13 June 2023 By Victoria Tomlinson
The world is waking up. Your older employees have value, not just IN your organisation but also OUTSIDE of it, once they have retired. But what should relationships with former employees or partners look like? And how do you create that relationship through a alumni?
In this blog I want to look at partners in professional firms and what a great alumni programme could and should cover and deliver. In a later blog I will look at corporates – the issues are similar but inevitably some of the details are very different.
I suppose we should first say what alumni are. The first time I heard this word it seemed very odd – and especially when you get to the individual male and female versions, alumnus and alumna (luckily, I did Latin many years ago, so this at least made sense!).
In this context, alumni are people who once worked for your firm or organisation and implicitly, want to have a relationship with it after. The accountancy firms have long nurtured alumni because so many employees qualify with them and then leave to become finance managers or directors at their clients – or what they hope will become a client. The global consulting firm, McKinsey, is famous for having built its business on a ‘killer alumni program’. Law firms have been slow to do much with their alumni, but we have recently seen a number starting to look seriously at how they value partner relationships after retirement.
We have heard of one firm that reckons they get £500k of value back from former partners – mostly from business referral. But it’s not just about expecting work referrals. If your business has goals to support the wider economy and sustainability, your alumni can help you to achieve these. EY is one of the leaders in this space and Liz Gray, EMEIA partner transition leader, recently said, “Our programme has changed partners’ outlook from less than 40% engaging with businesses after leaving EY to over 90%. Each one is contributing to our economy and enhancing their personal worth”.
If your firm wants to have a great alumni programme, where do you start? Here we share what we have learned from the best firms in recent years, alongside seeing our own workshop really kickstarting a new culture around the whole concept of ‘retirement’.
In all the firms where we are working, the chair, senior partner and managing partner have all bought into the importance of supporting partners in transition. Their reasons can vary – from knowing this is the right thing to do or thanking partners for years of dedication to wanting to change a culture of partners leaving with compromise agreements. And we have always had a senior partner or managing partner (or both) attend the first workshop. More on this below.
What we have discovered is that the word ‘retirement’ is … hated, feared, rejected, loathed, avoided. To be honest it’s difficult to find quite the right words. Partners themselves block out any thinking about this – mostly because it’s too hard. Few partners have any idea what they might want or be able to do next. Retirement used to be seen as either ‘non-executive director or golf’.
They might vaguely think about getting a NED role without having much idea of what is really involved, whether they could get one or even enjoy it or do it if they did succeed.
You are asking partners to consider their next steps when most are at the peak of their careers. In their 50s, heading up teams, valued by clients, delivering eye-watering chargeable hours and billings and often mini-gods in their firms. Against this, they are looking at a cliff edge, an abyss of nothingness. They can’t visualise a future. And if they dare to open that door in their mind it is frankly terrifying. So, they shut it. Which means no-one is properly planning for this – the individual partner, their team, or their firm.
Last year, Next-Up started a Professional Services Retirement Forum to help firms understand the issues and, more importantly, start offering solutions. In one session, Ann LaFrance (Squire Patton Boggs alumna) and Trevor Hatton (our associate and Accenture/EY alumnus) shared how they had – or hadn’t – viewed retirement, what their concerns were and how they managed – or didn’t – the transition out of the firm. The HR Director of a leading law firm thanked them for their raw honesty and said, “This is the first time I have heard anything like this. I think like many I had assumed this was a wonderful time of life for partners, a reward for years of hard work. I had no idea of the emotional issues or just what a hard journey this can be. Thank you.” This firm has apparently now banned references to ‘retirement’ which does not properly describe the next stage of life for most partners.
You need to get leaders and HR teams to understand just what an issue retirement is before they can really offer worthwhile support.
I started Next-Up because I was seeing dozens of senior people, not just partners, who had ‘retired’ and were completely lost. They nearly all had dreams of getting some kind of non-executive portfolio and then discovered how competitive it is. The world wants more diversity than most of them could offer, and they were starting too late – they had no experience on their CV.
What we have developed is a workshop which is now being run by firms from the world’s largest Magic Circle law firms and big 4 accountancy firms to regional professional firms. Above all, it gives partners inspiration and ideas as to what they can do next. The key elements of this workshop include
From workshop evaluations, typically 80% of partners become excited about the opportunities ahead and 100% of partners recommend the workshop. Typically most are apprehensive about their futures before this.
Charles Penney, senior partner at Addleshaw Goddard, was one of the first to go on the Next-Up programme. He said, “It was a real eye-opener on so many levels. We had a fantastic panel of speakers who gave us ideas and made us realise that you can try a lot of new things without worrying about ‘failure’ and we learned new skills. Much to my surprise, I found the session on LinkedIn extremely valuable!”
Not surprisingly, partners can be very cynical about any new support to help partner transitions. Too often it can be seen as a sneaky way to get partners to leave earlier than they planned. What we have seen is that the first workshop is the hardest to introduce, but as soon as partners start talking about the speakers and their stories, things that surprised them and discussing their own thoughts about the future – the scepticism disappears. And other partners ask to be included in the next workshop!
But this first workshop needs careful planning and investment into the messaging. Some of the things we have seen that help, include
One of the unexpected and most helpful parts of running a workshop is that partners talk openly about retirement for the first time. This not only helps with succession planning (how do you put a value on this?!), but there is also a cohort of partners who understand each other’s fears and can help each other confidentially with new connections and talking over new ideas.
