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Where leadership training falls short (318)



One of BigLaw’s biggest pain points is fixable.


There are few people out there with bad intentions, but there are firm leaders with bad habits.  I recently spent an hour on a call with the managing partner of an AmLaw 200 firm who was seeking my advice on succession planning and specifically with their practice and industry group leaders, many of whom were very senior and had been in the role for well over a decade.  I began our discussion by asking five very basic questions:

  1. Do these group leaders have a formal, written job description?  Answer: “No.”
  2. Do these leaders have a clear understanding of precisely how many non-billable hours they are expected to spend leading and managing the people on their teams?  Answer: “No.”
  3. Have you provided these team leaders with any organized leadership training within the past three years, to help them enhance their individual performance?  Answer: “No.”
  4. Have these leaders been provided with any written expectations (e.g., you must, as a group, meet at least once per month) of what your firm’s leadership is expecting them to do with their teams?  Answer: “No.”
  5. Do you, as the firm leader, meet with all of your team leaders to have them share and discuss their particular problems and successes with each other, at least once quarterly?  Answer: “No.”

Final and very serious question, why are you bothering to even have practice or industry teams? Are these simply TINOs (teams in name only)?

Now, let me not leave anyone with the impression that this was, in any way, an isolated incident, or that the answers that I most often elicit from firm leaders to these five questions, is wildly different in most other discussions that I’ve had.

It is still the case in too many law firms that we form these teams and then we say to the team leader, we want you to lead this group, but there is no attempt to provide any effective leadership training — a guarantee that there will be no effective leadership or management in the system.  Another way of looking at this is to conclude that law firms are very good at demanding that their people succeed but are pathetically useless in helping their people succeed.  This is not a system designed to obtain maximum organizational performance.

From my observations over the years, and from speaking candidly with law firm professionals charged with overseeing training and professional development, I hear about how leadership development training, especially for practice and industry group leaders is so vitally important, but how the biggest contributor to wasted training dollars is ineffective methodologies.

David Maister

When my old friend David Maister and I wrote First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals (2002), I checked Amazon, at the time, only to discover that there were already over 920,000 books listed under “Leadership” and concluded that all the world needed was one more.  But that said, if we look closely at these various Leadership books, one can quickly discern that most are written from a top-down corporate perspective and don’t often line up with the reality of professional services.  So, if we are not providing our people with training that fits with their real-world situations, we are sunk before we begin.

To be very specific, here are seven distinct shortcomings I hear about and personally observe where I have to conclude that leadership training is all too often, an unfortunate waste of money. Fortunately, all of them can be  corrected:

1. Training that has no connection to the job responsibilities

Another way of wasting dollars is failing to link training with the Practice or Industry Group Leader’s Job Description . . . if there is such a thing in existence.

For many years I had the privilege of conducting a one-day master class for new practice and industry group leaders hosted by The Ark Group.  I have now trained well over 400 Leaders in these workshops and in all cases the participants hail from firms of over 100 attorneys in size including the likes of Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, Morgan Lewis, Sidley Austin, Weil Gotshal, Winston & Strawn and so forth.  Amongst a number of opening questions posed at the beginning of the day is how many of them have a formal written job description.  In any given session, out of a group of about 18 participants, it is usual for only two to three hands to go up.

What I don’t usually ask, of those who had responded in the affirmative, is to tell us specifically what their job description entails.  I’ve since learned that that would make for the perfect follow-on inquiry.

By way of example, I was engaged by a firm to help them launch and develop a strategic plan for a new industry group as well as help kick-start one group that has clearly not been firing on all cylinders.  In my preparatory briefing, I asked (among a number of other questions) the usual one about formal job descriptions.  I was informed that indeed job descriptions had just been developed, arising out of a session with all of the practice and industry leaders the month before.  I learned that this job description was formulated during an exercise conducted by a consultant attempting to determine what tasks and activities these leaders should be held responsible for executing.  I was assured that I would be sent a copy.

Later that day I received the promised draft job description . . . all four pages of it.  Entitled “Group Leader Position Responsibilities,” this document covered everything, from developing an annual budget to approving marketing expenditures and signing-off on quarterly WIP reports; from coordinating file distribution to overseeing workload management; and from circulating draft agendas in advance of meetings to coordinating the performance reviews of students and associates.  It included everything . . .  except anything to do with leading a team!  This was the most exacting laundry list of administrative minutiae I have ever read through.

My response to the managing partner:

I will be surprised (almost alarmed) if you don’t hear from some of your practice and industry group leaders, after having reviewed this job description, that it is a touch “overwhelming.”   I personally think that the practice leader’s job description should be evolutionary in nature, such that you identify a few ‘mission critical’ tasks that you will absolutely hold people accountable for achieving and then slowly progress to adding more responsibilities.

