- Overcoming the natural instinct to resist change can carry you and your firm to success.
- Agile leadership is the ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions. Agile leadership is not a single competency
The theme word for 2020 could be “change.” Whether job losses, quarantines, wearing masks, or working and learning remotely, the year was filled with change and new ways of doing things. Like most businesses, attorneys and law firms were required to adapt overnight, and implement new operating methods within an ever-evolving landscape. Leaders and business owners everywhere were given a crash course in agile leadership, regardless of whether they wanted it. Agile leadership is the ability to take effective action in complex, rapidly changing conditions. Agile leadership is not a single competency—agile leaders have a broad collection of behaviors and skills that allow them to rapidly adjust their leadership style to the demands of any given situation. They also appropriately balance attention between short- and long-term priorities. Similar schools of thought are called adaptive leadership, change management, and VUCA Prime mindset (VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity).
In the beginning of this transition period, many changes seemed temporary. We assumed that “normal” was just around the corner. But the unwritten rules of life and business appeared to be changing rapidly. It was hard to know what we could rely on as a constant anymore, and how to keep our equilibrium.
As the pandemic continued to drag on, it became apparent that no business was immune to either evolving or being swept up in the financial downturn. During the unintended crash course in agile leadership, some failed; some were slow to learn; and some quickly excelled. Those who pivoted and remained flexible were able to ride a wave of innovation born of necessity, carrying them into 2021 and beyond. But that all depended on their leader’s agility.
Metathesiophobia is the fear of change and of changing things. We all have symptoms of metathesiophobia at times. People are naturally apprehensive about change; our survival instincts are hardwired to resist uncertainty. After all, in nature a change brings with it the ultimate risk—death (of the individual and the species). The time frame of thousands of years in nature, however, translates into only a few years in business. This is yet another area where our deeper instincts don’t always serve us, because we subconsciously prefer the change to take place much more gradually, and fear change that happens so rapidly. This fear can control and paralyze people, making them avoid change at an unhealthy or dysfunctional level. As attorneys, we are led to pursue the safe and predictable, and avoid risks for our clients and our bar license. Our entire law school experience is filled with stories of what not to do, and how to fix other people’s problems by following the law and regulations, rooted in precedent.
Michael E. Gerber, author of best-selling book, The E-Myth Revisited, explains that a business owner’s fatal assumption is that if you understand the technical work of a business, in this case law, you understand a business that does that technical work. Of course, that knowledge and skillset is necessary in the beginning phases of most businesses. But later, he explains, the other roles of business success require strength in “management” and “entrepreneurial vision.” The various skill sets needed for the three key roles of technician, manager, and entrepreneur often conflict with each other. Many of the traits that make one a good lawyer are not the best traits for management and entrepreneurial vision.
Luckily, the human mind is capable of and adaptable to change. In fact, change is often the better choice. Although lawyers might be trained to be risk-averse in their legal decisions, we also have to challenge ourselves to learn new skills and mindsets to succeed as leaders and in business to take our firms to greater heights (or protect them in an unforeseen and long-running natural disaster, such as a pandemic).
The entrepreneur role we perform in our firms is the visionary in us who lives in the future and concentrates on growth. Entrepreneurs are happiest when left to ponder “what-if” and “if-when” questions. Given their need for change, the entrepreneur role creates havoc around them, which is unsettling for the people enlisted on their projects. This role is a break from the stability of the technician, but necessary for growth, forward-thinking, and adaptability. The skills and characteristics of the entrepreneur were required to overcome the trials of the pandemic. These same skills will enable us to make even-longer-lasting progress for our firms’ futures. The adage “Good mariners are not created by calm seas” applies here. The storm of the pandemic gave us the opportunity to become agile leaders.
One can easily see the importance of embracing change and the importance of leadership agility with exploring the stories of Amazon and Netflix. Both are examples of modern-day ingenuity and innovation, taking ideas and adapting over time to become household names and industry leaders.
