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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Managing: Living and Leading Through Experience

Thomas C Grella


  • Document and learn from personal experiences and observations to grow wiser.
  • Find ways to resist the temptation to stifle innovative thought based on your own experiences.
  • Embrace change and discover opportunities in the changing world.
Managing: Living and Leading Through Experience

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In recent days, my wife Elaine and I decided to give our daughter one of our cars. She had always wanted it, and frankly, I don’t think it liked me very much. It was one of those brands where owners commonly name their vehicle. Since the car came from Elaine’s father, she named it Albert. I called it Lemon. In anticipation of the title transfer, I spent huge sums of money assuring myself that Lemon was in the best shape possible for the long trip to my daughter’s home in Nevada. I also began looking for a replacement vehicle.

During the first 30 years post-law school, the experience of going to a new car dealership was akin to a dental appointment. The mental preparation for the dealership experience, so often maligned on television, is about as pleasant as the physical preparation for the age 50 gut check. It took me about 30 years of experience, plus learning through a new car purchase experience in 2018, that there is a better way to buy a car. So, with the need to find a replacement vehicle, we opted to purchase from one of the national used car companies that sell from facilities that look like new car dealerships, but don’t have sales representatives who bargain like they are at a public market in Yucatán.

Experience—how we live through it, analyze it and react to it—is crucial to growth. Not only in the mundane personal living of life, but in both our professional management and leadership of those we interact with in our law firms and practices. What I have come to realize is that 1. There is an underlying danger to avoid as we use our experience to influence others; 2. Intentional action is necessary to learn from experience; and 3. There is opportunity to be realized from experience.

Danger in Experience

A few years pre-COVID, shortly after I stepped down from firm management, I suggested the firm create an innovation committee. This was not just any other committee. It was established to be a think tank with committee members offering innovative ideas for implementation each month, with only one to be chosen for implementation—a kind of Shark Tank without TV personalities or big money. I was named committee chair and had the opportunity to hand select partners, associates and staff who had shown themselves to be innovative as its members. It happened that all the members (other than me) were of the younger generations. I had already been with the firm 30 years, 17 of which I served as a positional leader. Basically, I either had a hand in, or been witness to, almost every unsuccessful endeavor the firm had attempted during that period. It’s depressing to even think about some of them.

Given my vast experience, as I sat and listened to ideas that in some cases were not new, I realized a danger in experience. I was tempted, as I listened to ideas that in some cases had been tried before, to say (usually in not so few words): “been there, done that . . . next idea please.” As managers and leaders of both clients, and those we work with in our firms, it is critical to find ways to resist the temptation to stifle innovative thought based on our own experiences and realize two truths:

First, it is possible that some past failings were more due to a problem with those taking the action than to the idea itself, and second, in most cases, it is not necessarily an evil to permit failure to occur and allow others to learn from experience.

Successful leaders will find ways to directly and forcefully discourage only those ideas that are clearly dangerous to the culture, general public image or well-being of the firm, while in all other areas communicate valuable lessons learned based on experience in ways that will not kill the type of education that others will receive as they experience both success or failure or discourage collaborative thought and innovation.

Learning Through Experience

We learn not only through living our own experiences, but also as we observe those of others. Unfortunately, in my own life, and as I observe the conduct of others, wisdom does not necessarily come with age or mere experience. As leadership guru John Maxwell claims, with age comes the ability to grow and become wise, as we evaluate experiences. Life is quite busy however, and like everything else, without evaluation, and some means or method of keeping track of lessons learned, the old adage “history tends to repeat itself” will ring true, instead of the desired, but usually untrue statement of Oscar Wilde that “with age comes wisdom.”

I would suggest that those who want to learn from experience document in some manner what they have learned, and find meaningful ways to remind themselves of lessons, so that mistakes experienced are not repeated. For myself, this has included continual study of leadership and management principles, self-monitoring personal lists, being held accountable by a mentor and actual physical notes to myself. A few illustrative examples from my own life:

  1. From early in my professional career, based on personal experience and observation of others, I have concluded that many lawyers overpromise and underdeliver, especially when it comes to deadlines. This tends to be a problem more in those with a perfectionism problem. Through disciplined calendaring, maintaining lists of expectations and deadlines, implementation of appropriate juggling and learning to not set arbitrary deadlines that no one else is expecting, this evil can be avoided.
  2. I find that I am compelled to immediately respond to emails, especially ones that challenge some action or position I have taken. In many cases, these are “heat-of-the-moment” responses based on emotion. My experience is that this compulsion is less likely to be deterred by education, to-do lists or calendaring. As to the evil of immediate emotional emailed response, I have found that I need to have a physical message taped to my monitor reminding me of a few message content principles. Another practice I have found helpful is to delete the addressee from emails until I am ready to hit send, and if possible, to hold any particularly emotional email until I have had the opportunity to reflect further on its content, and the possible repercussions that might be elicited by its tenor.

These are merely a few examples of my own learning from experience––lessons learned, with appropriate action to avoid repetition. My suggestion is that those who both manage or lead others not only observe and react to others’ experiences but consider helping them find specific ways to better themselves for having lived them.

With Experience Comes Opportunity

I often tell of the difference between two of my developer clients, both living and experiencing the great recession of 2007–2012, but each reacting in different ways. One discontinued all activity for five years (he said he was going to “hunker down”), while the other found opportunities in the experience. Some 10 years later, as I look at the experience of COVID, I see similar actions and reactions by many law firm leaders.

Some law firms seem to have insisted on reverting to the ways of old, using the need to maintain “culture” as a justification for requiring a return to the old, and an unwillingness to meet the needs of those they lead, or seek opportunities from having lived the experience. Others, however, having lived the same experience, understand that the world has changed, and there are opportunities to be found in the experience. They understand that those who manage and lead others—clients, lawyers and law firms—must, to survive a very uncertain future, seek out and profit from the opportunity that comes with living through experience.