1. Know your staff and your fellow Partners
You cannot expect nor do you deserve to lead or influence anyone in your firm unless you have made reasonable attempts to get to know them, their interests outside of work and what motivates them at work. Your enquiries do not have to be intrusive; some of your team may be quite private individuals. Sit down and think to yourself how much you actually know about your colleagues and, if your knowledge is deficient, set about finding out more. One consequence of knowing more about them is that you will be able to enquire more regularly and more confidently about how they are getting on at work and at home. What motivates someone outside of the workplace can be illuminating as to what drives them inside the workplace.
Try and establish relatively early on the following information:
- Name of their partner (if they have one)
- Family details (home town, family, early life)
- Main drivers/interests outside of work
- Hopes for their career
2. Sharing aspirations
Do you or your team have visions, aspirations or goals eg for standards of performance, level of service, reputation or standing in the market? You don’t have to be wildly evangelical but if you do have a vision about where you want the business to go, then don’t be shy about sharing it with team members individually and collectively. Better still, be brave and spend 2 hours brainstorming a team vision with them. Simple goals can be inspiring. A team that is well briefed about where it is going and what is expected to achieve will have higher morale to sustain it through the tougher times. A team that is poorly briefed will become dispirited quicker and begin to question why they are doing things. A shared vision creates a sense of purpose and belonging to which humans respond very positively.
As well as sharing a vision, it is vital that you keep your team informed of the day to day aspects of the business: personnel changes, office moves, marketing initiatives, financial performance, feedback from clients, almost any level of change that will affect them. Keeping it to yourself or to a small circle of colleagues (with the exception of clearly confidential information) represents slack leadership. A team that feels it is well informed and kept up to date on progress and which has a sense of purpose and direction will operate with that crucial bit of extra effort and effectiveness. Everyone hates not being informed – conspiracy theories proliferate! Remember when you have not been kept informed in the past and how cheesed off you were and try to avoid replicating a similar situation. At the next team meeting, ask the team what further information they would like to receive and how they would like to receive it. Provide them with feedback and updates regularly rather than sporadically.
Be aware of the various modes of communication (memo, email, letter, verbal) and their appropriateness for the occasion. The more personal the message, the more personal the mode of communication.
4. Make the time
Perhaps this is the most challenging for all senior people. “I would love to do all this good people stuff if only I had more time…” You are what you do – so if you don’t make the time to do the people stuff, you are rubbish at it – simple as that. If a member of your team appears anxiously at your door, look up from your desk, they have not come to talk to the top of your head. Stop doing what you are doing, make a physical gesture of shoving your work aside, ask them to sit down and give them your undivided attention. If the work you are doing cannot be interrupted, make every effort to see them as soon as possible. All good leaders have developed a sense of when to give undivided attention, even for short periods of time and it earns a huge amount of respect and loyalty from their team.
As well as responding to calls on your time, take some time to walk the office and ask individual team members to tell you the one matter they are dealing with which causes them the most concern, whether it relates to technical issues, colleagues, clients, the other side. Sit down with them and help them work out a route to resolve or ease the concerns. Active and genuine support of this nature is the real stuff of leadership.
If something significant goes wrong at work, do not ‘slope shoulders’ or ‘dump’ on your team; they will remember it forever and your credibility as a leader will be wholly and permanently undermined. Take the time to work with the individual to sort it out and rebuild their confidence. They will be very upset and this is the time where a true leader offers support and earns huge respect.
5. Praise, appraise and challenge
I doubt it can ever be said of partners in private practice that they praise people too much. We do not appear to be particularly good at praising or at least we are a bit stingy with it. Do not miss opportunities for praising e.g. “Super bit of research – it will make a real difference”/ “Excellent letter, you are really getting the hang of this” – warm, genuine praise can have a significant lasting effect. Diarise to give this aspect some thought once a fortnight at least. You should be constantly on the watch for an individual’s improvement and the opportunities to recognise good performance.
Also, it is very effective to recognise good work publicly by letting others in the team know when someone has done well. Reporting an individual’s good performances to Senior Partners/the Managing Partner can also be a powerful motivator. One very effective way of delivering praise or thanks is a handwritten note recognising an individual’s efforts and performance.
