In my quest to fully understand the path to partnership, I have frequent conversations with those who have been through the process and are now established leaders in their firms. This has allowed me to build my knowledge and understand the challenges and opportunities along the way. What occurred to me, however, is that this information is interesting to the many aspiring partners and leaders. As a result, this interview series was born.
In the first of this series of interviews, I was delighted to spend time with Claire Scott-Priestley. Claire was at Squire Patton Boggs for nearly 20 years, where she specialised in multi-jurisdictional, cross-border M&A. It was there that she became a partner. In November this year, she joined EY as an equity partner, based in London.
When did you make the transition to partnership and what was your motivation?
I became a partner in 2011. To some extent I was on a ‘gravy train’ from school – GCSE’s, A-levels, university, degree, law school, training contract, so the path was set out quite clearly. I enjoyed what I was doing, progressing, developing, becoming more senior, so the natural step for me was to want to achieve partnership.
I wanted to be a partner for the title, the seniority and associated kudos. I felt like it was an acknowledgement that I’d really achieved something in my career and I was seeking further, forward momentum (and the associated financial benefits!)
What was your experience? What worked well?
Perhaps it is helpful for me to talk about how I became a partner in the first instance. When I was a senior associate I knew I was running great deals, I had demonstrated an ability to create effective teams and build long term client relationships, consequently, I had assumed that I would be approached for promotion to partner. However, at Squires there was no clear, published partnership track – it wasn’t set out that you had to write a business plan, get interviewed, go before a panel, do a presentation, have existing partners question you. Accordingly, with the lack of detail about the partnership promotion process I had to create the opportunity for myself.
How was I going to do it? I knew that I needed to talk to someone important within the firm, so I got on a train and went to the Brussels office to talk to one of the senior partners who I’d known for years. I sat in front of him and said, ‘I want to make partner’. His response was ‘great idea Claire, I’ll support you in that, I hadn’t thought about it before, but I’ll support you’. So, I asked him what I had to do, and he told me to talk to one of the other senior partners whom I knew well, ask for his support, and if he also agreed then together they would put my case forward to the wider partnership. I am convinced that had I not addressed my desire for promotion to these senior partners, partnership would not have come to me when it did. I had to go out there and ask for what I wanted.
What were the challenges?
Once I achieved partnership, and for a few years thereafter, I felt a bit lost. I had attained my goal of promotion to partner but subsequently I wasn’t clear on the next step and what the next goal would be to drive my continued career development. Up until that point, I had simply followed the next step on the path and those steps all led to partnership. As a consequence, I had to come up with all sorts of different mechanisms to continue to drive myself forward.
I also didn’t properly understand the nature of the partnership. Of course I was given the practical information about how the partnership worked, how I paid into it, financial matters and so on. What was much more challenging was what was required of me in terms of contributing as a partner.
Following promotion, I was expected to generate work to sustain me and a team, and I wasn’t properly prepared for that. As I hadn’t been required to write a business plan and hadn’t had to defend that plan under questioning I was somewhat ill-prepared for generating business by myself.
What have you had to learn to be effective?
Without a shadow of a doubt I would say learning to network effectively, both internally within the firm and externally has been critical. You need to understand how your firm works, to understand who holds the power and influence, and network within your firm according to that. And of course, networking externally to promote yourself, get yourself known and build a sustainable business.
In order to maintain focus and forward momentum, I also write a plan that sets out goals that I can then drive towards achieving. I find that if you create goals for yourself it assists to prevent you from plateauing. For example, some of my goals are financial, around generating X amount of business in Y year, then I break that down further into smaller steps in order to deliver that goal: I want to focus on these intermediaries, I want to go to this conference, I want to host this event. I find that if I don’t have a plan like that I am at risk of drifting without direction.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about partnership?
Take a look at yourself. Understand who you are and what interests you, your drivers. I enjoy my work because I’m a ‘builder’, I get satisfaction from assisting to develop a client’s business, creating value and contributing to the lives of the people who sit behind the company. Knowing what drives you helps you to understand what to focus on and where you can add value to the firm’s business.
Talk to existing partners. Identify partners you have a connection with and ask them for a coffee and a chat. Ask them about their careers, what has worked for them and listen to what they say. You may be surprised about what you learn and where that takes you. Sometimes this might also result in an informal mentoring relationship which can be hugely beneficial to your career.
Be assertive and ask for what you want. It is a common misconception, particularly amongst women, that if you do a great job you will automatically be acknowledged for your contribution and that that will be enough to become a partner. However, this is frequently not the case, depending on the individual firm obviously. You must remember that partners are busy people who are constantly juggling numerous competing demands. They sometimes may not see what is in front of their noses and may seem obvious to you. If you have a career aspiration, it may not be on the partner’s radar and, therefore, cannot be supported by them. In today’s working world you need to take responsibility for your career and you cannot rely on achieving promotion simply by doing a consistently good job. If you don’t ask you often won’t get, so you have to make your aspirations clear and ask for support.
Who has been influential to you as you have moved through your career?
The partners who ‘brought me up’ were influential to me, they taught me the technical aspects of my trade very well. In addition, a particular American partner I worked a lot with was hugely important, he was full of ideas for building a business, and made me realise that with everything you do, you should be thinking from a business development perspective: how you can leverage this and publicise that. The American go-getting mentality serves them well in this regard, and there is a lot that we Brits can learn.
Women’s groups have also had a significant impact on my career. Over a period of time I noticed that the same things were being said over and over about the challenges facing women in their careers, and I started to pay attention to what was going on around me in the workplace and my own instinctive behaviour. I didn’t appreciate early on the full extent of the unconscious bias that exists, and the challenges that women face. It was only when I began to study it that I came to understand that, in general terms, there are intrinsic differences in the way that men and women instinctively act, and a lot of behaviours that are natural for a man are not natural for a woman. It is this difference in natural behaviour that can operate to hold women back. Once I started to acknowledge this and take steps to counteract it, I began to see results. I had to be brave and do things that made me feel uncomfortable. In reality, I spent too many years hiding away.
What do you think makes a great partner?
Someone who is authentic and isn’t afraid to be themselves. I believe that you should listen a lot, try to be nice to people and be kind. It is a small world, and what goes around comes around. Be authentic, because people will see through you otherwise. Personality is so important – when I build my teams, I know that my colleagues are technical experts, but when I’m on a deal, I ask myself who do I want to be in a room with at 3 in the morning? Someone with a personality, who’s relatable and a team player.
Do you have any top tips for aspiring partners or leaders?
This is a tip for women, particularly those working in male-dominated areas such as M&A at senior levels. Never wear black. When you go to a conference or a meeting, all the men look the same. By wearing colour you have more opportunity to stand out and be remembered. Being female there are certain opportunities that are available to you that are not available to men: grasp them and make the most of them.
Author Anna Wesson is an executive coach, specialising in the transition to partnership in professional service firms.