Addressing Conflict as a Managing Partner

How to handle difficult conversations and know when to get involved.

Addressing conflict as a managing partner and leading difficult discussions with partners are some of the most stressful, complicated, and dreaded for any managing partner. But they are necessary. Growth in leadership means doing the hard work, including addressing partner conflict and other issues in the firm. Managing partners aren’t always trained to be managers, which presents a unique challenge. As a leader, it is inevitable that you will need to have difficult conversations. 

I’ve come across many firms that don’t properly provide for their future leadership needs, including established protocol and training for how to deal with people. Consequently, their leadership succession plans become limited and the potential for growth is enormously limited, even threatened.

That’s a core motivator behind why I launched the Managing Partner Bootcamp, where we distill essential leadership training and actively invest in a new generation of partners. Learn more about MPB here.

I want to break down the following:

  • The kind of conversations MPs should be a part of
  • What is and isn’t your responsibility
  • How to deal with difficult partners

This is the trifecta of where things often fall apart, so let’s dive in.

The Conversations a Managing Partner Should be a Part of

As a managing partner, you need to know which difficult convos are your territory, and which should be relegated to a supervisor or HR. A good rule of thumb is to keep the conversations that escalate to you only the truly important ones. Here’s how I’d create clear divides:

Managing partner convos should include the following:

  • Partners: Monitoring or providing feedback on issues such as partner behavior, performance, expenses, and use of time
  • Issues with potential liability: No surprise here, but anything to do with religion, gender, race, or risk areas like employee fraud
  • Clients: A firm’s reputation rises and falls with client relationships. If this relationship is ever endangered, you need to be in on those conversations. Also, anytime the firm is deciding whether to salvage a relationship or terminate it, that conversation needs to happen within your earshot. If the client is asking your partner/firm to compromise legal, ethical, moral, and/or industry standards and responsibilities, those are in your wheelhouse as well

There are many other conversations that probably don’t merit your attention. For instance, supervisors should handle all convos around the performance of their direct subordinates. The human resources department can handle potential liability issues pertaining to poor performance reviews, especially those that may warrant termination.

The Conversations HR Can Handle

There are a few reasons why HR is well-equipped to handle certain hard conversations, and can definitely be a first line of report when challenges arise:

  • HR professionals are trained to manage people, which includes clearly conveying and enforcing the firm’s expectations to all employees. 
  • HR pros are highly trained and should have a PHR (Professional in Human Resources) certification from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP or SHRM-CP). Hence, they should know the ins and outs of legalities, technicalities, and compliance.
  • HR needs to be a legal conduit, so your most senior HR professional should have direct access to your firm’s legal counsel to deal with sensitive issues.

Trusting HR is essential to maintaining your leadership status and keeping your participation to high-level situations only. Therefore, it is equally important to know what is your responsibility and what isn’t. You must be selective about the types of things you get to involve yourself with. Non-partner related issues — like employee tardiness or gossip — are decidedly not in your court.

Dealing With Difficult Partners

How you communicate, and how you deal with difficult conversations, sets the tone for the type of leader you will be. I recommend developing a framework for mentoring and training partners. This will mitigate a lot of conflicts and ensure they are continuously growing into better-equipped leaders. It’s important to regularly analyze whether your management of partners typifies your values:

  • Is your leadership effective?
  • Are you transparent?
  • Are you tough enough?
  • Is your mindset firm-focused?
  • Are you respected?

Giving Feedback is critical

In addition to setting the right tone and culture, I recommend that you set a precedent for regularly giving feedback. I recommend using the “feedback sandwich” method, which ensures you have positive comments bookending your constructive criticism:

  1. Ask permission: “Can I give you some feedback?”
  2. Begin with something positive
  3. Describe a specific behavior: something you observed, heard, or experienced
  4. Describe the impact: this is how I felt/what appeared to be the case, or happened because
  5. Offer your negative assessment or criticism, again with clear and specific examples that you witness or what you observe
  6. End with a positive, supportive, or encouraging statement

I always recommend that you ask for a reaction or understanding, inviting them to ask clarifying questions to ensure they fully understand your critique.

Both when giving and receiving feedback, it’s essential that you manage your own emotions and intentions:

  • Are you approaching this interaction with a goal to help the person, the team, and the work?
  • Are you coming from a calm, honest, and authentic state of mind?

Sometimes, giving feedback is harder than receiving it, but both are important components of MP communication.

Receiving Feedback

As a managing partner, it is easy to tune out when people offer you feedback, but that would be a mistake. Just because you are in charge doesn’t mean you are flawless, and feedback can be immensely valuable in evolving and improving your leadership skills or style. Here’s my advice around receiving feedback from your team:

  • Listen, and don’t jump to defend yourself
  • Acknowledge and accept that this is the legitimate view of the person offering the feedback (whether or not you totally agree with it)
  • Check understanding by paraphrasing back what they have said to you
  • Ask: “Is there any more?”

This all sounds very peaceful, but of course there will be times when people use “feedback” as an excuse to be vitriolic or retaliatory. It is also important, as a leader, to say when you’ve had enough and draw boundaries if needed.

After you’ve received feedback, engage in some reflection: do you see patterns or themes emerging? Then choose how to incorporate this feedback based on the goals you have for yourself, your team, and the work.

Giving Guidance

As you lead the firm, you will not only give and receive feedback, you will always be guiding partners and other team members. The posture you take as you have interactions is key. There are four pieces of advice I have found to be immensely valuable to leaders in your role:

  1. Start by asking for criticism, not giving it.
  2. Ask often: “Is there anything I could do (or stop doing) that would make your lives better?”
  3. Balance praise and criticism, worrying more about praise and less about criticism. Above all: be sincere.
  4. Spend the same amount of time preparing facts for both criticism and praise.

You’ll notice a double emphasis on criticism and praise. It’s important that you are liberal with the latter. You want to be firm, clear, and leave no room for interpretation. By managing all of your conversations this way, you’ll bank a lot of emotional equity to cash in on when you have to review the hard stuff.

If I could sum up my advice for addressing conflict as a managing partner it would be:

Praise in public, criticize in private, and always aim to be helpful.