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I want it differently: how a top manager can settle into the role of a business partner

By Marina Tarnopolskaya, Managing Partner at Kontakt InterSearch Russia
Back in the '90s, Russian business was strongly aligned with partnerships: companies were most often founded by a group of people rather than by individuals. Perhaps it was due to a more aggressive and riskier environment. The only way to survive there was to support each other. At the same time, Generation X has grown up in a culture of collectivism and has not yet completely dissociated from it. But it was often partnerships that helped small businesses to break through from stall sales to major retail chains with huge turnovers.

Today I see a lot of one-man startups — many times more than in the '90s. There are projects that declare that they are run by more than one owner, but usually there is still one "engine" pulling everyone along.
Many businesses are owned by several people, but in fact it is a group of co-investors who raise funds or have a partnership based on shared resources. Those few who would like to restructure their businesses into a true partnership fail to agree on even the most basic issues.

Nevertheless, a real partnership implies that each executive has a stake in business strategy. Such a partnership ensures sound decision-making and offers the best incentive for an employee to stay with the company forever.
Motivate by partnership
I interview up to five top candidates a day, so I have a great insight into managerial motivation. Over the past three years, the significance of the option factor has increased from 2% to 21% — every fifth applicant asks a question about shares at a job interview. The top most common reasons for leaving the company are still "lack of prospects". Top executives have long been motivated not by money, but by ambitious projects and the opportunity to develop their own businesses.

Grow your employees into partners. Of course, not everyone fits seamlessly into this role. A future partner should:
have a strategic mindset, look at any issue in a holistic way, set long term goals, foresee the business needs and define and anticipate trends.
In fact, all of these are "basic" competencies essential for any effective manager.

Furthermore, a partner should have developed emotional intelligence. Such leader is expected: to be willing to think outside the box and understand the counterpart; to be able to build up a relationship with any person and respect the colleagues; to be a team player; to show flexibility; to be able to adjust and negotiate.

By the way, these competencies are quite realistic to assess even in line positions, while planning the future development of your employees — in addition to actual projects, you can use foreign assessment methodologies like Hogan, Talent Q or Thomas.

I myself grew up to managing partner from a specialist. My chief was an ideal boss because he understood how difficult it was to retain people. He once had to part with some very promising guys, so he decided to seek out new motivational tools. And found one: the company set up a system in which an employee who shared corporate values and wanted to advance, upon fulfilling a certain plan and having the appropriate competencies, could reach the status of a partner.

My background was in finance, I managed financial statements, knew all the indicators, so I didn't need additional dive in the business processes. I gained a good grasp of the situation from the inside and understood how a particular management decision could affect the company. However, the transition to the new status was not easy for my colleagues (now our company is managed by 6 women), who became partners but previously worked in completely different positions. Everyone had to get used to it.

The first stage of adjustment is "Why do I have to do things this way? I want to do things differently".

At this stage, the new partner does not understand that there is a common goal that everyone can do something to achieve. At this point, he/she wants to focus on a separate area: for example, to develop a marketing unit or oversee only sales.

Almost everyone experiences this kind of attitude. It takes at least three years for a person to realize how "separate" leads to additional problems and how collaborative work on complex projects makes management and business stronger. Because circumstances can be different: a partner may go on vacation, maternity leave, or simply leave the company. There is bound to be someone who will step in to catch up the necessary questions.

The second stage is the transition to a new understanding of one's corporate role.

Often it starts with a conviction: if I make a profit for my business, what does everyone else do? At first, as you compete with other partners and measure your expertise and experience against them, you feel like "I'm cool, and I can do everything myself". This attitude has to transform over time into the principle of "We are cool, and our team is the best".

It's important to trust the other, to be sure that someone else can do the task just as well, or maybe even better than you. All partners go through this — they learn to be supportive: not just to point out problems or mistakes to each other, but to find solutions together. After you learn how to delegate and help, there comes a better time when you stop competing with other partners, you don't think anyone will let you down, but you realize that you are one entity.

When my company was buying regional networks and wanted to create branches, all of our new partners were never able to get to the next stage of the scale of the business. In fact, none of them took root in the company. At intervals of several years, people left the business. Not everyone can change who they are, change the status of "the most important in their small agency of five or six people" to a partner in a large structure. Here you need both to see beyond and to be able to work as an equal part of a team.

Another skew in partner relationships is the desire for friendship. You get along well with your colleagues, and you think it's realistic to "move on to the next stage". On the one hand, closer communication allows you to better understand your colleague, and in general, I support the principle of friendship. However, there must always remain some barrier in the relationship between partners. Otherwise, you might not be able to make difficult decisions for fear of hurting or offending the other person, or talk openly about unpleasant things. Friendship should not diminish the effectiveness of business.