CHANGING OF THE GUARD

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on preparing for leadership

It’s the time of year again when leaders in law firms reach the end of their terms of office, and new hands prepare to take the helm.

This Viewpoint suggests ways to hit the ground running – whether you are new to being a member of a partnership council, leading a team or practice group or running a firm.

 

A WORLD IN FLUX

In our 2017 survey of senior and managing partners (www.tyler-wilson.co.uk/taking-the-helm), we heard a consistent refrain that light-touch leadership is no longer viable. Since the financial crisis, the business environment has evolved at a pace which is incompatible with ‘steady state’ management and the idea that the past is the best guide to the future.

Another message was of new leaders feeling the need for greater exposure to the financial aspects of their firm’s business, better knowledge of the workings of the commercial property market and a deeper understanding of HR issues. They also reported needing to know more about their firm’s business and clients outside their own area of practice and about the key challenges faced by business service functions. These knowledge deficits are fixable with time and effort but prioritisation is needed in order to master the brief effectively.

Prioritisation is a meta-issue because it affects not just every leader but also every firm and every person in every firm. It is a vital consequence of the complexity of business today, deriving from the challenge of acquiring information in the necessary breadth and depth for optimal decision-making. This ties in with a need for self-evaluation: how to be sure day-to-day that you focus on the right things, see the wood from the trees, are in touch with your own biases and preferences and alive to the emergent threats and opportunities. Many leaders can happily rely on the competence and judgement of colleagues in specialist areas, but few have enough trusted colleagues to cover all their blind spots.

ORGANISATIONAL AGILITY

The optimal approach is through teamwork and agility rather than individual super-heroism. McKinsey, which has written extensively on the need for organisational agility, suggests that its five core ingredients are (a) a network of teams (b) operating with a common purpose (c) in a people-centred culture (d) that is enabled by technology and (e) has rapid learning and decision cycles[1].

The cornerstone of organisational agility is to have identified your ‘North star’ – the shared vision and purpose to which all activity must contribute. This is essential to decentralising control so that your teams can become self-authorising and self-managing. Likewise, a North Star is the binding agent in any people-centred culture – cementing the creation of a high-trust environment in which collaboration and communication are prioritised as much as service delivery.

To build a rapid learning environment, says McKinsey, leaders must be willing to embrace their uncertainty – modelling a culture of experimentation and testing rather than pretending to have all the answers in advance. This also means being smart with technology – for which read any kind of ‘black box’ specialism that you are required to use without understanding in detail how it works. The key is to avoid gimmickry and bogus standardisation and instead prioritise architecture, systems and tools that unlock value and increase responsiveness.

FINDING YOUR NORTH STAR

In our view, McKinsey’s five hallmarks of an agile organisation also work as development tools for good leaders. To maximise your agility network, first ask yourself what you alone can do in your new role, and then identify the others to whom you can delegate the rest. To establish a common purpose, ask yourself why you were chosen for the role and what the organisation might be expecting you to deliver. If you are casting around for a ‘North star’, the clues will be found there.

To develop a people-centred culture, consider what information flows you should establish – in and out, up and down – based on what you liked when you weren’t the boss. This should include clear signalling of your ‘North star’ priorities and your confidence in the organisation’s ability to achieve them. As for technology and other ‘black box’ specialisms, prioritise them according to their ability to unlock value for clients or increase fee-earner responsiveness.

Finally, to promote fast learning and decision cycles, consider what relationships you might need in place to change or make up your mind, avoid or face up to mistakes, and confide or resolve your current preoccupations. One of the singularities of belonging to a profession that trades on its expertise is that most of us prefer to do our learning and agonising in private. How will you engineer space for yourself to do that away from the gaze of the organisation and then allow similar space for others?

TO PERFORM WELL IN PUBLIC, PREPARE WELL IN PRIVATE

In our survey, virtually all respondents told us they had someone to whom they turned for constructive challenge, a sympathetic ear and a confidential environment in which to plan and problem-solve. Some called this person their coach; others used a different label. This may reflect the confusion we detect about what a coach is and does: the ground you cover in coaching will always reflect your (the coachee’s) own agenda. There is no off-the-shelf version (or, if there is, expect its limitations to become obvious quickly).

Put it another way: to most people, agility doesn’t come naturally. To perform well in public, you may need to prepare well in private. To decide something quickly, you may need to think it through slowly. To continue stoically under the weight of pressure, secrecy or uncertainty, you may need somewhere to unburden yourself. To recover from mistakes or pacify your critical inner voice, you may need someone to help pick up the pieces.

As Helmuth von Moltke sagely observed, no strategy survives first contact with the enemy. Leadership is about how you regroup and plan your recovery. Coaching is a confidential space where you can give yourself the wherewithal to do it.

 

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-five-trademarks-of-agile-organizations