LP: What are the top three lessons that you learned and use regularly from leaders you’ve known?
Christensen: Listen to the people you manage and understand what they want to accomplish, even when they aren’t in line with your goals. The best manager I ever had helped me get a new position outside of his organization. I’ve had three paralegals get promoted into better positions, even though it made my life more difficult.
Build consensus among partners on plans prior to having a partners meeting. The meeting is then used to work out details rather than argue about the goal. This leads to more long-term stability.
Don’t be afraid to be decisive and take risks. Business moves fast, and sometimes you have to make a decision based on the available information. You can’t always wait until you have all the information.
Bowers: Create a safe environment to fail forward. Too many lawyers insist upon constant and permanent perfection; beyond being utterly impossible, it is the best-celebrated lie in the legal industry. Leaders that people will follow get busy building teams that make mis- takes, which are then used as stepping stones for learnings and improvement.
Build teams that challenge each member. Too many teams—and practice management groups—integrate “silent” members who simply don’t have a preference. Similar to marriages bound to fail because someone just isn’t being honest, disinterested and nonparticipative members of any team must be jettisoned early and often for the good of the whole.
Commit to continuous improvement. If you haven’t failed lately and your practice is stagnating, whether in terms of financial performance or the nature of your work, it may be time to question some of the fundamental ingredients that have led to success in years past. Though it may take some time to work toward this reinvention as a law practice, when was the last time you challenged yourself?
Culture is determined by what leaders will tolerate. Law practices must be very special places since so many firms have people who refuse to cooperate with each other. In fact, internal conflict mediated by an invested and empathetic leader can lead to transformative relationships. Conversely, the conflict averse leader spins their wheels trying to satiate each wounded ego, which only makes personal barriers permissible and perfects competing silos.
Johnson: For me, the number one lesson I learned is that I do not know and cannot know every possible solution to a situation. Watching effective leaders canvass the group for possible solutions made that abundantly clear. A real leader has to appreciate that they need help to define a better universe of the possible solutions. Dictatorial styles that presume the leader knows all and the members nothing does not make me keen to attend meetings or carry out the dictated projects.
The second lesson is that disruptors, malcontents and naysayers need to be addressed or the group fails for want of effective leadership. It’s no surprise that meetings cannot occur effectively with members who want to control the con- versation, detract from any idea that is not their own or hold a pocket veto of any proposal without making a constructive counterproposal. Such folks are not helpful and, if not addressed, the group members will lack confidence that the named leader can be effective. Lesson 2a: The group must trust that you’ll have their backs to hold constructive meetings that are not a waste of time.
The third lesson echoes the need for a culture of support for would-be leaders. The organization must ultimately back up efforts to corral and correct the naysayers. The group members will surely find out that their named leader got no support from the more senior leaders. (Shocker—folks in firms talk and share juicy news.) News will get around quickly that one or more senior partners shot down a junior partner’s efforts on a project of general benefit, which will reflect badly on the firm, lower morale and send a clear message that new ideas are not welcome. Under such a climate, would you stay?
Tepper: It’s hard to distill what I’ve learned into just three lessons, but here goes. First, don’t assume I know what is important to those you aspire to lead or serve; make sure to ask, and be open to the fact that my preconceived notions may not align with the reality of others. The second part of that first lesson is that being a leader doesn’t mean that I have all the answers, nor should I expect that I do. What leadership does, though, is provide the opportunity to facilitate the creation of answers.
Second, always remember that a high tide raises all ships. Success should never be measured by whether I, alone, succeed but rather by whether every- one involved in the team has succeeded. Part of this relates to Lance’s point about dealing with—well, let’s just call them naysayers—and how to most effectively deal with that negative energy; the other part is to support and encourage those who are committed to the success of the endeavor, whatever that may be.
Finally, and thank you, John, for saying it so well, we need to have a safe environment where it is okay to try, yet fail, and learn from those mistakes. I have always learned from failures or less-successful attempts; learning is lifelong, and leaders must always remember that they will never be done doing so or helping others on that same path.
Johnson: I want to thank our panelists for their candid contributions. Their insights and past experiences show us a variety of ways that lawyers and nonlawyers working with lawyers can develop their leadership style and skills.