Vol. 45, No. 5

The world changed. Your approach to talent must change, too

By Holly Priestner

Holly Priestner, director of talent acquisition and engagement at Keller Williams Xperience and formerly communications director at the State Bar of Texas, was one of two speakers who together gave the keynote plenary at the 2020 Midyear Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives, on developing staff talent.

I write this from my patio in Austin, Texas, as we shelter in place from COVID-19. Hopefully, by the time this is published, we are back to business as normal, yet projections tell us otherwise. Regardless of if we are in a physical space or a virtual environment, one thing is for certain: The economy has changed. In the bar world, that is likely to mean that more members of the public need your services while you also feel constraints on your budget.

We usually identify ways to work smarter, not harder. In times of economic crisis, we have to do both—work smarter AND harder. We must identify ways to do more with less, still providing service to our members and the public while also conserving every resource that we have. The silver lining, during times like these? We have the opportunity to identify which talent on our team is raising the bar for our bar association, and topgrade the talent that is not. That is—harsh though it may sound—it may now be essential to let go of lowest-performing staff members and seek new candidates who can do the high quality of work that will now be expected of all bars.

Below are eight key points in leading and developing talent during a time of change and uncertainty.

  1. Define your new roadmap.
    In times of uncertainty, teams need more prescriptive direction. Clearly define any pivots, how these pivots impact team members and any resource cuts or reallocations.
  2. Communicate. And communicate again.
    Now is the time for staff leadership to double down on communication to ensure alignment and to get a pulse on how the team is doing. Daily huddles, even if only 15 minutes, are a small commitment that will make a huge impact. Communicate changes and celebrate wins. Track progress. Pulling short excerpts from books like Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become that Way and Atomic Habits can provide tactical yet positive coaching.
  3. Regain commitment.
    More than likely, the talent on your team signed up for their current role in a time of economic strength. Or, if they were around in 2008 and previous downturns, those times are now considered distant enough to almost be urban legend. It is critical to regain commitment to the mission, the new roadmap and new expectations.
  4. Focus on what you can control.
    While controlling external factors like the economy and a global pandemic are impossible, it is possible to control two things: mindset and activities. Is your talent focused on what they can control, or are they stalled or spinning in negativity and fear?

  5. Create opportunities for new professional experience and skills. 
    With the reallocation of resources comes the possibility for committed talent to take on new projects and challenges. Team members who rise to the challenge by accepting new responsibilities and developing new skills will be the first to be considered for future promotions and leadership opportunities. 
  6. Develop talent.
    Developing talent does not have to mean spending money on fancy courses or conferences. Training budgets are often the first line item cut. Perhaps your training budget was already limited. That does not mean that there is not a huge opportunity to develop talent. In any economy, especially one in crisis, it is important to have weekly one-on-one check-ins with your talent. These sessions do not need to be long—a simple half-hour will suffice. Maximize this time by recalibrating current projects, coaching to remove any roadblocks and offering guidance in areas that might be new. Focused time with staff leadership is a development gift. 
  7. Celebrate success.
    Goals are often at odds with systems or the work that actually needs to be done to accomplish those goals. We get so focused on the goal or the end result that we don't stop to celebrate the small wins along the way. This is compounded in a time of economic crisis because we are often pivoting. Stop to acknowledge the milestones and small victories along the way to pursuing a big goal. Celebrating small successes will build momentum and cultivate positivity and teamwork.
  8. Topgrade.
    In recent years, unemployment has hovered around 3.5 percent. Experts project we may now be at 12 to 13 percent. How can we find something positive about this? There is more talent than ever looking for an opportunity to prove themselves and add value. If there is a member of your current team who is “allergic to hard work” or is poisoning the positive culture of your team, do not be afraid to topgrade. Jobs are at a premium right now, and as you face doing more with less, it is your responsibility to have top talent to do so. 

Organizations that pivot quickly and adapt to the pace of external developments find new and innovative ways to execute their mission. Empowered, hard-working talent is mission critical. While it might seem challenging now, when on the other side of the crisis, you will have more efficient processes, a more innovative bar association and, most important, a stronger team that truly raises the bar of bar association work.