Case Study on Leadership
Jill left Jack’s office feeling elated and yet strangely nervous. She’d just been told by Jack, the Managing Partner, that the Board would like her to run a new group in the firm. It would have four other partners and six assistants and its brief would be to get to grips with all the commercial opportunities in the new technology sector.
As she walked along the corridor to her own office, loads of thoughts were whizzing through her head. Could she get a bigger corner office now? How was she going to get on with Ben and Bill, two more senior partners in the group? Jack had said that the Board had explained to Ben and Bill that the two of them had too important a role in looking after major clients of the firm to be given the position of group leader. Apparently they were happy about this.
The other junior partners had not been told the news yet. The Board thought that this news would best come from her. She was pleased about the appointment partly because she had thought for some time that the firm had been a bit weak at exploiting new opportunities. She would show them how to do it.
1 month later
Jill’s first team meeting seemed to go well. Her draft of the business plan had been circulated beforehand and there seemed to be a good discussion about some of the detail. If anything, Jill thought that the changes suggested by others made the plan even better.
There was some disagreement about presenting the plan to the assistant solicitors. Jill thought that this was a good idea. So did Bill. But Ben and the two junior partners were worried that the assistants had less loyalty to the firm and would take the plan to their competitors if they left. They agreed to compromise and give the assistants the main messages but not the detail.
6 months later
Jill was starting to feel tired. She hadn’t had much of a break during her first six months. There was that long weekend in Amsterdam with Sam, her husband and that weekend at the spa hotel in the Cotswolds with her sister when Sam went off for his golf tour. But it seemed time for a break. She felt pleased that her figures looked so good though. She had managed to take on the role of practice group leader and keep virtually all her client work. That was probably why she felt in need of a break.
The business plan seemed to have gone down well. Jack was using it as an example to other practice groups. Jill knew that only a few actions specified in the plan had actually been taken, but she appreciated that most people were pretty busy. The key thing that she was pleased about was that no one was actually arguing about it. Jill saw this as a success.
One of the highlights of the first six months was when enquiries started coming in as a result of setting up, with a leading management consulting firm, a sort of club of companies interested in using e-commerce as a channel for distributing their products and services. The contact with the consulting firm came from one of the senior assistants Dorothy Comme, who everyone called Dot. Jill was pleased that she had remembered to send a memo to Dot thanking her for the suggestion.
The assistant had volunteered to do most of the organising of the first meeting of the club. Despite being really busy, Jill thought she had supported Dot well mainly by coming up with good practical suggestions. The assistant, she felt, would have learned a lot from this experience.
Another success was the extra data that Jill had requested from Accounts to help her spot what was really happening on the money side. Her hours of pouring over these printouts reaped dividends because she could ensure that appropriate action took place, such as getting bills out and chasing debtors.
9 months later
Jill was keen to know how she was doing. She asked for a review with Jack, the Managing Partner. Jack looked at the figures. They looked pretty good. He also decided to meet the other partners in the group and talk to the assistants and administration staff to see what they had to say. The position looked more mixed. Jill was in for some surprises at this review, Jack thought.
What was Jill doing well as a leader and what could she be doing differently to be more effective?
Some observations on the case study:
1. The production of a business plan is usually a good place to start. If it is well structured it should clarify the direction in which the group is trying to go and have clear tasks, responsibilities and timescales to increase the chances of the group utilising all its strengths and pulling together. The problem with Jill’s approach is that, by drafting the plan and discussing it in a partners meeting, the plan does not receive full commitment from everybody. Just because nobody expresses negative thoughts about an idea doesn’t mean that they like the idea and certainly doesn’t mean that they are committed to it and will help to implement it.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to lead from the front and tell people what to do. A platoon leader with a hill to take needs to issue instructions. There is no better way of being a leader when you are in an emergency. But this isn’t usually the situation in a practice group.
To maximise the chances of people being committed to actions, the ideal approach is to involve them in the process of any reviews and consideration of options. The whole process takes much longer. It also usually goes round in circles somewhat. Some people say one thing and others disagree. The leader needs to find ways of resolving these disagreements without causing offence. Many leaders find this frustrating and prefer the faster I’ll-tell-them-what-to-do approach. Until they discover that it rarely works.
The other area in which to be careful is when practice group leaders circulate drafts to assistants in what the leader sees as a consultative process. It may come as a surprise to learn that assistant solicitors often have a negative reaction to this. So much so that it would have been better not to circulate it. Assistants typically can find this action manipulative or patronising.
