Winds of ChangeA Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on Leadership & Learning
Picture this. A successful sales rep is chosen to lead a profitable business. All of the business’s main rivals choose their best sales rep too. Each leader is also gifted in other ways, but sales is the universal correlative. What lesson does this picture teach?
In this Viewpoint, as a raft of new leaders step up to unfamiliar roles in law firms across the land, we offer our usual sideways look at leadership and learning.
Many lawyers may look back upon their decision to study law as, in part, an implicit recognition that they did not want to sell things for a living. If teenage ambition is best understood as knowing what you want to get away from, it can be bittersweet, to say the least, to find oneself in collision with that ambition 10 or 15 years later. In a culture of cut-throat competition, where every partner promotion dilutes the equity, the area of keenest concern is a colleague’s ability to attract work.
Hence the prominence of rainmakers in contests for Senior and Managing Partner. Leaders are chosen because they can reach the parts that others can’t, or don’t. If only this were all the role required …
Surveying the Scene
When we launched Tyler Wilson five years ago, we conducted a survey of law firm leaders which reaffirmed to us how isolated the job can be, and how under-equipped most of leaders feel when taking over the reins. An air of confidence and purpose needs to be projected that make it hard to properly consult or ask questions; weekends have to be devoted to topping up knowledge of finance, strategy, people and technology; and decisions have to be wrangled from a management group selected on considerations of local politics over qualifications, at the risk of balkanisation of firms.
On top of that, the demands either of keeping one’s practice alive or accepting that it has reached its uncelebrated conclusion need to be wrestled with. Things have to be made to happen without threatening radical change. Credit has to be handed out, and blame soaked up. Law firm leaders are judged a success based on KPIs that don’t directly measure their personal contribution. Those were the days!
In recent years, we have observed new leaders feeling an additional pressure to get decisions right in volatile market conditions which have raised both the stakes and the odds against succeeding. The past is no longer a guide to the future; and partners who once desired only that management stayed out of their way now demand joined-up strategies for continuous growth in people, presence and profitability. In 2021, leaders must play a 3-D version of that game, with Brexit and Covid fuelling a sense of impending revolution.
What emerged from our survey, and has been reinforced by our subsequent experience, is how many law firm leaders depend on having access to reflective space ‘outside the bubble’ – somewhere to share experiences with leaders of other law firms alongside an independent sounding board with whom to test ideas and to think through problems in absolute confidence. If Managing and Senior Partner elections are all about strengths, subsequent terms of office require learning more about weaknesses: where might a leader be blindsided, outmanoeuvred or prone to misjudgement? To lead is to learn – but the first lesson is to acquire the means to address any shortcomings in private. Tyler Wilson came into existence to serve this purpose.
The second lesson is to notice how much this change in external conditions has aligned the management of law firms with those of corporations. Partnerships are no longer ocean liners, built for comfort rather than speed and requiring only minor course corrections on their voyage. They must be as agile as catamarans, able to make progress in heavy seas and headwinds, replacing passengers with crew, ballast with foils, dead reckoning with the latest GPS. The exposure to bad timing as well as bad decisions is significantly greater; the risk of capsize or break-up no longer unimaginable.
Internally, the same change is evident: partners, much like shareholders, are nowadays more demanding of transparency and involvement in the course set for the business, driven as always by their own proximal interests and agendas as much as by a thirst for market outperformance. The leader’s task, as it is for their corporate counterparts, is not just to decide what is in the best interests of the business but to embrace a panoply of stakeholder interests in the way that they do so.
Raising the Standard
These coordinates seem to set law firm management teams firmly on course to embrace, sooner or later, standards of governance akin to those expected of listed companies. Certain aspects of this may be helpful to adopt well before any reporting or formality becomes necessary. Evaluations of board effectiveness, for instance, would invite your management team to assess its collective strengths in areas such as risk awareness, trend spotting and creative problem-solving. There are opportunities to step back and evaluate the team’s diversity in personality types, experience and skills. You could also examine aspects of your decision-making processes, such as the plurality of discussion, the tone of relationships and the adequacy of your recourse to specialist external inputs. In this way, defining an ideal shape for your team might helpfully focus its ambitions, by showing it what it needs to move away from.
By mirroring the corporate model, law firm management groups would therefore not simply be equipping themselves to face the future but establishing a clearer template of the required member skillset. It would provide an opportunity for collective development in advanced listening skills, emotional intelligence and the facility for collaborative engagement. And each team member would be able to review – in private rather than in public – their personal strengths and weaknesses, their leadership style and their grasp of political/strategic context.
Whether your firm is leading the race or following, this is the way the wind is blowing. Tyler Wilson stands ready to help your firm unfurl its sails.