May/June 2020

Taking the Lead

Embracing Two Right Ways

Linda Klein & John Hinton IV

Chris and Pat, a wise couple, told us a story about a change in their relationship that transformed their marriage. Soon after their wedding, they divided their household responsibilities. A well-ordered home was important to both spouses, but their standards for what constituted “well-ordered” differed. Each spouse eagerly and diligently carried out responsibilities. However, each spouse was guilty of correcting the other if the work was deemed not up to standard. This led to conflict. Chris expressed frustration that Pat’s task was not done the right way and redid it. Pat was equally frustrated, perhaps insulted, that hard work was not recognized and was redone.

That pattern continued until Pat came up with an idea—there would be two right ways to do any task. This required each spouse to let go of the idea that their way was the right way, and it transformed their marriage. Recognizing that there are two right ways to do a task was not an admission that one person’s way was not the best. Instead, it was a recognition that if the other person’s way got the job done, they were welcome to do it that way. Resentments subsided, the work got done, and both were more productive.

What does this sound piece of marital advice have to do with managing your law practice? A lot, because we are all susceptible to this same trap in all our relationships, including our work relationships.

Acknowledging that there are two right ways brings out the best in your team.

Unnecessary correction is demoralizing and counterproductive. Have you ever experienced the frustration of a team member not performing a task that they could complete on their own because they wanted to discuss it with you in advance? Someone who believes that you are difficult to satisfy will be prone to act in this manner. Worse yet, they can develop a mindset that what they deliver to you doesn’t matter because you are going to rework it anyway.

However, when you accept your team’s work even though it is not exactly how you would have performed the task, you build team members’ confidence and sense of contribution to the team. They will produce better work product. And when their work truly misses the mark, they will be more receptive to your corrections and improvements.

This hands-off approach, if done the right way, doesn’t mean you can’t provide valuable feedback for future improvement. If a letter is good enough but could be improved, consider providing your comments for consideration on future letters while approving the current letter as is. They will learn from your feedback but also receive encouragement that they can produce good work themselves.

Also, think about whether that higher standard is yours or your client’s. If it is your client’s standard, then communicate that to your team. What may appear to be unnecessary micromanaging will be seen in a different light when your team understands that you are making changes to meet the client’s expectations.

Allowing for two right ways maximizes your value to your firm.

What value do you add by improving work product that was performed correctly the first time? None. What is the opportunity cost of using your limited time in this fashion? High. A new home built with steel studs and beams is stronger than a home built from wood. But you would never waste your hard-earned money on such an overdesigned structure. In the same vein, don’t waste a precious asset—your time—overbuilding the work product of your staff and associates. This is particularly true when the task is billable. Your clients, colleagues and staff need you focused on matters that are the highest and best uses of your time.

Understanding that there are two right ways makes you a better leader.

Take the opportunity to honestly assess if this is an area for you to improve. Do you frequently (or always) edit the short cover letters your assistant ghostwrites for you? When your paralegal delivers your deposition materials in a manner that is functional but not exactly the way you want them ordered, do you have him redo the work? Do you have difficulty editing a brief that someone else writes without completely rewriting the document?

Some changes are necessary to benefit your client or your firm, and it is entirely appropriate to improve work that does not hit the mark. However, it is worth evaluating whether you are taking work product that will do the job and making it only marginally better. If you are uncertain, ask the people who work with you to provide honest feedback. They will appreciate your request and can identify areas where you may be unnecessarily “improving” their work. Take their feedback to heart. As you do so, you will model for your colleagues a behavior that will benefit the entire firm. It worked for Pat and Chris. It will work for you too.

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John Hinton IV

Shareholder

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law.

Linda Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law.