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Managing

Strategic Talent Management: Top Issues and To-Dos, Part 2

Smart firms stay abreast of the opportunities and threats that await them. Better still, they have a strategy for filling in talent gaps so they can best the competition. Here’s advice on how to put the proper framework in place for firms large and small.

In the previous installment of Managing, talent management expert Terri Mottershead, principal of Mottershead Consulting and former professional development director for DLA Piper, provided insights on the top issues in talent management for 2011. In this edition, the conversation continues to help guide your firm’s strategy.

How should small law firms approach talent management, especially when they don’t have staff to oversee it?

Terri Mottershead: Most firms already have some elements of a talent strategy. By which I mean they recruit, train, compensate and probably evaluate lawyer performance and also move partners into leadership or management positions. So usually, even small firms will not be starting from scratch, and there are likely many good building blocks that can be drawn together to create a solid foundation for those willing to build on it.

However, a solid foundation alone is not enough. The construction that follows needs to be planned via a strategic framework to help identify the firm’s priorities and focus resources (human and financial) on those priorities. Random acts of hiring and training will not make the cut in this sort of framework. Similarly, if the firm lacks the professional staff, or responsible partners, or a firm committee that can focus on talent management, then the firm will know when and why it needs the support of consultants and can define their tasks with greater clarity.

I am a big fan of the SWOT analysis to kick this off. Using the SWOT planning process, you look at your firm’s internal strengths and weaknesses. You also look outside the firm and determine what opportunities you see and what threats (or challenges) the market presents. You want to look at what has been working for you in terms of talent management and what has not. The goal is to identify your gaps. Determine what the marketplace looks like for you, now and in the near future, and what talent you will need to deliver services to it.

Bring together your leadership team, associates, senior support staff and talent professionals if you have them (either internal or external) to talk about this. Agree on four or five priorities for the coming year. Each priority should build on your strengths and opportunities but minimize your weaknesses and threats. This will provide your strategic talent direction. The best part will then be ahead of you—the implementation and communication!

You’re a proponent of the competency model for talent development. What do firms need to consider before moving to such a system?

TM: I do favor competency models because I believe they provide a good blueprint for career development—one that is transparent, fair and informative. I do not, however, believe that any “off-the-shelf” competency model will do. So before moving to a competencies-based system, I advise firms to do the following:

  • Understand this is likely to be a change process, and change doesn’t come easily. It takes time to build consensus, and if you don’t take that time, you will not get buy-in and your efforts will almost certainly be doomed to fail. The process may take 12 months in planning and preparatory work and then another 12 to 18 months to roll it out in phases. This will cost the firm some money, too—be prepared to spend it wisely but be prepared to spend it all the same. Also be prepared to see the process through to the end.
  • Understand the difference between competencies and benchmarks. Competencies are about behaviors and traits. Benchmarks are about skill sets and skills frameworks. You should have both. Although they can be developed together, you may need different people involved in their development. But you should coordinate all of it through one project manager.
  • Put together a team to lead the process, keep it as small as possible, and have a skilled project manager as the team’s leader. You will want a broad cross-section of skills, so the team should include a mixture of partners, associates, support staff and likely a consultant or two.
  • Be sure to select any consultants carefully. It is possible to do much of the work yourself (if you have skilled staff). However, it is also worth considering that consultants who work in the area of competency models often have a richness of multifirm experience that can result in a new point of view and an objectivity that may be missing if you do it all yourself. You may want to issue an RFP for your work, but at least be sure to ask for and check references.
  • Do a talent audit from top to toe. Log and review every policy, process and system, and consult as many people as possible to find out what works and what doesn’t for your firm, what skills you need and do not have, and what resources you will need and do not have. Know where the gaps are and understand why those gaps exist.
  • Spend time defining what success looks like for lawyers at your firm now and what it will likely look like in the future. Search for answers within the firm and outside. Be open to input from associates, support staff and clients as well as partners. Use as many different ways to collect that input as possible—focus groups, surveys or behavioral interviews. Remember, you are looking for information about behaviors and traits and then capturing these in a way that lets people understand what is expected of them, so they can achieve or exceed expectations and be rewarded accordingly. If you only seek input from a small group of people, you will limit the relevance and transformative impact that competencies can have on your business. In effect, you will reduce your competencies to little more than a validation of the status quo.
  • If your firm has decided to employ associates who are off the partnership track, then develop their competency model in parallel with the model for your on-track associates. If you do not do this, then movement between career tracks will be confused and confusing.
  • Don’t forget your partners. While most competency models in law firms have focused on associate development, there is a pressing need for a similar focus on the development of leadership and management competencies for partners.

Anything else for our readers as their firms consider their talent management strategies for 2011?

TM: Don’t be intimidated. You can take time to develop a talent management strategy, but you can also achieve many quick wins along the way. There is much to think about, but a lot of talent management is not new—it’s just that thinking about it and equating it to the same level of focus and funding as business development and technology is new. Ultimately, talent management has a beginning and a middle but no end. And that’s the way you want it to be because it means your firm is constantly learning and enhancing knowledge so it can continue to prosper in an ever-changing marketplace.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA, 2000).

For more on professional development and how to boost your firm’s talent game plan, see the features in Law Practice magazine’s September/October 2010 issue at www.lawpractice.org/magazine.

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