"Luck needs organising" - sharing insights from coaching in professional services. By Martina Weinberger (guest)

I do a lot of coaching in professional services. One of the big questions there is of course: “How to make partner?”

I had lunch recently with one of my coachees, after he had heard back from his firm, confirming him as a new partner. Over a glass of wine and amidst humongous smiles, I asked him playfully, what advice he would now give to younger professionals:

“What does it take to make partner?”

And his response was:

“Luck and being in the right place at the right time”.

This was from a very hard-working and brilliant young man. I had the pleasure of working closely with him, so you can take my word for it. Why would he attribute his success to luck? Part of it is certainly, that he is a naturally humble person, also that he would not want other people to feel bad; he knows well, that not everyone can and will get promoted.

And whilst there is, of course, an element of luck, it is far from the whole truth, as my favourite grandaunt used to say: Luck needs organising!

Let me share what I have learned over 15 years of coaching in PSFs… What does it take? What are the key things that help people “get lucky”? And where might they need support in their journey?

Here we go: Insights for coaches and coachees about how to “organise your luck”

1. Start early.

In a way, you start organising your luck, the day you start in a professional services firm. And a good three years ahead of the point when partnership is a realistic option, it is high time to become strategic. There is little we can do as coaches to support our clients to influence their timeline… we can raise awareness!

2. Learning about the “rules of the game.”

You can only be strategic if you know the “game” you are playing. In my experience many extremely hard working professionals do not take the time to sufficiently raise their heads from the daily grind, to find out what it really takes to be promoted in their firm.

  • They often loath the politics,

  • The official process (if it exists) is often not transparent, and

  • There tends to be a Pandora’s box full of hidden rules…

We can be useful in helping our clients develop their “strategy of finding out” by:

  • Looking for promotion criteria,

  • Finding the right people to speak with,

  • Having the courage to start having different kinds of conversations,

  • Helping them find the courage to start having different kind of conversations and

  • Helping them to be well prepared for them.

3.   Be known and connected – internally.

All things being equal, people do business with, and refer business to, people they know, like and trust,” says networking guru Bob Burg. In my experience, this is just as true for partner promotion processes. A strong internal network is nearly more important than a strong external one…(a rule of thumb: the larger the firm the coachee is working for, the stronger their internal network needs to be) 

We can help our coachees develop and implement their “internal reputation building” plan. Answering the question of how to best find and build a strong sponsorship network, to help them win the political game…

4.   Don’t make enemies.

This tends to be difficult, for some of my highly ambitious and able clients. They can be experienced as too pushy, they can feel threatening. Most partnerships like success, but they do not like it if it comes dressed up over-confidently/aggressively.

As coaches, we can help raise awareness of this potential trap and support clients to find their personal strategies to address this.

I find this of particular importance for my female coachees. Those who are courageous and ambitious enough to get even close to partnership, “pushiness” is a real issue, and an even greater career derailer than for my male clients. I am sure you have all heard of the double bind effect – it certainly is at play at this stage.  

5.   Gremlin management.

Most of my clients go through ups and downs in the process of pushing for partnership. They ask themselves is this really what I want? Gremlins are normal and helpful, they can be really useful by giving energy to explore what it is one really wants…

BUT: In my experience gremlins are best managed outside the firm. Why? Pushing candidates at any professional services firm is hard work for the partners of a firm. It takes considerable commitment of more than one partner to truly back someone. So unless sponsors are sure you want it, they will not extend the effort necessary.

This is definitely a field, where we can be of tremendous help, exploring gremlins, in a judgement free and safe environment.

6.   Have a “story” and learn to tell it – aka develop your business plan.

There are many people “doing the work” but not many entrepreneurs in professional services. So most clients need and appreciate support in building their entrepreneurial “muscle”.

Writing a personal business plan tends to be highly useful. Not necessarily easy, mind you, but useful. We can help our clients sort through their thinking of what kind of business they want to have in x years from now. How will their efforts contribute towards ‘enlarging the cake’ – growing the business for all partners of their firm.

One of the biggest pains at this stage is that writing the plan means getting clear about what to say yes and what they say no too.  After all: “Strategy is sacrifice” as my esteemed colleague and business strategy expert Charles Kingsmill always says.

