Law Practice Magazine
Partner to Leader
Rising to the Top
Tips for a Smooth Transition
Tips for a Smooth Transition
As a new leader, you may feel confused just when you want to appear decisive, or overwhelmed just when you want to appear in control. You will struggle with issues such as whether to force change or accept the status quo—or whether to keep colleagues close or maintain a distance. There are a number of leadership tensions—the ongoing dynamics of the job—that all leaders face. Learn to navigate them successfully and your journey will be a far better one.
During the past couple of years I have had the privilege to peek behind the veil of law firm leadership and hear candid discussions about the challenges lawyers face when transitioning to a leader’s role. From the stress involved in looking like you know what you’re doing and the huge time demands imposed by your partners’ requests, to feeling disoriented by the scale and scope of the mandate, many quietly struggle with the pressures that accompany their leadership roles. And the great majority of leaders—in any position of responsibility—are at their most vulnerable early in their tenure. As a new leader, you may feel confused and indecisive just at the time you want to appear clear-sighted and strong-minded. You may feel overwhelmed and anxious just when you want to be seen as composed and dynamic. In fact, there are a number of what I’ll call “leadership tensions”—meaning the more or less ongoing dynamics of the job that you must wrestle with to effectively handle the responsibilities of leadership.
Each of us, when serving as a leader, has a natural predilection to favor one approach or another. Or, put differently, we see a spectrum of ways to approach a situation and tend to gravitate to one end of the spectrum over the other. Our preference is often “hardwired” into us, the result of past experience gained before entering into the current leadership position. What seasoned leaders come to learn is that the only way to navigate these tensions successfully is to manage both ends simultaneously.
Let’s take a look at the top five tensions of leadership—see “The Top Five” box on the right—with an eye toward what you, as a new leader, can do to navigate them. To give you a sense of what it truly feels like on the front lines, each of the following sections leads off with a quotation from a real-life law firm leader (kept anonymous for reasons that will be obvious).
Determining Appetite for Change
Tension: Where do I shake things up and where do I preserve the status quo?
"Lawyers are creatures of habit and busy lawyers even more so. The time and effort to condition them to new modes of operating should not be underestimated. On a variety of change initiatives, my personal goal is to reduce the time from ‘That’s the dumbest idea I ever heard’ to ‘We always do it that way’ from five years to three years!”
As a leader, you have to find a way to obtain a sense of agreement from your partners on the direction the firm, practice group or other entity should pursue. That direction has a great deal to do with the performance that you as the leader are charged to deliver. But it also has a great deal to do with your partners’ collective appetite for change. “Our dilemma,” one managing partner explained to me, “is that we hate change and love it at the same time. What my partners want is for things to remain the same but get better.”
To manage the tension inherent in this love-hate attitude toward change, you have to get a grip on the direction your partners want to go, which requires gathering their input and absorbing the information they provide to you. There are many questions that you will need to address with them, but two are pivotal:
Among your goals for this process will be defining the firm’s key challenges and gathering the input needed to develop your strategic agenda for going forward.
“I realized that fundamentally my relations with my partners would never be the same. Everyone has an agenda when they talk to you. As managing partner, you become more isolated and can never again just be one of the guys.”
Usually for people to follow you, they need to have a strong relationship with you. They need to feel that they know you as a human being, and they need to feel a connection and sense of empathy for your beliefs, values and stated priorities. Concurrently, they need to feel that you have invested the time to know and understand them—and that you have a solid grasp of what they hold important.
Without a strong sense of relationship existing between you and your colleagues, great goals are impossible to set, performance cannot be sustained, major difficulties cannot be overcome, and new opportunities rarely get created.
However, there is also the danger that if you fail to maintain some independence from colleagues, you may become identified with one clique or coalition in the firm. I recently overhead a partner at one firm commenting that a particular proposition, while rather absurd, would likely get positive attention because the originator was a “FOG.” When naively asked what a FOG was, the partner responded, “That is an acronym for Friend Of Greg”—the firm’s chair and managing partner.
The tension here results from questions about degrees of closeness and distance. Too close and you are seen as cliquish. Too distant and you risk creating a sense of aloofness, mistrust and resistance when you try to get things accomplished. Without developing strong relationships built on mutual respect, you may soon detect increased feelings of division within the firm.
