When Partners Don’t See Eye to Eye
Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.
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I work in a thriving advisory firm in a job I love. We have great clients and a great team of people who are dedicated to our clients and to growth. There are three partners who co-founded our firm and still run it together. One acts as president, one CFO/COO and one head of the advisors. Their roles are pretty clear and they are all very talented people with a quest to do the right thing by all of us on the staff.
There are times when they have to make a joint decision. The most recent was when we discussed if or when to return to the office and how we would stagger the employees and who should go in first, etc. It is a touchy conversation because some of us want to stay home and work virtually for much longer, some miss working in the office, some need to be closer to all of our technology and files and there are no good answers.
What happened – and this isn’t the first time – is that one of the partners disagreed with what the other two agreed upon. But in the full discussion, in which many of us are also present, this partner will say they are in agreement. Then, as soon as the meeting breaks, this partner will seek one of us out to badmouth the decision, get us to consider things differently and generally degrade and demean the decision made by the other two partners.
The worst part is that it isn’t always the same partner. It could be any one of the three of them. It puts us in an awkward position (a) because we heard the partner agree to something, and (b) because we either have to side with this partner and against the others or run the risk of alienation.
Some of us are bolder than others and push back or question why the partner didn’t just say this in the meeting. But it is so sneaky and unprofessional and we are all tired of it. We hate getting called in to these meetings because inevitably this will be the outcome after we leave.
How do we get them to see their behavior is hurtful to all of us? It achieves nothing and causes divisions. And worst of all, we have so many decisions that have never been implemented because this happens and then no one – including any of the partners – wants to push it forward.
You might be shocked when I say that this is a common dynamic. We are often called into firms to try and get partners to speak with one another respectfully and then hold true to their commitments. There can be many reasons why this happens:
- Some people like to avoid anything that smacks of “conflict,” which could be any disagreement whatsoever! Some people won’t be negative, won’t push back and don’t want to confront and yet they leave the discussion with another viewpoint. Unfortunately, the desire to avoid conflict often creates conflict in other ways.
- Many times people want to gain agreement from others to bolster their own viewpoints. They circulate by sharing their ideas, getting validation from those they trust and then they are able to sometimes say, “Others believe this is the way we should be doing it”. This, again, allows them to avoid confrontation in a direct manner.
- They aren’t sure what they want to do and need more time than just the discussion in the meeting to consider what they want. It could be they genuinely believed, at the time of the conversation, they were in agreement but upon reflection they have another viewpoint and they want to test it out with others.
There are a few things to consider when this happens again. When the partner approaches any one of you with their differing viewpoint, let them know you care about what they have to say but you think it would be more productive if the other partners were involved in the conversation and could you please take responsibility for scheduling a time they can all get together. Whomever they speak to could be the instrument to organize scheduling this but not participate in the discussion.
Alternatively, when you are all gathered as a group suggest that sometimes these discussions need more than one conversation and people might need time to digest and think about what they want to do. Ask if you could all schedule a follow up conversation once you have had a chance to think and reflect.
Or, confront the partner and say it places you (or whomever he/she is speaking to) in a tough spot when you want to support the discussion but you don’t have the power to make the final decisions. Ask if you could be a sounding board to help them figure out how to address the other partners, but not actually share your views and thoughts. You would play a listener and coach role, but not a gossip role.
Only if you are able to reinforce and do these things every time this scenario happens will you start to shift this behavior. Right now they are in a dance and you must present alternative steps for them to take to interrupt the negative patterns and create new ones.
We have a partner in our firm, the son of our founder, who is belligerent and insulting. If he doesn’t like your dress, attitude or opinion, he lets you know it with very choice words. I know his father gets embarrassed because he is a very mild-mannered, polite and calm person. However, he is so polite that he would never call out his son or speak negatively of the behavior. The rest of us are a bit tired of it. We feel bullied but there is no resource, no accountability.
Is there anything we could be doing given he is the heir apparent and he isn’t going anywhere?
Does anyone in the firm have a good relationship with the son whereby they could pull him aside and reflect back to him how hurtful this behavior is to team members and to the firm overall? Are there other senior people in the firm with whom you could discuss this and get their engagement with the father to hold an intervention? Has anyone ever pushed back publicly on the son because often when bullies are confronted, they back down? Have you recommended an outside coach to work with the son on stepping into his leadership role in a way that gains respect?
It sounds like everyone has watched this behavior unfold. But maybe you’ve not taken any steps at all to see if you could bring attention to it and help him to shift it. While people might listen to him because he is the son, and the heir apparent, they are likely not respecting him at all. Over time, this could lead to people not following through on his directives, or even actively trying to undermine and usurp him. It isn’t in his best interest to act in this manner. If someone helps either the son or the father see this clearly, they might take some steps to implement another approach.
Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry in 1995. The firm also founded and manages the Advisors Sales Academy. She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).
She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.