We can help with exploring:

  • Why some things are harder to let go of than others. Which needs are not fulfilled if they do start saying yes and no.

  • How to make it a plan they want to see implemented both with their heads AND their hearts, to get there, it is often useful to explore more tender approaches… to their future business.

  • The fear of “the empty desk”: What if I say no to certain things and I find myself without work (and often we coaches know that fear only too well…).

And once they have defined their business, we can support them to learn how to best “tell the story”. Many professionals are naturally humble and do not give credit to the great work they are doing. There might be self-limiting assumptions that need exploring… and addressing.

  • In informal conversations, I have found that many coaches are reluctant to go in the direction of supporting business planning. You can, of course, send them all to me or Charles, since this is very much what we do and enjoy. AND coming to coaching from a pure business background I get the “fear” that can be behind this reflex for coaches who come to our profession with more of a counselling background! In my early days as a coach, I felt relieved when it came to business planning, it was a saver, more familiar place, then the messy personal side. If you are coming from the other “side” you might well feel out of your depth… BUT in supporting our clients to write their business plan, we do not need to be the expert of their business, it is of course not our role to actually write their plan::

    • It is about challenging assumptions,

    • About challenging focus,

    • Asking good (enough) questions,

    • Questioning stretch (too much, too little for what they want to achieve)

    • Whether the plan they are developing actually resonates with their whole self or simply their “head”… and whether it will resonate with relevant other stakeholders…

So I would encourage you, to give it a go. Stay in the space where you are best, and give them the support, attention and space to do their best thinking also in terms of where they want to take their business.  

It is also not about the “perfect” plan, rather it is about developing their thinking towards entrepreneurship, about getting ready to have different kinds of conversations with the partners of their firm, their clients and colleagues, conversations beyond imminent projects. We can be the catalyzers for the journey, as always not more not less.

7.    Getting out of the “safe-pair-of-hands” trap.

Some of my clients come highly frustrated. They are putting in the long hours, they catch anything their partners drop, yet nobody seems to notice and appreciate their quality work.

They might be stuck in what I call “the safe pair of hands” trap. Their partners have much to lose if they promote them, but little to gain if they do.

  • In this case, I see our role to help the client “get real”. Accept, that in their partners’ shoes, they would probably do the same. It is up to them to make a significant change to get out of this trap since they are the only ones losing out.

  • Some of my clients realize after some exploration, that they are indeed Ok with their lot, that it is exactly the space they function best in. That the need is not necessarily for promotion, but for recognition – in this case, we can support them in finding ways to be recognized or ways to self-recognize or get recognition elsewhere or even start giving recognition to others...

  • For clients who do want to change the current dynamics, again I find writing a personal business plan is a good place to start. The question they need to answer is: What needs to shift so that promoting me becomes a win-win?

8.   Lightening up.

And of course, my very wise coachee is right! It is also about luck, about being at the right place at the right time. So whilst luck needs organizing, and we can do a lot to support our clients in their “luck organisation”. They will not have 100% control, no matter what. This might be frustrating, but it might also allow for a little reframing.

I love the idea of permission slips that Brene Brown uses in the framing of her courage works semester. We can encourage our clients to give themselves permission to think differently about “success” and “failure”. (As we all know: Many people have a tendency to blame themselves for failure, and attribute success to good luck. Which of course is the best way to make yourself miserable in the long run.)

A permission slip to be gentler and kinder to themselves, might be useful in our ambiguous world.  And again this might be what we explore with them in coaching.

Ideally, they give themselves a real chance at being lucky. When they succeed, they can award themselves honestly and without reservation the “luck-needs-organising-order-of-excellence”. And if, when the time comes, despite their best efforts, there is no slot?

Then they have learned many useful skills, way beyond being a good or even an excellent professional. Moving on, they know it was a case of being unlucky. They were right, but the time and place were not. And this is, of course, easier written then absorbed!

Let me share with you a recent case that broadly outlines some of the issues above.

A highly ambitious and commercially successful professional came to coaching. When I first met him, it was instantly clear, he had formidable presence, starting from the way he entered the room.