I would, therefore, if I were drafting this job description, start with what I believe should be your two (and only two) mission-critical objectives (which are the highest value use of the leader’s time and curiously are not addressed, in any sense, anywhere in this draft):

MISSION CRITICAL OBJECTIVE #1:

To invest time in getting to really know the individual members of your team; getting conversant with their strengths and career aspirations; and coaching and helping (one-on-one) each individual member to become even more successful than they would have been, had you not been the leader.

MISSION CRITICAL OBJECTIVE #2:

To work with your group, as a team, to identify and implement specific joint action projects intended to increase the group’s overall morale; enhance the visibility of the group in their competitive arena; improve the service and value delivered to clients; secure ‘better’ business; and work towards developing a dominant position is some targeted niche areas of your marketplace.

From that as my start, I would then include perhaps one page of only the key, essential items that have been documented over the 4-page attachment, as simply supplemental action points to accomplishing the two mission-critical objectives.

As you read this, please note that these two Mission-Critical Objectives are outcome-focused,  not activity-focused.  In other words, they do not suggest or dictate any particular approach or style; you do it your way.  And, perhaps even more importantly, they allow any firm leader to easily be able to measure and assess what the results were. For example, you can survey the members of the group and ask what the leader specifically did to help each of you becomes even more successful. You can ask to see a list of the specific action projects that any group has identified and where things currently stand with respect to the implementation of those projects.

Alternatively, I often have the audacity to ask firm leaders if they have any idea of what is currently transpiring in any of their groups . . . only to receive a shrug of the shoulders.

Without written job descriptions, what do you use as the basis for focusing training to help your practice and industry group leaders execute their responsibilities?

2. Training that’s too theoretical

Theoretical or inspirational training approaches are where the rubber meets the sky.

For example, you will likely be told about how a leader is distinguished by “having followers.”  Right?  So for my part, I will ask a group of practice and industry group leaders, “Show of hands, how many of you aspire to be . . . followers?”  And they all laugh.  They understand completely that in our world, every lawyer feels that they are a leader, and in many ways, they are — especially as they oversee client matters and work with small groups of associates and paralegals to get the client work done.

Then you are likely to be informed about how leaders “assign tasks.”  So as the group’s leader your job is to examine the various activities that would advance the group’s market success and then decide, from amongst your group members, who should do what particular activity.  And I will be outrageous enough to tell these group leaders to please inform me if any of them find that assigning tasks actually works.

Here’s a better approach:  I inform them that as a “Contributing Editor” with the “Of Counsel” newsletter, I will arrange to have one of their journalists come out, interview them, interview their team members and that I will endeavor to “make them famous” — because while it may seem (theoretically) feasible to get things done by assigning tasks, I have yet to see that work among partners in a professionals services environment.  I then inform them that if there is one word that I will work to expunge from their vocabulary, it is “assign,” because it just does not bring about results.  But there are practical ways to get your team members to willingly take on projects and be enthusiastic about actually executing those projects. And that is what effective leadership training should be all about.

One more example.  If you read about good leaders, you have likely been informed that leadership is about “making decisions.”  A recent article title grabbed my attention: “5 Ways to Supercharge Your Intuitive Abilities to make Better Decisions.”  Once again, I call BS.

I have had a very blessed career and early on, after stumbling into consulting to law firms, I had a very senior, statesman-like individual, the founder of a major firm, take an interest in me and say to me one day, “McKenna there is only one thing you need know about working with lawyers.”  As I endeavor to always be open to learning, I quickly asked for his guidance.  He said:

Burn this into your brain! No lawyer, anywhere, ever, gets excited, enthusiastic, willingly supports or gets behind any idea, initiative, change, plan or program that they themselves have not had a part in formulating!  Your job is not to be the smartest in the room.  Your job is to be the coach, the catalyst, the facilitator; to help them get from where they are to where they want or need to be.”

That is what leadership is all about, but you will be very hard-pressed to find that kind of guidance in most practice and industry group leadership training.

3. Training not focused on behavior

It is not difficult to find all kinds of supposed leadership articles available to the professions that tout the various “attributes, characteristics and traits of the best leaders.”  I have encountered practice leadership trainers asking their participants to list these various characteristics, only to hear things like: “the best Leader is . . .

  • a visionary
  • adaptive and charismatic
  • creative and decisive
  • a strong and committed individual with political clout
  • independent, humble, and self-confident
  • willing to assume responsibility
  • an individual who displays personal integrity
  • an individual with the ability to communicate effectively

And so forth.  The obvious problem with this kind of (theoretical) listing is the “How?”   How do you be creative, self-confident, display integrity, or have political clout?  I would argue that leadership is not about difficult-to-measure labels but really about specific and sometimes difficult-to-execute behaviors.

Framed completely differently, the question that I pose to my workshop participants is:

Think back to an individual that you have worked with either in the practice of law or in some other community, civic, or non-profit organization that you have been involved with.  Think of an individual that stands out in your mind, as the very best mentor, teacher, or leader that you ever had the opportunity of working with. Now tell us all please, what specifically did that person do that caused you to perform better than you might otherwise have performed had they not been in the picture?