2. An alternative approach rarely adopted by leaders, but which can reap great rewards, is to establish at the outset some ground rules or values by which the group agrees to be run. This has the effect of giving the leader a mandate. One way of doing this to agree what sort of behaviour is going to be encouraged and what behaviour is not going to be tolerated. In some groups it may help performance if it is agreed that, for example, all partners are expected to support actions agreed by 80% of the group even if they personally didn’t agree with the action.
3. Jill might have spent longer getting clearer as to what the Board expected of her. This would help her decide where she was going to focus her efforts. Too many practice group leaders try to achieve too much on too many initiatives and end up achieving very little. As an eminent commentator on leadership says, “it is better to attempt some foothills first before tackling Everest”. There is no better way of building team morale than getting some successes under your belt. As a practice group leader, you can feel somewhat stuck in the middle, between the Board on one side and your group members on the other. One of the challenges of the leader is to align the talents and motivations of your group members with what the firm is looking for you to achieve. Not easy this one.
4. It is almost impossible to be a truly effective leader and maintain the same level of fee earning work. It may be tempting to try to do so – after all, chargeable hours is the common benchmark in firms and to maintain a high billing level is very much to lead from the front. However, a leader will achieve more (through others) by allowing his or her chargeable hours to drop. Again, this is something to agree with the group and the Board.
5. The vision contained in the business plan is unlikely to be clear in everyone’s mind. This means that the group will not be pulling together as Jill hopes. Effective leaders tend to find activities to reinforce the vision so that it becomes really clear in people’s minds. Assistants and support staff frequently comment that they hear partners saying one thing and see them doing another. The messages become blurred and members of staff start to become cynical. The leader can play a vital role in ensuring there is consistency in communication by walking the talk and talking the walk. Michael Hammer, one of the current so-called management gurus says “ The same thing must be communicated seven times in seven different ways before anyone will believe it.”
6. There are other benefits from the leader finding time to walk the floors. There is no evidence from what we know of Jill’s first nine months that she has had time to find out how everyone is in her group – whether staff are fulfilled, happy with their workload or career prospects. Research studies show time after time that the biggest single factor that determines a person’s performance is whether they are motivated. Without spending some time finding out if all staff are fulfilled, the chances are that some issues are simply not being dealt with. Leaders cannot simply hope and expect people to come to them if they need to. Human nature suggests that we need some extra encouragement to express our thoughts. All this takes time and reduces the potential for the effective leader to do as much fee earning.
7. The effective leader tends to spend more time praising the effort of partners and staff. Jill does well to pass on some praise to Dot, but there would have had an even bigger impact if it had been done face-to-face, rather than sending off a memo. Practice group leaders often fail to appreciate the value of praise. They choose to take the short term benefit of chargeable work now rather than invest their time in raising the motivation of staff for the longer term benefit of the business.
8. Coaching is a very powerful way of enhancing the capability of other people. Jill has chosen to be directive in supporting Dot on the E-commerce Club initiative. This approach would be most appropriate if Dot has little experience. But she is a senior assistant. A less directive style tends to be more appropriate with such people. Again, this approach tends to take a bit longer. But the learning is deeper. Dot would be more capable of organising the next event if she had been encouraged to think it through for herself. In other words, if she had been coached. Senior assistants often comment to us that they are not given enough responsibility or not respected sufficiently for the experience that they have. This can have a serious demotivating effect.
9. Many practice group leaders see their role as getting to grips with the group’s financial position. There can obviously be benefits for someone to look closely at this information and chase partners to bill WIP. It’s just that there are so many other more useful things that Jill could be doing with her time. Reviewing the financial information is an administrative task and would be better performed by an administrator at a lower cost. If partners need chasing, all the administrator has to do is tell the practice group leader. If the group is large enough, this role can usefully be delegated to another partner so that the group leader shares the role of leadership and is not seen to be cracking the whip all the time.
10. Virtually all the writers on leadership agree that one of the traits of an effective leader is the ability to be self-aware and to learn from experiences. Jill does well to ask for a review with Jack, the Managing Partner. But she would have done better to ask members of her team for comments on how well she is doing as well. 360 degree feedback is invaluable in getting an accurate picture of how you are doing. When such feedback is obtained, the majority of leaders discover that their leadership style is different from the way they perceive it to be and how others experience it. One practice group leader I have worked with was really quite proud of what he saw as his democratic style. He was surprised to discover that his team all perceived him to be autocratic. Typical reactions were along the lines of “he does ask us what we think – but he always seems to go ahead and do whatever he wanted anyway.”
Effective Practice Group Leaders
So, not a bad start for Jill, but there is clearly quite an art to being a truly effective leader. The key factor that will probably determine whether she will succeed is whether she can accept the feedback she is about to hear from Jack and to learn from her experiences.
[This is based on an article published in Managing Partner in April 2001]