Despite being a highly successful professional, his promotion had just been deferred again, for another year and it rankled. He wanted coaching and he didn’t, he wanted to get rid of the anger and try again, at the same time he had offers from other firms… and was debating whether he shouldn’t simply leave…

We started to define possible coaching goals. I asked him to self-score against the partner promotion criteria in his firm. He did and there was a clear pattern emerging - he was not listening enough to others and kept people too much at arm’s length, was simply not enough of a team player. Instead he was seen as too much of a (successful) lone wolf. He defined his goal as wanting to become more “partner” like, in the sense of partnering with others…

He said he wanted to address this, but when we explored a little more - what made him such a stellar performer - it became clear that he did not want to share his ideas, his successes, he attributed all his current success to exactly not partnering with others. Above all, his current approach meant if he wanted to switch to another firm, he would have something to offer, if he became more “partnering” in his current firm he might decrease his market value.

  • Did he want to “gamble” and actually give it a go? Sharing and “partnering”? Or didn’t he? Did his current success depended on his current behaviour? Or was there another way of being successful.*

We decided he would need more time to think, whether he wanted to push for partnership (in the firm, that offered coaching) or whether he simply did not. I challenged him: unless he really wanted to “become more partner-like” coaching would go nowhere! He smiled and said he would get back to me.

3 months later he called me with one statement: “I am all in”. He explained his decision, at the end of the day being the lone wolf might eventually also hurt him elsewhere and he might as well give it a go where he was… He was still worried that any change might make him less successful, but he said he wouldn’t find out unless he tried.

He was painfully honest in his 3-way conversation; he went to get a 360 feedback himself (we worked at length at making this an unscary experience for those he would be asking feedback from). He started digging through his past appraisals, looking for clues of when and where and how, to change.

One of the lovely results from of his 360 was, that he was highly appreciated in many ways… yet it also unearthed, that he had indeed neglected to connect internally and made some influential enemies who resented his gutsy (albeit successful) pushiness and that those people outside of his direct team found him scary and also too hard working to be a role model or inspirational.

What were the solutions he developed for himself?

He found ways to give more space to his team members, to let them speak directly with clients (to his big relief, he found, that this did not make him obsolete, on the contrary it elevated his standing towards the more strategic advisor.) He also openly addressed the fact of wanting to become less “scary” towards his wider team (as a follow-up to his 360 conversations). This landed really well.

I should perhaps mention that despite his very driving style, he does have a lovely sense of humor, and once he realized that this was actually appreciated by those who ever saw this side he allowed himself to let more of himself shine through. He involved partners more in his decisions. Even if it grated him in the beginning as “time wasting”… he eventually found a way to make it useful both for him, his partners and their clients. Slowing down to speed up became his mantra. He successfully cross sold a prestigious project to one of the international offices… And he realized he needed to make a conscious efforts to work less, both for his own balance, but mainly because he needed to be a better role model for others.

At the end of the coaching process at the final 3-way, his lead partner just said, Peter B. 2.0. This is how the team talks about him now, big smiles all round. He also claimed that the changes he and others noticed, will be helpful to promoting him this year. I am sure you want to know whether his efforts were rewarded?

UPDATE: He didn't make partner the following year… he was again very disappointed. However, he will finally be made up to partnership this year – two years later than his initial plan. I sent him a message congratulating him saying that I hope he can celebrate to the full despite the long process. His answer? ‘I will make a better partner and professional to the firm because of the wait. In hindsight I really needed the extra time to make the changes to my behaviour sustainable.’

Today I have shared with you some of my learnings and experience from my practice of how we can support people on partner track or who want to get onto partner track. I am curious to hear from you!

  • How do these ideas “land”?

  • What is working for you? In supporting clients on a similar path?

  • Where do you/your clients struggle?

  • What else do you think does it take to organise luck?

I very much look forward to your comments.

In the meantime, keep smiling


To connect with Martina Weinberger:

Martina is a partner at Toguna Leadership.   
t   +49 89 37962637                            
e   martina.weinberger@togunaleadership.com

An INSEAD MBA and APECS accredited executive coach, I started my career in marketing and strategy consulting. Today I delight in supporting international leaders in implementing strategy and positively impacting the bottom line. We design bespoke workshops and development programmes, coaching is always a major part of what we do and the underlying “mindset” to our interventions.

I love my work best, when I can support people in achieving their (business) objectives whilst at the same time creating kinder, more sustainable environments for themselves and others around them. Contributing towards purpose and happiness is what makes me get up in the morning.