Is This Burning An Eternal Flame?

The Future of….Partnership
– by Jennifer Emery, Director of People, CMS

In the fourteenth century, one of the most powerful organisations in Europe had a large office in the centre of London.

On the site of what is now Cannon Street station, the Hanseatic League built the Steelyard – a walled community with residential homes, warehouses stretching along the river, a weighing house, counting houses, and even a chapel.

The Hanseatic League was a partnership of city states across Northern Europe. Member cities collaborated for their mutual economic benefit, diplomatic privileges and protection.

They shared ships to save time and money, and protected one another’s trade routes. The League developed its own legal system and could deploy its own army.

The Steelyard was the largest medieval trading complex in Britain and a prosperous toehold for the League – so much so that in 1598, Queen Elizabeth intervened, suppressing the Steelyard and rescinding the privileges of the stinking rich Hanse merchants, in a bid to protect the rival City of London.

Seven hundred years later, the law firm I work for has its headquarters on the same site in Cannon Street.

This firm, too, is a partnership that stretches across Europe and beyond in a bid to reap the benefits of the collaboration, clout and cachet that come from sharing expertise and resources across borders.

It, too, has a long and illustrious history. In the UK, the firm traces its routes back across almost 250 years, and takes a sheepish pleasure in one of its founding partners being referenced in unflattering terms in a number of Oscar Wilde’s plays.

If this article were about the history of partnership we could go on from here to take a delightful lamplit, foggy stroll out of Cannon Street, through the City of London and beyond. The history of partnership is long and labyrinthine and full of stories and characters. But what of its future?

The very word is apt to conjure dusty, Dickensian pictures of grey old white men in dusty offices. It smacks of clubbiness and privilege – ponderous, elitist, traditional. Does this seven-hundred year old model really have any relevance for global businesses today?

I think it does, for the five reasons I’ll go on to explain below, but for a while there I think we all had our doubts. In the world of professional services over the past twenty years, in the light of various regulatory changes and in the face of unprecedented globalisation and technological change, it’s been all about ‘getting more corporate’ – more structure, more strategy, more command and control; big brands, corporate colours, logos, slogans.

Those central tenets of partnership – autonomy, consensus, personal relationships? Those slow us down. All very sweet and honorable, but hardly the basis of a fast-paced, hard-nosed twenty-first century business, right?

Wrong.

Like many of the great institutions – democracy, church, marriage – partnership has undoubtedly got a bit tangled over time with all sorts of extraneous and unnecessary rules, traditions, expectations and assumptions that hang off it and give it a bit of a bad reputation.

But when it’s pruned back hard to its essence – a means by which people can do business together, retaining a high level of autonomy but collaborating closely on stuff that matters to the parties in the partnership and their clients – you have, right there, perhaps the ultimate model for business in the twenty-first century, and a highly attractive proposition for millenials, and for Generation Z – limbering up to enter the workplace as we speak.

As an ownership model, partnership is a bracing and intimate alternative to corporate anonymity. Because it doesn’t divorce ownership from responsibility (I’m ignoring for now the legalities around LLPs, etc – my overarching point is simply that the people doing the work are the people who own the business), partnership tends to drive high levels of commitment and quality and so also, in time, build high levels of trust on the part of clients.

Partners care and clients know it. It also puts a broad range of human beings, with all their passions and messiness and all they have personally invested, right in the driving seat of the business – and that tends to mean both a tight and tenacious focus on business performance, and simultaneously a focus on much more than that.

Even the most red in tooth and claw capitalist partner tends to care about something other than profit, and so firms invest in people, in training, in knowledge, in CSR, in youth programmes, in academia – not because they have to, but because they can. For the generations entering the labour market now and in the future, this is attractive – they want skin in the game, to be part of something, to invest and be invested in. Not necessarily for life, but for a while.

Partnership as an ownership model is arguably also pretty resilient in tough and uncertain markets – partly because of the tendency of a professional services partnership to span a number of practice areas and markets, some of which provide a natural hedge for one another – but also because of partners’ generally greater willingness to bear with one another and the market than might be the case in a corporate context. The appropriate sharing of profit, risk and, candidly, power makes ‘the deal’ for partners clear and fosters commitment for the longer term.

As a decision-making model, partnership can be a slow nightmare, inching towards the lowest common denominator or – properly contracted – it can combine the best of risk-taking and risk-aversion, of autonomy and accountability.

The key to understanding much of what goes on in a modern partnership – and much of what works – is to imagine that we’re trying to replicate across 60 offices in 30 countries in 2016 the same sort of approach to decision-making that a dozen partners sitting around a board table in the City in 1916 opening the morning mail together could adopt – quick yet measured, collaborative yet taking account of personal expertise and preference, principled yet pragmatic.

As the foundation stone for a great culture, partnership feels particularly modern and relevant in the way it combines the professional and the personal. There’s the potential for real authenticity and immediacy of the sort that appeals to the new generations entering the market.

Partnerships tend, too, to lead to a fairly flat hierarchy which also appeals. There is of course the danger – sometimes been borne out in the past – that partners elect partners in their own image and so the culture becomes homogeneous, elitist and narrow.

But in a firm which is in other respects open to attracting and promoting a diverse group, partnership can actively foster diversity and inclusion by giving everyone a voice and encouraging collaboration and the sharing of knowledge and ideas. Which leads me also to consider partnership as …

As a font of creativity and thought leadership. A brief aside here. I must confess that this article has risen from the ashes of a failed one, about cultural appropriation – a topic which, I concluded (reluctantly, 400 words in), was too hot and too nuanced for my fast and clumsy pen, but one we should all care passionately about, we who cry freedom and future.

Provided our respect is deep and our intention all for good, surely cultural appropriation is how we all grow? The spark of a synaptic connection between different ideas, different facts, different histories, the laying down of something new – a collective neural pathway, a new way to experience the world. This is the corporate brain in action, the source of insight, the definition of intelligence, the basis for change.

I digress, but not entirely – because partnership done well can be an exemplar of excellence when it comes to this sort of inclusivity, and so a crucible for cultural appropriation at its dynamic best. Solutions developed in one industry sector can be modified and applied in another, partners in different markets can spot trends together and develop industry standards, partners can be supported to explore new markets or develop new products. In a knowledge economy, true mastery and new thinking are the currencies, and both can be fostered by the strength and breadth of knowledge that a partnership has within it, together with a partnership structure which allows this expertise to come readily to fruition.

Partnership, then, is modern and relevant – very much an idea of our times. Yes, there are lots of examples of dysfunctional partnerships – elitist, indecisive, you name it – just as there are lots of examples of dysfunctional marriages. But that doesn’t mean there’s a fundamental problem with the institution itself.

Granted, too, that the partnership of today and tomorrow doesn’t look exactly like partnership of yesterday – it’s not necessarily forever, for example, and it’s for a diverse group of people, not the cookie-cutter few.

But partnership’s power and tradition live on – in Cannon Street, across Europe and beyond – and its future burns bright. And as Gustav Mahler said (and The Bangles, not quite),

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the handing on of the flame.”

– with thanks to the author Jennifer Emery, CMS.