It is still early days for all of us to know the best ways to continue this within a firm. We encourage each cohort to set up a WhatsApp group – helpful before partners leave the firm, but also after. We’ve seen particularly successful alumni WhatsApp groups on themes – such as groups of former partners who are now working with charities. As an example, in the cost-of-living crisis, partners were asking each other how best to help charity employees and what pay rises were being given.
In our workshop we suggest that partners get involved in their firm’s ESG initiatives before they leave. The managing partner of a Magic Circle law firm said how much he loves this – he suggests this to new partners as a way of networking and having interesting client conversations. But he had never thought of this for later stage partners.
The partner should ideally have an interest in the topic they choose – whether it’s about recruiting more diversely, sustainability, climate change or #MeToo. It is a great way to meet new people to see what others are doing – clients, contacts and more – and build new networks. It can help create a new brand both while still working and as they leave. It can bring a new sense of purpose and community. And it could provide ideas to continue once they have left.
Individual coaching can be extremely helpful. You want to find coaches who specialise in partner transitions to be the most help – our associate, Trevor Hatton is one of these, as is Jo Cochrane with whom we work. She highlights particular issues for partners in this video.
Jo has recommended our workshop to her clients because it is easier for a coach to work through options, once a partner can start visualising what they might do next and has a few ideas to discuss, from the speaker panels. We always say that hearing things they definitely DON’T want to do is as helpful as things that interest them.
Jo says a coach can make a real difference in:
Coaching can be offered in different packages. Some firms offer one 90-minute session to each partner, to create an individual personal plan from the workshop. Others offer a series of up to six sessions over a period of months. These latter really help partners to prioritise and start actions.
Many firms offer help with writing a CV and/or LinkedIn profile. As Charles Penney mentioned above, LinkedIn is one of the most valuable tools for partners after corporate life, but it has often been ignored. Few partners have had to write a CV since leaving university – and they need help crafting one for any kind of board roles or consultancy work, which have particular formats. You want a specialist used to working with partners at this stage of life, rather than your in-house team.
One idea discussed in our Forum and picked up by other firms, is to introduce an Ambassador programme. Partners who are retiring are called Ambassadors and given an additional 10 days’ holiday in their last year of work. They pay this back in their first year of retirement with 10 days of an agreed activity, depending on the firm’s needs and a partner’s interests.
The activities can be mentoring juniors in business development, running training sessions on risk management or quality management, mentoring partners through challenges or giving client support. This creates a sense of worth for the retiring partner, gives them conversation points in their first year and can have huge value to the firm without the worries of professional indemnity etc.
We are seeing this Ambassador relationship now continuing beyond the first year – I know one firm has asked if former partners would offer (free) mentoring to some of their clients.
Again, this is an idea shared in our Forum that other firms are now picking up. Look at what is or could be useful to partners when they retire, that cost little or nothing to your firm. Include them in a list of perks for alumni.
Ideas we have seen include:
One of the biggest issues for people leaving corporate life can seem the most … simple?! I cannot tell you how many conversations I have heard among ‘retired’ people about the problems of setting up their own IT, Wi-Fi and mobile phones.
I don’t know a lot about this. I think some firms do offer help from their IT teams. But if they don’t it would be one of the most appreciated things you can do to help a partner when they retire!
There are dozens of organisations who would love to tap into the talent and connections of your partners. But they are not necessarily easy for partners to contact by themselves.
Consider forming relationships with:
These can develop over time. It may be useful to run joint training sessions, to promote roles to your partners or find other mutual support.
For an alumni programme to work, you need to have an easy point of contact for alumni to engage with their old firms.
I have been on the mailing list of my old firm for years but whenever I tried to contact the partner whose name was on the emailing or the alumni team, it was always zilch response. In particular I was on the board of Northern Ballet, and we were doing a London season of Cleopatra at Sadler’s Wells. I know how hard it can be to find client entertaining events that are more skewed to women and was suggesting some kind of tie-up with drinks when we had a celebrity launch evening.
I didn’t mind anyone telling me this was a rubbish idea, it didn’t fit with the firm’s plans or whatever. But to get no reply at all was … well, disillusioning. I felt it was just a one-way promotional relationship. They emailed me lots of information and I guess I was meant to be impressed and recommend them. But it wasn’t a ‘relationship’ at all.
To make this work with alumni, you need to have a dedicated alumni team with time and resources (and skills) to respond to alumni and develop relationships when they leave.
So those are some of the key points to help partners transition from your firm and become supportive alumni in the future. I want to finish this (rather long) blog, with a quote from another associate of ours, Paula Dillon who was a partner with Womble Bond Dickinson. She says,
“Partners who cling on can cause enormous collateral damage. It’s bad for morale, clients, teams … and them. They might even claim age discrimination. Any partner who’s worked 30 years will have enormous influence in networks – you want them to be ambassadors for your firm, not detractors.”
Times are changing. Few partners just want to ‘retire’ anymore. I hope this blog helps you to form and develop an alumni programme that makes the most of these valuable relationships. And please do contact me to say what I have missed that are great ideas! And contact us if you want to join our Professional Services Retirement Forum (it’s free).
Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.