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November 01, 2021 The Leadership Issue

Leading Change

The most sustainable, resilient and competitive firms have leaders who are skilled at leading transformation initiatives.

Mark Beese
Leaders need to intentionally lead outside of their comfort zone to move change initiatives through to completion.

Leaders need to intentionally lead outside of their comfort zone to move change initiatives through to completion.

via Skynesher / E+ / Getty Images

As lawyers and staff begin to trickle back to their long-abandoned offices over the next few months, law firm leaders are faced with new reality and leadership challenges, including managing the complexities of work from home and work from office, improving post-pandemic profit margins and adapting to changes in how firm clients do business. As leaders return to a new reality, their thoughts will also return to the dynamic market forces that impact their strategy. Client expectations and processes may have changed, and the impact of changes in legal technology must be considered. Firms must also grapple with shifting competitive pressures, including challenges from, accounting/advisory firms, and consolidated super-regional, national and global firms. Finally, generational impacts continue to be a challenge, with different generations having different expectations and values about work.

Each of these market forces, complicated by the COVID-19 crisis, leads to a panoply of potential firm changes that must be led by law firm leaders—such as adapting to a permanent hybrid work model, or the merger or acquisition of or by another firm or regional expansion. Other possible changes may be less tumultuous but still significant, such as rolling out a new brand identity and website, introducing a new feedback and performance assessment system, or adopting a new cost and profitability tracking system.

These shifts require leaders who are skilled at leading change initiatives. Are law firm leaders prepared to boldly lead change, both large and small, in this pivotal time?

Understanding Change Style Preferences

In 1995, W. Christopher Musselwhite and Robyn Ingram developed a psychometric assessment to explain preferred styles of initiating and dealing with change. The change style indicator (CSI) describes three change style preferences that are more personality influenced (hard-wired) than situationally influenced. Musselwhite and Ingram describe these preferences on a continuum, ranging from a conserver style to an originator style, with the pragmatist style in the middle. While everyone has a preferred style, there is no one style that is better than others. Rather, by understanding one’s style and others, leaders can more effectively lead change initiatives.

Conservers prefer incremental change and accept the current structure. Conservers enjoy predictability and may operate from conventional assumptions. They generally appear deliberate, disciplined and organized. They rely on precedent and may appear cautious and inflexible. They may focus on the details, and respect traditions and established practice.

Pragmatists prefer change that is functional and emphasizes workable out- comes. They seek to change only what is necessary to implement change. As they are “in the middle,” they often operate as mediators and catalysts for understanding and cooperation between conservers and originators. They may appear practical, agreeable, flexible and are open to both sides of an argument. Pragmatists are more focused on results than structure and may appear more team oriented. Originators prefer expansive change and challenge the current structure. Originators enjoy risk and uncertainty and will likely question accepted assumptions. They may appear unorganized, undisciplined, unconventional and spontaneous. They may appear visionary and systemic in their thinking and can treat accepted policies and procedures with little regard. When the model was originally designed, it was calibrated so that 50 percent of the population fell in the pragmatist style, while 25 percent were conservers and 25 percent were originators. The most recent “norming” study in 2014 skewed these percentages slightly, with 30 percent conservers, 48 percent pragmatists and 22 percent originators.

Change Style Preferences of Lawyers and Law Firms

I’ve been administering the CSI assessment to lawyers and business professionals in law firms for the past 10 years. Based on my research, lawyers’ change style preferences vary significantly from the general population. Lawyers tend to fall in the conserver or pragmatist categories, at 47 and 41 percent, respectively. Only 11 percent of attorneys are originators. And, if you look at the pragmatist scores for lawyers, they skew more toward the conserver side than the originator side of the spectrum.

Does this mean that lawyers are bad at leading change? Absolutely not. But it does mean that nearly 50 percent of lawyers prefer change to be incremental, slower and not to challenge the established structure. Only about 1 in 10 lawyers prefer more expansive, rapid and radical change.

This means that leaders need to intentionally lead outside of their comfort zone to move change initiatives through to completion.

Leading Conservers Through Change

As most lawyers are either conservers or conserver-leaning pragmatists, we will focus primarily on the challenges of leading conserver-dominated organizations.

Understand Your Change Style, and Adapt as Necessary

Conservers tend to overfocus on unimportant details, take more time to analyze and reflect on a situation, may delay completion of tasks because of perfectionism and may discourage innovative ideas by promoting existing procedures. Pragmatists may overfocus on building consensus, be indecisive and promote a middle-of-the-road solution that tries to please too many people at the same time. Originators may overlook important details, become lost in the big idea and ignore current realities, and move on to new ideas or projects without completing those already started.

Being aware of your own preferences and tendencies gives you the opportunity to choose a different path. For example, if you are a conserver who occasionally gets stuck in analysis paralysis, you may want to adapt a decision-making process with a strict schedule to prevent delaying the project. Likewise, originators who find themselves committing to more projects than they can possibly complete might want to consider setting a goal of focusing on one or two major projects at a time before starting a new one.

Working outside of one’s natural style may feel uncomfortable, especially at first. Some call it “going against the grain.” However, if we can identify how our style might get in the way of our leadership effectiveness, we can make intentional changes that will give us a better result.

