Taking the Lead: Touch Points

In Taking the Lead, Law Practice Editorial Board member Karen MacKay together with guest authors, tackle the ins and outs of running a law firm, providing expert guidance that every managing partner can use.

LEADERSHIP IS NOT a title, a job or an event. Leadership is a process where you can make an impact on the professional life of your colleagues, moment by moment, one person at a time. Leadership is about fostering excellence and creating opportunities for individuals to exceed their own expectations. In this column I identify just a few touch points taken from real life examples where leaders either found success or failure in those moments.

Feeling Welcome

In most firms lateral recruitment is a constant and expensive part of talent management. Leaders who monitor and manage the depth and breadth of their firm's professional complement are constantly meeting new professionals, recruiting and hiring. Some would say recruiting is about making promises, and the challenge, of course, is keeping them.

Karen MacKay

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

law practice issue jan 2015So in a firm where the new lawyer hired for a key role sits in reception on Day 1 for far too long, feeling welcome is already beginning to erode. Then, escorted to his or her new office by the managing partner's assistant, and left there to "get organized," erodes yet another layer. Well, perhaps the managing partner is too busy on client work, that is a great excuse. Feeling welcome—not! And so, he or she is absolutely at risk from Day 1.

What could be different? If this first impression was given a bit of attention, our managing partner could have called the night before, just to reiterate how pleased he or she and the firm are to welcome the new attorney. "Here's what is planned for you on Day 1"— setting out expectations and taking the mystery out of the day. Lunch plans have been organized with two or three people who are ambassadors for the firm, and key administrative people are booked to get this lateral introduced, connected and comfortable— a critical touch point. Feeling welcome? Yes.

Feeling Included

I recall a firm where a core group of men in the partnership went for lunch together most days of the week. In fairness, this was a group of lawyers who were summer associates together, joined since their first experiences with the firm. Now, 10 or 15 years later, they are all partners, and, indeed, one of them is currently the managing partner. They don't see themselves any differently, but others do, and the example they set is that of a clique excluding others from their daily ritual.

What could be different? At least one of them needs to recognize that they are now viewed as the power brokers, and the personal example they set is important. As they have progressed, laterals have joined the firm, men and women, who feel quite left out. This group needs to include others in their social bonding. They need to understand the importance of social fabric and that, every day, these partners have opportunities to make others feel included or excluded.

"they are now viewed as the power brokers... and have opportunities to make others feel included or excluded"

Feeling Valued

In a recent leadership workshop with partners in a large international firm, the partners acknowledged that they label members of their groups based on predictable behavior. There is the detail-oriented person who gets lost in the weeds and can't seem to grasp the bigger strategic picture. There is the complainer who finds fault with just about everything the group tries to do. And the person who doesn't contribute to the conversation but reserves the right to criticize later. These entrenched roles cause these leaders to "dis" these partners—disregard, disconnect and disrespect.

What could be different? A touch point here is to know your people and play to their strengths. Ask the detail-oriented person to review the facts with a fine-tooth comb to see what you may have missed. Ask your complainer to identify all of the places where the group might stub its collective toe with the plan before them—where might it go wrong? Ask the abdicator to review the arguments for hidden agendas—what's in it for me, for us and for the firm? Meet with these folks individually to identify the issues and get their opinions. Leverage their natural strengths to benefit the group and, one by one, make the formerly "dissed" feel valued.

Fostering Excellence

As Robin Sharma says in Lead Without a Title,

"Leadership is less about the position you hold than the influence you have. It's about doing world-class work, playing at your peak and leaving people better than you found them."

Law firms are peculiar in many ways, and the one most striking to me is that in too many firms' feedback stops when someone makes partner.

"It's difficult to tell a partner that his presentation skills are weak, he doesn't make eye contact and clients don't have confidence," said one managing partner.

That same managing partner had just concluded one of the toughest meetings of his career – asking that same partner to leave the firm.

"Trusted leaders are those who seize every opportunity to give feedback that fosters excellence."

What could be different? Trusted leaders are those who seize every opportunity to give feedback that fosters excellence. By providing context (setting out the issue), observation (what you saw or heard) and specific feedback (connecting individual performance with its impact on the person, the group and the firm), you set the stage for fostering excellence rather than tolerating mediocrity.

Upon reflection, this same managing partner replayed the situation differently. She seized the moment to give feedback. She set out specific relevant skills that partners expect of each other and that clients expect of members of the firm. She identified a specific area where this partner appeared to be struggling and offered a solution—a professional development opportunity specific to the areas of weakness, and the firm made the financial investment in this lawyer's skill development. She created opportunities to observe progress and gave feedback that supported development.

If the partner did not embrace the opportunity and take responsibility for his own skill development, so be it, we know how this story ends. But if embraced, and this partner felt valued, found new confidence and new levels of success—it's a win-win.

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As you reflect on your day-to-day opportunities to connect with your colleagues, remember these words from Maya Angelou: "At the end of the day, people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel." Leadership doesn't happen in the big events. It happens moment to moment, with every interaction and every opportunity where you can connect head with heart, intellect with emotion, and excellence with purpose.


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 edition of Law Practice magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Copyright © Phoenix Legal