What began as a risky e-commerce store specializing in books run out of Jeff Bezos’s garage has ballooned into the corporate behemoth we have come to rely on today, for home delivery of almost any goods, streaming and e-books, and for many during the pandemic, groceries. Had it not been for Bezos’s willingness to lead by example and compete with already established big-box stores, Amazon would not exist today. It challenged the status quo, but only because Bezos had a vision of the future where people would live in an online universe. In comparison, inflexible companies such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Toys-R-Us, Kmart, and JCPenney, lacked vision and rigidly stuck to their original models or tried and failed to adopt new models for years, now claiming bankruptcy and having mass layoffs
The classic case study of the non-innovative inflexible failure vs. innovative flexible newcomer is Blockbuster’s rental centers vs. Netflix. Blockbuster was not able to envision changes in consumer movie rental habits, while Netflix started with mailed DVD rentals, pivoted boldly to streaming, and has become a leading producer of award-winning television and film. As other behemoth producers such as Disney and HBO pivot to try to catch up, Netflix continues to make strong moves to stay ahead of the trends.
In our modern world, change that demands a savvy, forward-thinking approach appears to be quickening. Just take the progression of videoconferencing tools, from the early years of Skype a decade or so ago to the modern videoconferencing giant Zoom, and Zoom’s agile ability to adapt, improve, and simplify a previously complicated task.
It’s hard to imagine living through 2020 in the United States without Amazon, Zoom, and Netflix.
Change may be implemented abruptly or gradually. Sometimes change is what you chose and sometimes it is thrust upon you. The decision to not change is also a decision, which is often the most comfortable, but often not the best choice as seen in the prior mentioned business case studies, but especially during a time of upheaval like the pandemic.
In 2011, when my husband took a job in Dubai and we decided to move from Houston with a baby in tow, I had to discover how to run my law firm between two locations halfway around the globe, keep my clients, and set up systems to make it all work. I returned to the U.S. capable of running my firm remotely and having grown my staff and client base. In 2020, when COVID-19 made it impossible to run my firm as usual, I used those skills I had learned to pivot to our new normal. This second change forced me to focus on the business, including streamlining procedures and eliminating unnecessary costs. Each example of extreme change required certain skills and mindsets for agility and success.
Agile leaders have an intentional, proactive approach to change. They anticipate emerging opportunities and threats by continually studying their organization’s environment for new developments. What makes some leaders more adaptable to change and successful in leading change in their organizations? What skills are necessary for optimal leadership agility?
To free up the mind for optimal usage, much like Cal Newort in his book Deep Work explains, it takes purposeful precision and elimination of distractions. As a law firm owner, it also requires consistent delegation. Doing so opens the mind to greater possibilities, including working on the business, not just in the business, so that one can see the big picture and not the minutiae. In short, you need time away from the daily grind. Having the reserved bandwidth allows the leader to see the big picture, and absorb feedback and ideas from multiple sources, which allows the use of mistakes and successes to fuel continual learning and development.
Often said and less adhered to, establishing and clarifying the firm’s vision and mission at the onset allows for better direction through rough waters when the true north is guiding the way. Having a clear vision and mission allows leaders to pivot as paths veer. The destination may change, or the way that you reach it, but knowing the goal makes all the difference. Don’t pass go until you have clarified your personal and organization’s vision and mission.
In the book Mindset, author Carol Dweck explained the two mindsets: growth vs. fixed. The growth mindset believes that failure is an opportunity to grow, feedback is constructive, and growth is possible. The fixed mindset, on the other hand, believes that failure is the limitation of abilities, one’s potential is predetermined, and one is most comfortable sticking to what they know. Dweck asserts that the growth mindset can be taught and leads to the greatest success in all areas of life. Being open-minded and receptive to change is essential. Not walking into a situation with a predetermined answer, but trying to maintain an open-minded, growth mindset are keys to success in business and in life. Accept the growth mindset and encourage your staff to do the same.
