November/December 2019

Leading and Developing Your Firm’s A Players

Even your best employees can sometimes be a challenge.

Andrew Elowitt

It’s easy to assume that a firm’s highest-performing employees—its A players—are also the easiest to manage and lead.

After all, if they are already doing a great job, how much guidance, attention or support do they really need? Isn’t it better to take a hands-off policy toward them, let them be productive and profitable, and instead focus on clients and underperforming firm members?

For many high performers this management approach works well. But other A players—especially insecure, perfectionist or narcissistic ones—may need more careful and frequent supervision than their less accomplished colleagues. Skilled firm leaders and managers rely on five methods to not only retain their A players but to also keep them engaged and performing at high levels by:

  1. Offering A players authentic, personal and specific praise.
  2.  Recognizing and rewarding A players through compensation, challenges and interesting assignments.
  3. Being clear about desired results and the scope and extent of what is expected from A players.
  4. Helping A players avoid burnout.
  5. Teaching A players how to lead, develop and collaborate with other firm members.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Offering A players authentic, personal and specific praise.

One of the greatest challenges in leading high performers is keeping them motivated. Like all firm members, A players like being appreciated and rewarded. Insecure and narcissistic high performers crave frequent praise, but if that praise comes across as rote or insincere, it can actually demotivate them. Leaders are at their best when they take time to get to know firm members’ unique talents, needs, aspirations and motivators. They not only appreciate firm members for what they accomplish but also for who they are. This helps them personalize the praise and recognition they give. They avoid tired hyperboles, clichés and platitudes. Rather than making superficial and generic comments, they instead offer praise that specifically identifies what was accomplished, why it was extraordinary and how it benefited the firm and client. What would motivate you more? A managing partner saying, “Our client is really happy! Your thoroughly researched and clearly written motion got four-fifths of the plaintiff’s case thrown out and finally got them to settle, saving our client a lot of time and money.” Or a simple, “Great job of drafting!”

Recognizing and rewarding A players through compensation, challenges and interesting assignments.

A players like tangible rewards as much as they like accolades. Many see their compensation as an affirmation of the value they bring to the firm. Insecure ones may also see it as validation of their self-worth and a balm for old feelings of low self-esteem.

If higher compensation is not available for A players who are making outsized contributions to a firm’s performance, visibility or profits, motivators like titles, promotions and greater responsibilities may suffice. Interesting, challenging and high-visibility transactions are the kinds of plum assignments that A players will consider an indication of the high regard with which they are held. Complex and demanding assignments can provide the sort of challenges that keep your A players interested, engaged and trusted with important matters.

Being clear about desired results and the scope and extent of what is expected from A players.

Is there such a thing as too much high performance? Overachieving can be too much of a good thing when A players take on extra responsibilities that are not the best use of their time.

Insecure high performers who suffer from low confidence may have difficulty taking in the praise they receive. Lacking an internal sense of satisfaction, they constantly need expressions of appreciation from others, particularly their managers. They may then struggle to say no to projects no matter how busy they may already be. They may, at times, deliver far more work product than is needed or that was requested, sometimes to the financial detriment of the firm or the concerns of its clients.

To minimize misunderstandings and the need to write off valuable time, managers need to be clear with these overachievers about expectations and desired results. A collaborative approach to these conversations works better than a directive one. Simply telling them not to do something may lead them to wonder if they are not fully trusted or their work is subpar. Jointly articulating and agreeing on the scope of work, by contrast, reinforces an A player’s feeling of ownership, engagement, trust and autonomy.

Helping A players avoid burnout.

It’s not unusual for A players and overachievers to push themselves very hard, especially those with unresolved emotional issues driving their high performance. For some, no matter how hard they push and how much they achieve, they are left feeling the need to do more, excel further and be praised more. When coupled with perfectionism, this drive to overproduce can make them particularly vulnerable to burnout. Managers who see a high performer heading toward burnout may need to reemphasize healthy boundaries for their A player’s work, reduce their scope of work without letting them feel they’ve somehow failed or offer more frequent personal support.

Some A players who feel burned out and underappreciated believe that a move to a new firm will make them happier and reengaged with their legal practice. More often than not they simply repeat their old pattern of overperformance, exhaustion and burnout in a new environment. If they are fortunate enough to move to a firm with a manager who knows how to support them, they may break this cycle. But rather than risking the loss of these A players, a skilled manager will help these high performers develop healthier and more sustainable attitudes and behaviors.

Teaching A players how to cooperate and collaborate with other firm members.

Some A players have difficulty collaborating with other firm members. They prefer to be individual contributors rather than team players. This may not be a big problem in firms where there is plenty of room for lone rangers or solo acts, but in firms where the practice of law requires high levels of coordination and collaboration, managers need to help their A players learn how to become team players. Some A players struggle with collaboration because they haven’t sufficiently developed the emotional and social intelligence they need to work productively with others. The more narcissistic may feel that firm members, whom they perceive as being less intelligent, capable or driven, will only hold them back. Others may be so insecure that they don’t want to share credit with anybody else.

Managers can help A players overcome these tendencies by making it very clear that their performance will be evaluated not simply on results but also on how well they use and work with other firm members. By structuring case assignments so that A players must coordinate and collaborate with others to successfully achieve project goals, managers can help their A players’ shift into thinking of themselves as team members or leaders rather than as individual contributors. As they begin to receive praise and recognition for making this shift, they often see the value of good collaboration and leadership skills and become increasingly motivated to use them.

Skilled managers also make it clear that sharing expertise and acting as a mentor to other firm members are recognition of an A player’s superiority and will further enhance his or her standing in the firm. They present coaching and mentoring responsibilities as the next challenge an A player needs to take on in order to be groomed for a more important leadership position in the firm.

By not overlooking the individual needs of their A players and using the five tools noted above, firm leaders can ensure that their high performers remain engaged, resilient and productive members of the firm family.

Andrew Elowitt

Andrew Elowitt, managing director of New Actions LLC, is a practice management consultant and professional certified coach who specializes in leadership and talent development for lawyers, executives and in-house counsel. He is the co-author of Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees (ABA 2017) and author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership Mentoring and Effectiveness (ABA 2012).