Appraisals and periodic reviews should be timetabled, diarised and the appointments kept. Cancelling appraisals or reviews in favour of other matters indicates strongly that you place appraisals low down your list of priorities. A firm cannot survive without a strong cadre of well-motivated fee earners so place these meetings very high on your list of priorities. Appraisal/reviews provide the opportunity to deal with a variety of issues and to give a significant amount of personal attention to someone’s performance, their development and their future with the firm. Equally, you must plan the appraisal – do not turn up thinking that you can blag it with words like “so how do you think it’s going?” You should have conducted some research with colleagues as to the appraisee’s performance, given due consideration to matters they have been dealing with, considered the relevant competency guidelines and made notes on what you intend to discuss and your general overall view at that stage. Follow up the appraisal immediately in writing (a common fault is to simply leave the written aspect undone). Diarise follow up on development and training in particular.
Do not shirk giving challenging feedback on unsatisfactory performance. This is probably one of the most difficult tasks of a leader, but if you get it right and you encourage people to accept the specific failings/weaknesses in certain areas and provide them with the opportunities and encouragement to improve, it is a very powerful tool of leadership. This should be an ongoing process and not just left to formal appraisals.
6. Create a sense of personal career progress
Every business endeavours to create some form of internal career path, which can range from dynamic to dire. Private practice law firms for example are hindered in this respect by a flat structure and promotion to partnership can be a very lengthy process. Also, it may simply not be a goal for even the very able lawyers. So it is vital to create a sense of personal progress for each member of your team, not just through any formal review or discussions but by encouraging them to look out for and take advantage of new learning opportunities and experiences to enhance their overall career prospects. Secondments to relevant industries/clients are particularly valuable and also open up career opportunities. Someone with a sense of personal progress will be that bit more contributive and motivated.
7. Spot signs of stress
It is implicit in your role as an employer and as a leader to spot and deal with members of staff who are showing signs of stress and unhappiness. You may have to approach them in a slightly oblique way i.e. ask about matters generally and whether there are any particular difficulties which may lead on to a conversation which identifies why they appear to be under the weather or under-performing. Recognising the causes of unhappiness or stress at work creates the opportunity to eradicate those causes. Do not avoid this role because it might take up too much of your time. Helping people out of stressful circumstances is one sure way to earn their respect and establish yourself as a genuinely concerned leader.
8. Recognise and acknowledge your own failings
You will be well aware that one of the greatest criticisms of modern day politicians is that they do not apologise and when they do it comes too late to have any positive effect. Because you are a leader, you are not exempt from recognising your own failings and apologising for them. It is not a sign of weakness, rather it is a sign of strength. For example:
- If you are sharp with someone or raise your voice to them, recognise this and immediately apologise. Telling off in public is very belittling.
- If criticism of someone is unmerited, rectify this as soon as possible and apologise
- If you are finicky and a bit of a control freak, recognise this and ask colleagues to point out when it is a difficulty. You should consider it as one of your own development issues and try to improve. If that is impossible, ask them to forgive you for it
- Obtain 360 feedback, informal or formal – otherwise you rely solely on your own perception of how well you treat and manage others – their perception is the reality. Be seen to address the feedback or the process will be seen as of little or no value.
9. Team meetings
In private practice, team meetings can range from adequate to awful. Try and raise them to a ‘good’ by agreeing a ‘contract’ with your team as follows:
- Meetings will be short, focused and not overrun.
- Everyone will turn up on time having done some preparatory thinking
- Post meeting action will be taken by agreed times
- Work will be fairly shared
- Everyone will have a say and no one will be allowed to dominate the meeting
- Paperwork will be kept to a minimum
10. Your demeanour
A cheery attitude on Monday morning (in fact, any morning), no matter how grim you are feeling, has an enormously positive effect on the attitudes and demeanour of those around you. Your mood as a Partner and leader is highly influential. Chirpiness, good humour and a positive attitude raise morale; grumpiness, complaining and cursory responses are highly corrosive. The common courtesies of “good morning”, “good night”, “please” and “thank you” are obligatory, not optional. Even if your own batteries are low, be the energiser!