Taking the Lead: Learning, Discovery and Courage

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.

AS I WRITE THIS I will shortly be leaving my office to experience the Edge Walk at the CN Tower in Toronto. It's an extreme experience—walking along one of the world's tallest free-standing structures in open air, without being fenced in, some 356 meters high, or roughly 1,170 feet above ground. This week I also have been busy preparing two leadership programs for clients. The first is a 10-month journey of discovery and development for a group of high-potential partners in an international law firm. The other is an intensive leadership boot camp for new leaders who will leave their law firms and come together for one full day of learning.

Karen Edge Walk

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

law practice issue jan 2015Why do I mention all three of these to open this column? In part because I think these are three lenses through which we can explore leadership. The first lens is about having the courage to push your limits and get out of your comfort zone. The second is the lens that new information and new skills can be explored over time. The third is about jumping into the deep end with some justin- time learning. All of these are experienced in groups, which is a testament to the fact that we don't go through life or work alone. All are experiences best shared with others.

Intensive Just-in-Time Learning

Taking on a leadership role within your law firm is daunting. Success in the role requires the ability to manage a landscape of polarities, and to maneuver successfully in a state of ambiguity and a sometimes-overwhelming sense of responsibility equaled only by a lack of authority. Early wins earn political capital, trust and the opportunity to influence longer-term success. Finding your feet takes a bit of time and is played out in front of an audience of well-trained critics. Gathering as much information as you possibly can and synthesizing it quickly is one of your core skills as a lawyer, so leverage it as a leader. Legal industry publications like Law Practice are invaluable. More mainstream business publications like the Harvard Business Review provide a different lens. The seemingly endless array of blogs, books and talks can be overwhelming. Through trial and error, you will find a few authors who speak to you. Their words and styles will resonate with you—read them, and build from there. You will find a leadership conference or boot camp in your area—go and experience it. You'll find that you are not alone, and you will hopefully leave that experience with a network of colleagues.

*What Makes an Effective Professional Service Firm Leader?

A Journey of Discovery

If you aspire to a leadership role, begin your journey now. Begin at your core, and create a plan for your life—of which work plays only a part. In his book Lawyer Wellness Is Not an Oxymoron, lawyer and wellness entrepreneur Andy Clark provides a road map for implementing a strategic life plan for You, Inc. While wellness applies to everyone, if you aspire to a leadership role, begin at the core and put the building blocks in place to arm yourself with the strength and congruence in all aspects of your life. Imagine a firm that is led by people who are rich and full in all dimensions of life—health, family, financial, spiritual, social and so on. These leaders are more likely to think and behave with competence, character and courage. Leaders with their own fundamentals in good shape are more likely to leave the firm stronger than they found it. When you consider the challenges facing your community, your profession and your firm—who do you want at the front of the room?structures in each office.

In honing your skills, consider not only what you need to be successful today but the skills required for tomorrow. In the U.K., Laura Empson of the Cass Business School has been studying leadership in professional services and identified 10 qualities of effective professional service firm leaders. (See the box to the left.) These skills develop over the journey of a career. Some develop before taking on a leadership role, and others are honed while in that role, beyond the role and in spite of the role. Assess yourself against these qualities.

The stakes are indeed high in a rapidly changing professional landscape. If you arm yourself with the building blocks I've mentioned previously and sign on for the journey, invest in yourself. Make choices about your discretionary time, gather knowledge and learn the skills required for success. You will need to:

  • Find the courage to push your limits.
  • Read the work of thought leaders, provocateurs and influencers within and beyond the profession.
  • Hone your skills as a professional and as a leader.
  • Earn the trust of your colleagues through competence and character behaviors, as discussed by Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust.
  • Ground yourself in wellness in all aspects of your life.
  • Go ahead—have the courage to step up to a leadership role and leave your firm stronger than you found it.

*What sort of leader can effectively negotiate his or her way through the subtleties and complexities of a professional service firm?

Looking across all of the firms studied, the most effective leaders share 10 particular qualities:

  1. Are highly respected for their skills as a professional.
  2. Do not appear to be seeking power.
  3. Are able to inspire loyalty and commitment.
  4. Have a strong personal vision—and are able to communicate it.
  5. Are able to build consensus and act decisively.
  6. Transfer responsibility but intervene selectively.
  7. Are comfortable with ambiguity and conflict.
  8. Spend a lot of time "massaging egos."
  9. Do not expect to have their own egos massaged.
  10. Above all, are able to identify and navigate the leadership constellation.

Source: Laura Empson, "Reluctant Leaders and Autonomous Followers: Leadership Tactics in Professional Service Firms" (June 2014), available at cass.city.ac.uk.

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