a competitive advantage to the business – but for some reason, planning to replace not just their raw skills but also their presence in their area of expertise falls short of the mark.

You’re possibly thinking at this point: ‘That’s OK, an aggressive recruitment strategy will resolve the issue. After all, no one is irreplaceable, are they?’

True, but this short-termist approach to succession can lead to additional and less obvious problems. The less experienced associates in the firm, particularly your rising stars – you know, the ones you’ve nurtured and invested in so carefully, perhaps since they were a trainee – could well see this approach as one that leaves them overlooked. They may feel that they have no knowledge or awareness of their potential prospects, as well as a lack of clarity on how to progress in the firm.

This can be a vicious circle – your natural successors move on to pastures new, where (they perceive) opportunities for development exist. This can leave your firm treading water, with long periods of stalled growth and potentially a lack of equity investment, both of which can result in severe repercussions for the future.

So, how can a firm have better succession strategies?

As with most strategies, don’t ‘reckon’ – analyse. Look at retirement dates and age profiles in general. Factor into your analysis how client succession will take shape, what skills gaps there might be in a team and ensure that you consider retention and diversity statistics.

It’s also important for you, and the individuals themselves, to know who has been identified as being on the road to partnership and what plans you have to develop them into your future leaders.

Consider a process that recognises future leaders and provides a mentored, detailed personal development programme that starts with the publication of the pre-agreed criteria for admission to equity at your firm.

Provide your associates with clear feedback at regular reviews, not just at an annual review (the results of which are often popped in a drawer for 12 months and forgotten about). Make sure they know how they’re progressing towards gaining equity and, if they’re keen to acquire it, the further steps they need to take. It is also important that your firm helps these rising stars by supporting them in the development of their personal capabilities to help them build their own practices within your firm.

Remember though that, for this process to succeed, careful regard should be paid to the fact that it is achievement, recognition, responsibility and advancement that will motivate these individuals, help reduce attrition and develop them into your firm’s future business owners.

This column appears in LPM October 2018 – Make the cuts. Read the full issue here.

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