Vol. 40, No. 4

Leadership: Focus less on return on investment, more on return on relationships

by Patrick Tandy

What makes an effective bar leader? A strong sense of vision? Fostering a collaborative office culture? A corner office? For attendees of the 2016 NABE Midyear Meeting in San Diego, the question—posited by co-presenters Rory Gilbert and John F. Phelps during their program “Effective Leadership: Charting the Future for Smooth Sailing”—was nearly as open to interpretation as asking a roomful of first-year design students, “What is art?”

When Gilbert—a Mesa, Ariz.-based diversity, leadership, and organizational effectiveness consultant—put the question to her audience, respondents said that a leader should be decisive, build consensus, and have solid vision. Yet several, citing the burgeoning ethos of servant leadership, maintained that good bar leaders must at times themselves be “good followers,” open to considering the latent talents, viewpoints, and skills of those they manage, as well as the needs of their members. A good leader, several agreed, must also possess empathy.

Relationships are key—especially now

At the heart of this exercise was the need for bar executives to place greater value, in Gilbert’s words, on the “return on relationship rather than return on investment,” whether working with staff, elected leaders, or association members. In other words, knowing how to handle your people in order to maximize their efforts is just as important as knowing what steps need to be taken to get the job done.

This is especially true in today’s professional environment, where building cohesive working relationships is arguably more complicated than ever. Generation Xers (born between the mid-'60s and late-'70s), for example, are not necessarily receptive to the same management techniques that work for their predecessors, the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). And Millennials (born between the early '80s and the turn of the 21st century) have a style—and expectations—all their own.

The lattermost group, Gilbert said, reflect a distinctive “mix of high tech and high touch,” meaning that along with their tech savvy comes a well-nigh constant need for reinforcement. She likened this expectation of acknowledgment to marriage in the sense that working relationships with Millennials, as with matrimony, require regular cultivation for them to flourish and realize their full potential. “Look for what they are good at,” Gilbert advised, and capitalize on it.

Building a strong, stable team requires employees to feel, at some level, personally invested in the collective effort. According to Phelps, chief executive officer of the State Bar of Arizona and NABE Programming Committee chair, much of this can and should begin with new staff orientation. Phelps himself puts this theory into practice by personally meeting with every new employee of his association within the first 48 hours of their employment and, in the process, contextualizing how what they do influences the greater whole. Even custodial staff, he said, “need to know how what they do matters and contributes” to the bigger picture.

“If they don’t feel that what they do matters, they won’t stay,” Gilbert agreed. Moreover, “they need to know that you’re not going to throw them under the bus if things do not go well.”

Idiosyncrasies of bar work

Phelps acknowledged that bar executives themselves, in acting as the connector between bar leaders and bar staff, are at once responsible and accountable. Gilbert suggested that, after meeting with a new president to learn of his or her priorities, one should discuss them with staff to optimize the effective execution of those presidential initiatives at all levels. 

Taking this concept of a “shared vision” a bit further, Phelps noted the difficulties presented by the frequently rotating cast of personalities that cycle through bar leadership, which can complicate the efforts of even the most seasoned and stalwart staff. To this end, Gilbert suggested that bar associations might greatly improve their efficacy and scope by creating “three-year visions,” key initiatives that would span the terms of several leaders.

Also necessary: Self-reflection

Gilbert and Phelps delved deeper into their “Effective Leadership” techniques, with an emphasis on self-reflection, in the follow-up program “Charting the Course and Maximizing the Crew’s Talents.” The session took an engaging turn when the presenters administered an abbreviated form of the DiSC Profile personal assessment, which categorizes behavioral traits by Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness.

Attendees traded cards emblazoned with words such as “Relaxed,” “Daring,” and “Sociable” for the ones they felt that, through process of elimination, best described themselves. The overarching point of the exercise was to assist them in better understanding different personality types and, in discussing common traits among each, how they might communicate with each most effectively.

Gilbert said that, in her experience, two areas in which she consistently saw great need for improvement among leaders were in “giving honest, constructive feedback” and the tendency to avoid like the plague any action that might provoke conflict.

“Leaders need to be self-reflective,” Gilbert added. “If we’re not consciously thinking about ourselves, we cannot do the job as well.”

In the end, attendees largely concurred that the most effective leadership in today’s workplace is to be found in a process rather than a title.

“Leadership is about engaging and energizing people,” Gilbert said. “An organization will never be what its people are not.”

Patrick Tandy

Patrick Tandy is director of communications at the Maryland State Bar Association.