Why it pays to motivate partners pre-retirement

11 February 2019 By Victoria Tomlinson

Why it pays to motivate partners pre-retirement image

Should we help partners who are retiring – and if so what and how?

This is one of the hot topics in professional firms at the moment – and here I want to share some of the issues if you don’t help them and the opportunities that are being overlooked in the process. 

These views are based on talking to some hundred professionals in the last year or two – partners themselves from big 4 and mid-tier accountancy firms, lawyers and others – plus managing partners and those heading up partner matters.

One thing is clear – the issue is exercising the minds of partners. 

A large number of firms are starting to provide pre-retirement support beyond the typical ‘financial planning’.  But everyone recognises it is pretty unimaginative; heavily focused around getting non-executive director (NED) roles; and based more on the premise that it is the right thing to do rather than being a great opportunity.

Increasingly firms are recognising that their, still mostly male, partners retiring are finding it harder and harder to win those coveted NED roles.  The reality is with increasing diversity needed on boards – yes gender, but also ethnicity, age and digital and cyber skills – this is a declining opportunity. And the risks and responsibilities of a non-executive director are making the roles a less appealing option for many.

So, what next for these partners – and does it matter to the firms?  Should they care about what happens to their partners – they have been well paid?

The answer is a resounding yes, they should worry. I am hearing growing numbers of stories – and seeing for myself – that partners are a business risk in what one firm described as their ‘glide’ towards retirement.  And I believe they are all missing what is a huge opportunity and to treat retiring partners as an asset with potential to add value to the firm.

Here I share what these risks are and where I see the opportunities.

Key risks of retirement in professional firms

I wrote about the issues I was seeing a few years ago – Retirement – the business risk that is never mentioned?  Since then, the problem has only increased.

  1. Lack of tech savvy

The older generation of partners (and frankly directors in every type of organisation) has not seen it as their job to get into social media, understand or own cyber security risks, be interested and have a view on the impact of automation and more – see Pat Chapman-Pincher’s report on technology in boardrooms on this subject.

Yet we have seriously needed this generation’s wisdom and experience on all this.  It is no good delegating ‘tech’ to youngsters – they haven’t got as much experience to see the risks, understand issues around behaviour or see the bigger picture.

  1. Declining influence

Some years ago, I was coaching a number of directors to become partner in a major firm.  They all had internal sponsors.  Working across the board like this, it was a shock to see the difference between a sponsoring partner who was retiring and those who were still moving and shaking, able to influence at the heart of the firm.  My recommendation was that retiring partners are probably not the right people to sponsor a business-critical activity.

One managing partner talked about the ‘massive distrust’ that starts when a partner announces a retirement date – referring to clients who worry if they will be relevant, fully engaged and the best person for the job.

How can you create opportunities for partners before they retire?

Last year, we organised an amazing conference – introducing 100+ experienced professionals with a room of people who wanted their skills, from tech entrepreneurs to online magazines and private equity firms.  You can read more about it here.

One very senior banker who came to it, said to me, “What was so great about the day is that no-one was expecting us to ‘retire’ – the day was about making the future work, recognising we all had skills and finding ways to use those. It was energising to be in a room looking forward in this way.”

I hadn’t before thought about this expectation and the influence on individuals in this way – though I should have done.  One of the first people we helped was Jules Gray, former head of executive education at Ashridge Business School.  She was lost as to what she was going to do because all her friends and colleagues were ‘retiring’ – playing golf and working in charity shops.  She wanted something more but couldn’t see what. Actually, she had an idea for a business – which she has now started and has been a success from the start. But she needed permission from us to say it’s OK to be dynamic at this age still!

What was so energising about our conference was mixing the generations and introducing people looking for help – so this made it really easy for partners and others to get going straight away with new opportunities.  And they did.

What help do partners need pre-retirement?

What I think partners need pre-retirement – and will lead to opportunities for firms – are

  • Changing mindsets – getting senior people to see the relevance and excitement of ‘owning’ technology and realising it’s not as hard as they thought and they have a lot to contribute in this space
  • Creating a culture of opening up and not shutting down
  • Widening networks – in areas where they have no contacts at all
  • Easy steps to new opportunities that would not have been on their horizon

The best way to help partners pre-retirement

At our conference, everyone made three to ten new relationships – and these are more than ‘coffees’. We are now packaging variations of our conference for professional firms to run for retiring partners – often bringing in other organisations to start the networking and provide more opportunities. 

From our conference, we know this formula works. Examples of just the things I know from the conference include

  • A former big 4 partner is helping an entrepreneur raise PE funding and in discussions around future paid projects
  • An intrapreneur from a large corporate is being mentored by a number of people with a view to him starting on his own
  • A former NHS exec is now coaching the exec team of a public sector organisation
  • A number of people are now writing for an online publication – on sport, business, legal, politics

Everyone attending the conference was energised, is getting a feel for the ‘real world’ – their words, not mine – and helping them find work from areas not even on their radar. Their conversations will be more interesting, they will have new ideas sparked and if they were still working in a firm, would be contributing a great deal of new insights for both strategy and risks. To say nothing of new connections to help in business development generally.

The writers are likely to be invited to events from political conferences – CBI, IOD and more – to sporting events.

Interestingly, by becoming more current and involved with everything from cyber risks to data analytics, they may actually become a more compelling candidate for non-exec roles.

New opportunities for alumni

The final thought on this new horizon for retiring partners – who could be working in their new lives for longer than they worked in their firms! – is that firms should keep the door open for alumni to join these activities. 

We have worked with a number of people who were living a retirement dream and sadly lost a partner.  When on their own, they started looking around for a purpose and using their skills again. 

We have just taken on Jackie Utley as our sales director after ten years in retirement – she used to sell IT systems to large corporates and wants to use her skills again.  Perfect for a new business as she is happy to work on a future commission basis.

Offering places to alumni on pre-retirement activities for partners is a great way of sharing experiences, building further networks and re-energising alumni offerings.

As Lynda Gratton points out, the 100-year life is no longer news.  Anyone retiring in their 50s has years of experience to offer to younger generations, their communities – and their firms.

Partners in professional firms are an enormous asset – but we need to create new ways to maximise their skills, for firms and for themselves.

Author Image

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

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.