“Notwithstanding all of the qualities I believe I have, I’m feeling like I’m a fish out of water. Yet how do I tell anyone what I’m going through? I need them to go on believing in me and trusting that I know what I’m doing.”
When you are new to the responsibilities of leading a group, you quickly find that the skills that made you a highly successful practitioner are not necessarily the skills that will transform you into a successful leader. You have an enormous amount to learn about your new function and its responsibilities. However, if you overdo it in seeking help from others, you risk being seen as unprepared, lightweight or insubstantial. Partners may soon wonder if you are ever going to get around to adding value.
Alternatively, if you come across as having all the answers and trying to show everyone how to succeed, you risk being seen as imposing your views, being uninterested in the partners’ opinions, and prone to antagonizing and irritating them.
So the tension arises as you realize that, at one end of the spectrum, it isn’t wise to come across as a know-it-all; but at the other end, your people will not be confident in the direction the firm is taking unless you act as though you know precisely where the firm should be going, what it will encounter along the way, and what the destination will look like once it has been reached.
“In some cases I’ve learned that I need to be more explicit … ‘here is where I believe we need to be going and this is what I think we need to do to get there, based on the discussions that I’ve had.’”
Deciding who will make what decisions and how decisions will be reached are fundamental acts of leadership. That said, effectively handling these fundamentals presents yet another area of tension.
On the one hand, you know that your partners will likely take more responsibility for implementing decisions when they have a part in actually making the decisions. This argues for wider distribution of decision-making authority and a consensus style from you as the leader.
On the other hand, you must often reconcile the need to appeal to partners who don’t want to move too quickly with the market reality that opportunity windows don’t stay open forever. This argues for a quicker decision-making process than obtaining full consensus might allow. Whether to influence or facilitate can be a function of firm culture, situational dynamics and the leader’s personality. In fact, of all the tensions noted, personality may play the largest part in how you resolve this one. You may identify more strongly with either influencing or facilitating—and either style will definitely shape how your firm operates.
“You don’t want to show any weakness, any self-doubt, any concern about making a difficult decision. Remember, you are the firm leader, which means nothing but confidence and high energy when you walk into a room.”
You likely want to achieve some impressive results during your tenure as a leader. And you will probably go to considerable lengths to achieve them, since your sense of self-worth, personal reputation and ultimately your leadership legacy depend on producing measurable results.
The challenge is that you inhabit a world infused with uncertainty. So simply being methodical and persevering will not guarantee that you get the results you seek. You need to cultivate the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and accept that it’s a fact of a leader’s life.
At the same, however, you need to be confident that you will be able to achieve the ends you are pursuing for the firm. Leadership is about credibility. Credibility requires confidence and certainty. Allowing others to see that you lack certainty can be dangerous in the real world. Once doubts about a leader’s certainty begin to form, they can be very difficult to repair. Every leader knows this and every leader fears it.
The tension arises between maintaining a reasonable uncertainty side by side with a resolute focus. Your success in balancing both will depend on anticipating new developments and understanding coming changes. As a leader, you must stay on top of information about the trends affecting the profession and your various business opportunities. Your future is directly linked to your ability to respond quickly—but also with flexibility.
Transforming into a leader is no small challenge. It is very human to get discouraged at times. Sometimes others will criticize your objectives. Sometimes attaining your goals will seem harder than you thought. Just remember that there is always an element of personal sacrifice and a need to remain flexible when one undertakes a leadership role. When challenges arise or unexpected events occur, the value of a leader with a high-faith factor cannot be underestimated. It is a powerful motivator for every individual you lead.
All successful leaders work through the top tensions over some time during their incumbency. Thinking through these issues at the start of your tenure will give you a more informed basis for formulating your objectives and pursuing your goals.
Patrick J. McKenna is a law firm strategist and management advisor. Since 1983 he has worked with management of law firms internationally to discuss, challenge and escalate their thinking on how to manage and compete effectively. H e is coauthor of the business best-seller First Among Equals, and the book Management Skills (John Wiley/Jossey-Bass) named him among the leading thinkers in the field of business management.