As I continue to lift the lid on the transition to partnership for those in professional services firms, I was delighted to spend time with Paul Blythe, Corporate Finance Partner at Crowe. He shared his experience of the challenges and opportunities during his career as he progressed towards and achieved partnership. I was struck by his strategic approach – Paul started to establish his network early on, was clear about where he was going and how he was going to get there.
1. When did you make the transition to partner and what was your motivation?
June 2014, so more than five years ago. I think it was something I always wanted to do. When I left my training firm in 2001, the partner there said if I stayed for 10 more years, I could be a partner. Ten years is a long time and was too long for me. And it was then a four-partner regional firm in general practice, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. I left and went to a London firm, and then made a decision about the sort of work I wanted to do, which was corporate finance. The work suits me much better, being more project-based, and I can get more involved in the companies I work with. From the point of moving to Crowe, partnership was always the target.
2. What was your experience of the transition to partnership?
For me, it was similar to all the other transitions – from Exec to Manager, to Senior Manager, to Director and then to Partner. I was always of the opinion that you should be doing your job before you’re promoted, so really it’s a confirmation, rather than a ‘now you’ve landed, what do you do?’ As a Director I had a good portfolio, I was able to demonstrate winning the work, getting the necessary fees in, transacting, finishing it off, the whole circle. This approach meant that moving up didn’t feel like a next step, it felt quite natural. If I hadn’t done that, it could have felt overwhelming.
3. What worked well? What were the challenges?
The best advice I was given was from a Partner who I am still with. He said that as soon as I had decided what I wanted to do, I should go and build my book of contacts because they’ll be with you for the next 20 years. And so it has turned out. London is quite a small place in reality. When I used to go to events, someone would always know this Partner in question. The question then became how do I break through the barrier so that they know me? That was the challenge, and it took time and effort to overcome.
4. What have you had to learn to be effective?
I’ve had to learn how I like to work. The question was, did I want to be a ‘do-er’ – delivering the work, or a ‘winner’, bringing it in. A firm needs both, and you have to send the right message to the partnership about which you would prefer to be. I have always focused on winning work as that is my natural preference and skillset.
5. What advice would you give someone thinking about becoming a partner?
I would always focus on the need to get out and be known in the marketplace. Working out that you need to start developing your name early on – 3 or 4 years out from partnership is critical if you want to be a partner who wins work, rather than a technical expert. But it is important to remember that everyone is different, with different ways of doing things and different approaches. The key is that those who expect promotion based on time might be disappointed and can be overtaken by those who rise based on merit. How you see yourself is key, and your attitude.
A trend that I see a lot is that more junior people don’t speak to people in person. What I mean by that is that they avoid picking up the phone to ask questions and solve problems. When they email, they distance themselves from the problem, because it feels safe. I suggest that people always speak over the phone, have a short conversation that reinforces teamwork, the relationship, and answers that question and probably many more very quickly. It sounds simple, but it really can be the difference as you become more senior. Get out there and speak to people at every opportunity.
6. Who has been influential to you in your career?
In working out what my options were, and the decisions to take, I would always ask the two partners with whom I principally worked. When I was coming up through the streams, I had one partner who was a ‘winner’ and second partner who was more of a ‘do-er’. They made a fantastic team and I could ask two different people and get two different perspectives, then process what they said. Usually, one response would be better for me, but going through the thinking was really important, and I could use 20% of what one said, and 80% of the other to find the right balance. Finding someone you can relate to, respect, who you want to emulate and who works similarly to you can allow you to learn off them very quickly. I suppose they become informal mentors.
I have never had a formal mentor, but I have always had a sponsor within my firm. He was always approachable, and I was helped by the fact that I worked in small teams so knew him well. I think if you’re part of a smaller team, it is important to get yourself known more widely in the organisation and to explain to people what you’re trying to do.
7. Do you have any top tips for aspiring partners?
Ask for other opinions and other perspectives when you have to make a decision, either on work or for your career. Have the confidence to go to others and ask others for advice and guidance. But also remember that you have to share your ambition and objectives, for example in appraisals. If no one knows that you want to be promoted, they will be surprised when the request comes from left field.
8. What comes next for you?
I always approach questions like this from the perspective of ‘what do I like doing?’ I really like the big picture, strategy, culture. I want to understand how I can continue to play a bigger role at the firm, whilst all the time thinking about developing my external persona. As Crowe is in its growth phase, if you spot a new opportunity and present it well to your fellow partners, you can get buy-in and have the opportunity run with that initiative and make it happen. As a partner, this is your own business and your ideas are both valid and valued. The opportunity is there to innovate and add value to the firm as a whole.
Author Anna Wesson is an executive coach, specialising in the transition to partnership in professional service firms.