Putting on the Brakes: What to Do With Partners Who Won’t Change

[Originally Published in Accounting Today as an interview with Angie Grissom of The Rainmaker Companies and August Aquila of Aquila Global Advisors]


Call them what you will, we have all met at least a few reluctant partners, change resistors, “Big no” people – heck, you may even be one of them.

These are partners who put on the brakes and prefer to sit in their offices doing work as they have always done and not embrace the ideas for doing things differently. They may do this because it feels “safer” and they have found success working as they always have up until now.

So, are these partners necessary to balance out the movers and shakers? Or is your firm’s progress being stalled because of this mass resistance to change?

Aquila: I can speak from firsthand experience that change is always scary. I know what I have today; I don’t know what the new structure, compensation plan, etc., will bring. Major change is like standing at the end of a diving board, and being afraid to jump into the water. Change resistors aren’t all bad; they can balance everyone out. People should not jump on the newest bandwagon every time something new comes around.

Grissom: Partners need to be open to evolution and change within their firm and be agile and willing to adapt to new demands and new things. Let me give you a relevant example. If you aren’t thinking like a business owner in your own business, then what kind of value are you adding to your clients who are looking to you to bring them ideas and new concepts? Think of it this way: If you are not struggling through making changes and trying new things and getting the scars to prove it, what kind of advice can you give to those who trust you as an advisor to help them navigate their way through uncertainty?

Aquila: Some of the partners’ resistance to change comes from management implementing the “program du jour.” This is a new idea that someone has, but has not thought through. Perhaps the managing partner heard something at a conference, likes it, and tries to implement at the firm. However, there is no real commitment on the part of the firm’s management to really implement the new idea. Once this happens two or three times, partners know that if they ignore or resist the next “great” idea, it will go away.

Grissom: Just as you can build planning muscle, I think you can build adversity muscle that will arm you for change. While some people are naturally comfortable mixing things up and feel uncomfortable when things stagnate for too long, many others — especially in professional services — are uncomfortable with change and resist it at any cost. Maybe they had a bad experience with trying something new and felt they would lose their footing. Some of these leaders who put on the brakes are the people who fear they will become obsolete as the firm makes changes and evolves. Firm leadership needs to recognize these tendencies and work with the leaders to help them break this habit.

Aquila: Well, if Partner A is going to embrace the change, you need to show her how it will make her life better, make more money for the firm, or make the firm a stronger competitor. Too much change is promoted but never really communicated to the partners.

Grissom: In order to succeed in business, you must change before it is glaringly obvious, or many times it is too late. Successful companies create cultures where new ideas are embraced and new skills are required. These companies also allow their people to get the training and skills necessary to be successful.

Aquila: Let’s not call it change, but innovation. Successful companies embrace innovation. They look for a need in the marketplace that is not being met and find a solution. Partners can embrace that!

Grissom: Young people in an organization expect the leaders of the firm to make tough decisions and be ready to change as needed. Generational differences play a part in the level of comfort for certain types of changes (technology, for one) but they do not account for whether a person is one who embraces or rejects change for the most part. These characteristics seem to be based on the individual. Firms that implement the philosophy of being adaptive will create a culture of this, and people will become more accepting and comfortable.

You can have some partners who are not willing to adapt out of fear or power issues or losing seniority, but you can’t hold an entire organization back. Firms under 20 partners need to be worried about their sustainability, which is why innovation is so critical. Don’t confuse change with innovation.

Next Steps

If you need assistance in organizing or facilitating a growth-planning process for your firm or niche practice, please Contact Us to schedule a complimentary phone consultation. The Rainmaker Companies can help you Grow Your Firm, Grow Your Practice, or Grow Your Self.

Angie Grissom – President of The Rainmaker Companies

August Aquila – CEO of Aquila Global Advisors, LLC