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Partner at 35? Why I Know I'm Not Ready Just Yet

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On January 3, 2012, I received an e-mail from the president of my company, RMF Engineering, with an attached document. My heart racing, I felt like a high school senior about to open the application response letter from his favorite college. I thought, "Is this it? Is this how I get asked to become a partner in the firm?" Nope. So what was it?

First, let me paint you a picture.

Back in 2001, a few months out of college, I was hired by RMF in Baltimore and have worked there for 12 years.

As a mechanical engineer specializing in powerplants and infrastructure, I have accumulated multiple licenses, commissions, certifications and a graduate degree. I am a member of and actively involved in an ASME International standards committee and Maryland state boards (boiler rules and stationary engineers).

Now age 35, I am often called an overachiever and a go-getter, but I'll admit I occasionally overstep. I am the only one in the company who wears a tie every day. Yeah, I'm "that guy."


 
 WODKA

When it became clear that, instead of reading about the onboarding procedures of new partnership, I was being selected for the opportunity to be part of a "new leadership development program," it was a firm slap to my narcissistic ego. When I saw the words "two-year program," I stopped reading.

A two-year program! My ego was angry. Was this a pathetic attempt to buy more time before offering me a partnership?

Don't get me wrong: I was grateful to be selected for the leadership program, but the idea that the partnership opportunity was at least two years away was a bit disheartening.

I actually discussed the letter with the head of our department and confided my feelings. He talked me off the ledge. What I did not realize was that I was on the cusp of a vital change in my professional growth and perspective.

Out of 250 employees, only seven were selected to enroll in the program, mostly from different offices. As the leadership development program began, we were each paired up with a company director as a mentor.

The program is loosely based on an MBA curriculum intended to teach what a partner needs to know that is not taught in most engineering schools. We have focused on effective leadership techniques, corporate planning, public speaking, hiring and firing—and that was just in the first six months!

Bonds of Trust

In addition to meetings, reading books and homework, we get together for social and team-building events, such as dinners, side projects, seminars and white-water rafting outings. The intent is that while we are learning, the seven of us develop a bond and trust. I almost hate to admit it, but this touchy-feely stuff is actually working.

What was most eye-opening for me was the look behind the curtain of the corporate aspect of the company. I knew that a lot was being done, but I believe my ignorance is what gave me the sense of entitlement and arrogance. I felt like "I could do that"—comparing myself to other partners—when I really didn't even know all their responsibilities.

For me, this new perspective has developed a much higher level of respect for the management of the firm; more important, it has shown me that maybe I am not ready to become a partner just yet. I can't believe I just wrote that.

One important lesson the company has learned from past mistakes is not to grant partnership based simply on tenure. The purpose of the leadership program is to be the "machine" that properly prepares people for partnership.

That is the reason why I am genuinely glad I am participating in the program before "forcing" myself into partnership.

I look back and realize how obsessed I was with achieving partner status. Blinded by the allure of profit-sharing, I didn't realize the responsibilities that come with the role. Now, I will have a much greater opportunity to make more profit for the company (and myself).

Instead of striving for a title, I am learning to be an effective leader.

Instead of devoting myself to the struggle to satisfy the minimum requirements for partnership, now I'm thinking first of fulfilling the needs of the company and growing into the position.

Brian Wodka, P.E., CEM, LEED AP, is a mechanical engineer at RMF Engineering and leader of the firm's powerplant assessment and reliability team. He can be reached at Brian.Wodka@rmf.com.

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