Vol. 42, No. 1

6 steps toward a better bar starts with knowing your DNA

by Tim Eigo

Conference plenaries are designed to ask the big questions, to challenge attendees to overturn—or at least tweak—long-held beliefs that define a profession. Greg Satell, the keynote speaker for the opening session of NABE’s 2017 Annual Meeting, clearly got that memo. The strategist and thought leader opened his presentation by asking attendees, “If you had a magic wand to make any change happen that you wanted, what would that change be?”

Becoming the change (agent) you want to see

“Creating transformational change” was not only the title of Satell’s talk; he said that it also should be the watchword of leaders who daily toil in an evolving profession. Gazing at a packed ballroom of early-morning attendees who lead complicated lives, the speaker doubled down: Not only should bar executives transform their world, but they also must become adept at spreading those innovative ideas.

As attendees reached for their day’s second cup of coffee, Satell, who helms media–marketing company Digital Tonto, took them on a journey that spanned Eastern Europe and a newsworthy park near Wall Street. Both places, he said, offered lessons to leaders who truly seek change. But along the way, he had critical words for those whose goals and tactics are separated by a wide chasm.

Occupying an effective niche

As bar execs listened to Satell in the Sheraton Times Square, Zuccotti Park sat 79 blocks to the south. Created in 1968, the park provides a comfortable perch from which to watch the harried workers of nearby Wall Street hurry by. That made it an ideal location in 2011 for organizers of Occupy Wall Street to establish its protest camp. Over the course of two months that fall, activists occupied the park plaza, using it as a staging ground for their protests throughout the Financial District.

In Satell’s narrative, Zuccotti Park is the epicenter of a failed attempt at transformation and innovation. To the surprise and dismay of some NABE attendees who may have found elements of Occupy to be forces for positive change, Satell offered this stark conclusion: “Occupy didn’t achieve much, or make a difference.”

Halfway around the world, though, Satell located change agents whose strategies are worth emulating. In Serbia, the Otpor! Movement started with noise and teenage pranks. Somewhere along the way, though, it evolved into an effort that helped bring down the reign of a dictator, Slobodan Milošević.

And those activists aren’t done, said Satell. They followed their success by devising training programs. Those initiatives have helped grow change agents in Eastern Europe’s Color Revolutions and in the Arab Spring.

How they did that may seem far removed from a bar association. But Satell said the steps toward change can be replicated—not just in Belgrade or Cairo, but in any place people think the status quo needs to go.

Don’t skip the hard thinking and planning

Your mileage may differ, Satell warned, but all successful movements share the same six principles. Anyone interested in “transformative innovation”—even at bar associations—must proceed through six steps.

That begins by defining a vision for fundamental change—Step 1. This is where the big thinking happens, where complaints are transmuted into vision.

Overseas again, Satell reminded listeners that Mahatma Gandhi’s 1920s battle against injustice and British rule was solidified not in an ethereal cry, but in a march against a salt tax. Salt was fundamental, and prohibitions on its manufacture were fundamentally unjust. So the leader marched 200 miles to the sea and boiled a pot of seawater to make salt. What is your fundamental issue? Pick up your pot and give that some hard thought.

Step 2, Satell said, is to make a plan. If, for instance, your battle is to end the prevalence of lawyer jokes, determine how you can undermine their effectiveness. If you find them unfunny and that they suggest the law is a dishonorable profession, you and your colleagues will find a way to undo their power.

Rally the troops

Those colleagues and other allies are what comprise Satell’s Step 3: Network the movement. Just as in Serbia, smart change agents use a “spectrum of allies.” They also understand “the terrain on which the battle will be fought.” That terrain contains everyone from active allies to active opposition. You will never win over everyone, but if you develop and nurture pillars of support, change is more likely to happen.

Who are your allies? Think law schools, the press, consumer groups, and others. They may be loosely connected, but they could be united for a shared purpose.

Successful movements, Satell said, are always building connections and continually renewing “link density.” Extending the metaphor of movement as organism, he urged Step 4 on listeners: Indoctrinate a genome of values.

Know your genome

In what may have been his most compelling allusion, Satell’s Step 4 spoke of the human genome, so remarkable that it can hold 1.5GB of information in the tiniest of spaces. The smart leader recalls that the genome’s data is not a mundane, iterative list of instructions. Instead, it includes rules for adaptation.

In a way, this step—indoctrinate a genome of values—and how well bars accomplish it separates associations into those that are sustainable and those whose best days are behind them. Like the genome, every successful initiative—every successful organization—has its own rules for adaptation. Each one understands and shares its genome of values. That movement—that bar—will be “the hotbed for innovation” where ideas are replicated.

Ensuring long-term success

Many associations may try to short-circuit the process and jump into Step 5: creating platforms that invite innovation. But if the previous hard thinking was not done, communication and engagement tools will sit unused by members who feel the process foreclosed participation.

Finally, Satell said victory may be sweet but short-lived if you cannot survive it—Step 6. A shared win may be undermined if factions develop and some allies believe the hard-thought genome of values was set aside or ignored.

Bar associations, Satell said, need not wait for an unjust colonial rule to decide it’s time for widespread advancement. They can begin today to “see change happen.”

Concluded Satell, “If you want to make a transformation, you have to take responsibility to see it through.

“If you’re serious about making a difference, you can make change happen.”