Consider at least three alternatives before making a decision. Get perspective. Be aware of your initial reaction in a situation, especially when you are reacting emotionally. Resist the temptation to make snap decisions. Wait a day or two before making or announcing big decisions.

Take a moment to think of the big-picture consequences of actions. Develop strategies for understanding long-term effects of your change idea and ask yourself who might be impacted by this action. Bounce ideas off others who have a different change style. Find someone who is willing to play devil’s advocate with your ideas.

Understand How Your Style Might Be Perceived by Others

When leaders manage change, team members form perceptions about their leaders. Leaders need to be aware of how others perceive them, giving them an opportunity to act in ways to balance that impression.

For example, originators might see conservers as stubborn, bureaucratic, risk-averse, lacking new ideas, pro-establishment, anti-innovation, unaware of competitive demands and market changes, and unwilling to move quickly.

Conservers may see originators as impulsive, visionary, head-in-the-clouds, not realistic, starting projects but not finishing them, seeking change for change’s sake and not understanding how things get done. Conservers and originators often see pragmatists as compromising, indecisive, noncommittal, easily influenced and compromising.

If these labels resonate with you, take visible steps with your team to demonstrate your flexibility and adaptability as a leader. Build on the strengths of your style and stretch to practice the skills of the other styles. For example, conservers would benefit from practicing the facilitation, problem-solving and “get-the-job-done” skills of pragmatists and the big-picture, future-focused, visionary and creative skills of originators. By doing so, conservers will counter negative perceptions and build relationships with team members of all styles.

Style-Diverse Teams Improve Collaboration

Imagine making an important decision—like designing a new hybrid work policy—with a committee composed of only one style. What would a conversation of eight conservers look like? If they all acted according to their natural style, they might start with the existing policy and see how it might be slightly modified at the margins. They might appoint a task force to explore the issue and analyze data gained during the pandemic-induced, work-at-home period. They would want to analyze productivity statistics by attorney and staff level, geographic region, age and gender. The conversation might lead to a discussion (debate?) on what the precedent is for such changes, what other firms are doing (or might be doing) and the short-term impact of various options. An agreed-upon, written policy might be months (or years) away.

What about originators? We might see many ideas, some expansive and creative. Wild brainstorming will result in several options to change the whole system. Someone suggests closing the physical office forever. Another insists that they beta test five hybrid work environments immediately and evaluate in six months. There is no consensus, and the group leaves the conversation with lots of ideas but no concrete plan.

But what if we intentionally designed teams to be change-style diverse, building project teams with self-aware conservers, pragmatists and originators, who are assigned roles that more closely match their natural preferences to change? The team could rely on the originators to lead the brainstorming, conceptualization and project initiation. Pragmatists would be aligned with creating a practical project implementation plan. Conservers would be responsible for plan refinement, project monitoring and follow-through.

Insightful leaders staff project teams with style-diverse members. In law firms, however, originators are hard to come by, and many originators are often found on the business side of the firm.

Recruit pragmatists (or originating-leading pragmatists) and ask them to practice their originating strengths in the team. Involve more administrative staff—particularly originators—in firm decision making and leadership. Have discussions on the team level about how change style impacts decision making, project management, innovation and resiliency in the team and firm. Finally, find ways to adjust team roles, dynamics and process to align strengths with roles and to minimize conflict, distraction and delays related to individual change styles.

Leading style-diverse teams can be challenging but ultimately rewarding. Conservers will prefer to keep the current structure operating smoothly, with changes on the margin. Originators will prefer to challenge the accepted structure and make wholesale changes. Pragmatists prefer a balance, asking questions regarding the most practical and efficient solution. Conservers tend to focus on building relationships, originators are more task-focused, and pragmatists will focus on shared objectives.

Leaders need to create an environment where all voices are heard and respected and roles are aligned with styles, to keep the process moving. This often requires the leader to enlist pragmatists to facilitate and mediate opposing viewpoints and for the leader to “go against the grain” of their own style to lead change initiatives.

Conflicts over change are often based in differences of change style, rather than issues of substance. Leaders who understand style differences can use these insights to better facilitate, negotiate and manage change initiatives—and avoid conflict that results in project stagnation, analysis paralysis, misunderstanding and lack of innovation.

Change is inevitable, and how effectively law firm leaders lead change initiatives will ultimately determine their firm’s ability to be resilient and adapt to a dynamic marketplace. Firms that default to a risk-averse, slow-to-change mindset will not be competitive in today’s war for talent, nor the evolving legal services landscape. Corporations often hire outside executives to lead change initiatives, but that tactic is more challenging in law firms. Law firm leaders need to learn change leadership skills, including leveraging the strengths of different change styles, to create sustainable and resilient firms.

Author’s Note: Mark Beese is a certified facilitator of the Change Style Indicator® assessment. Much of the research and insights in this article are derived from the Change Style Indicator Facilitator Guide, written by W. Christopher Musselwhite, Ed.D., and Robyn Ingram, Ed.D., who developed the CSI assessment. The Change Style Indicator Facilitator Guide was published by Discovery Learning Press (, 1995.

Mark Beese


Mark Beese is president of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers and other professionals become stronger leaders. He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation and business development. Mark is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and former adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. He is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement. [email protected]

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