I seriously invite you to consider what your responses to that question might include.  Please notice that this question provokes a behavioral response, provides insights that can be emulated, and gets to the essence of what leaders actually do to be effective, far more than pontificating and theorizing about the various vague traits and characteristics that they supposedly exhibited in some mysterious way.

4. Training that doesn’t address real-world issues participants are facing

Remembering back to my admonishment to “burn this into your brain,” I find that no matter what the most senior leaders of a firm believe should be included in any leadership training agenda, if you don’t invest the time to query the participants, you are off to a less-than-productive start.

The best approach is to conduct brief personal interviews with at least a number of the practice / industry group leaders expected to be in attendance, to get a sense of:

  • How long they have been in the position;
  • How much non-billable time do they spend in their leadership activities;
  • How their group functions;
  • Whether they feel they have sufficient management support;
  • What frustrations they may have been tearing their hair out about recently; and
  • What specific training agenda topics they would like to see covered in the time made available.

And notice please, that this is a highly effective means of getting them to participate in, and have a say in, what topics and issues their training agenda should cover.

5. Training that is only for the newest leaders

I often get requests from firms wanting to roll out training just for new practice or industry group leaders.  That then leaves those supposedly more experienced leaders abandoned or feeling like they are being required to attend some kind of remedial program.  Even if senior folks are open to or interested in some further training, they will not join a program geared towards newbies.

One of the interesting challenges that many team leaders struggle to embrace is “How do I deal with a partner in my group who is more senior than I am?”  Indeed, in some instances, I’ve worked with group leaders who are actually being feed by other partners in their group.  Not surprisingly, their issue becomes, “How in the world do I attempt to coach or confront this individual when they may be acting out or not following through on promises they made the rest of the team?”

With this in mind, the key is leadership training for all, as this enables participants to learn from the full range of seniority and experience.  Further, it’s also how you can make the program culturally relevant to your firm.

6. Training compressed into snack-sized portions

With the constant pressure of billable hours, there’s often an. overriding objective to deliver effective leadership training by way of mini-sessions. “Can we fit it into a lunch-and-learn?” — that is, the shortest, least intrusive invasion on our practice leader’s billable time.  How small can we crunch the training so that it does not interrupt the “real work” we need these team leaders to be doing? Cf Steven Kerr,  “On the folly of rewarding for A, while hoping for B,” 9 Acad Mgmt Exec 7 (1995) (management classic proving that when systems and approaches work against engrained incentives, failure is the predictable result).

Obviously, this approach signals to your practice and industry group leaders that your firm really isn’t that committed to helping them do their leadership job and that it doesn’t understand the importance of connecting the implementation to instruction.  For example, if some group leader is trying to implement something like one-on-one partner coaching, they need to get comfortable with what might be a new behavior or process they are being taught and understand why it matters and how to know if it is actually working.

When training works, it has an ROI.  Cf Post 190 (“Training is, quite simply, one of the highest leverage activities a manager can perform,” quoting Andy Grove, High Output Management (1983) at 223).  Therefore, the focus should be effectiveness.

7. Training with no action element

One guaranteed way to have your training fail is to ignore linking the training with any day-to-day leadership behavior.  So, if you want to ensure that what happens in the workshop and what happens back on the job are kept worlds apart, do not make any effort to have participants make a personal commitment to implement some kind of project or task as a direct result of what they have learned.

Further, if you want to fail, you need to make sure that you don’t record the participants’ names and the specific “deliverable” that they have volunteered to work on and report back to the group.  And don’t set a date at the precise conclusion of the training session for everyone to get back together to account for their individual progress.

Finally, don’t hold the presenter of the training responsible for coaching or providing assistance to the participants to help ensure that they are successful in executing on their undertaking and thereby feeling like they are making personal progress.

Naturalist William Henry Hudson once observed: “You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren.”  Along that same theme, I fear that far too many leadership training efforts are theoretical, don’t address or change behavior, with content that is poorly delivered, and without an action element integrated into the firm.

Don’t Forget Your HiPos (High Potential Future Leaders)

I had the occasion to participate in a brainstorming session with a small group of seasoned managing partners wherein we were attempting to identify what developmental experiences might have the greatest impact on shaping any potential leader.

For what it’s worth, we identified and agreed upon the following list as the most important:

  • Experience leading a major substantive client project
  • Fixing or stabilizing a floundering project
  • Turning around an idea or client deal that fell apart
  • Chairing an internal committee, project, or task force handling a temporary assignment
  • Being mentored by a gifted senior professional with exceptional qualities
  • Confronting and coaching a junior professional with an identified performance problem
  • Actively engaging in an outside industry, civic or political committee leadership role
  • Taking on a new career challenge in response to identifying a specific opportunity
  • Taking control of a sensitive personal crisis (e.g., serious illness, family breakup, death)
  • Attending an intensive, interactive leadership skills-building program and then coming back to the firm and delivering portions of that program content to others
  • Starting a sub-practice — building something from nothing
  • First time serving as an assistant group leader, having to manage peers.



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