As Lao Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Often, daunting tasks and projects paralyze one into inaction. Break down the goals into smaller, actionable steps while effectively delegating with deadlines. Remember—by not acting, you are acting. Decision paralysis can cripple operations and lead to the downfall of the firm. By avoiding action, you are deliberately delaying positive actions that you or your business could benefit from. Start with some quick wins to get the extra wind in your sails to tackle the larger tasks.
With the vision and mission defined, the organizational culture must follow in step with the shared goals. Agile leaders understand the importance of top-down direction-setting and meaningful participation, as well as the significance of fostering individual initiative and strong teamwork. Explaining how changes are in sync with the vision and mission facilitates buy-in from the team and fosters trust in the leader to guide them to the best scenario even among the uncertainty and uncomfortableness of change. Too often, leaders mistakenly believe that their team understands the issues, feels the need to change, and sees the new direction as clearly as they are able to. Agile leaders must reinforce the core messages through regular, timely advice that is both inspirational and practicable. In my firm, we have at least two all-staff meetings each week, where I explain how our improvement projects are tied to our mission and vision while also encouraging feedback. To lead the team forward, agile leaders must regularly (overly) communicate the message, optimize team feedback, and inspire buy-in.
Change is uncomfortable, and those with fixed mindsets abhor growth and adapting to new and different things. Potential push-back from your team is normal, and should be anticipated and not shied away from. Take the opportunity to reinforce the vision and mission, and how the change is connected to furthering them. Agile leaders have pivotal and strategic conversations at each layer of the organization. They must be prepared to explain why the change is necessary. Using the feedback from those conversations is critical, and could be used to improve plans. Agile leaders must keep in mind that strong push-back and refusal to change despite connecting the change to the organization’s vision and mission could be a signal the team member is not fully aligned with your culture. Being ready for push-back and having strategic, pivotal conversations with the team are critical to success.
Lawyers do not want to fail or make mistakes, but as leaders, we must break free from the fear of failure and grow away out of the comfort of the status quo. Fear is a paralysis that prevents growth. Leaders surround themselves with successful peers and industry leaders to help encourage growth and overcome the fear of change. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.”
Zig Ziglar made a story about a woman cooking ham popular. A woman was asked why she cut off the best parts of the meat before placing it in the oven, and she did not know the answer, but explained that is what her mother taught her. Pushed further, she called her mom to ask. Her mother did not know but saw her own mother do it. Then, the first woman called her grandma to find out. In the end, the grandma said it was because she had a small pan at the time and that is how she could make the ham fit in her oven. The moral of the story is that we often do things a certain way because it has always been done that way, without questioning the why behind it. Most of the practice of law had been like this until 2020. Often, we, as lawyers, blame the bar, government, or our clients for not being able to innovate and adapt. But what we learned in 2020 was that much of the hesitation to change was our own fear, and not questioning why we did what we did in the first place. Agile leaders view the challenges they face with fresh eyes, and a willingness to rethink past assumptions. Strive to be the Netflix of law, not Blockbuster. A healthy approach to agility is having a culture and systems in place to innovate and improve on a regular basis.
As business owners and attorneys, sometimes we may feel that we should be the smartest person in the room, or at least the most experienced. Realizing that this is not the case opens one’s eyes to understand that we can continually learn from those around us. Agile leaders actively engage diverse stakeholders, influencing and learning from them simultaneously. Their ability to examine situations from multiple points of view and to “connect the dots” between seemingly diverse issues allows them to generate novel strategic insights. Reading a wide variety of genres, joining business groups and masterminds, as well as regularly taking courses, continuing legal education, and retreats, can help remind a leader that they still have much to learn. According to the extensive research by Jim Collins, the most effective leaders are “Level-5 leaders,” who have the humility to learn and the confidence to make things happen.
During my small-business training with Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, on the first day the curriculum was about the importance of taking care of ourselves. We were taught the importance of taking care of you, and that without the leader, the organization would fail. For agile leaders to be successful, they must ensure that they keep their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being in check. This is needed to have the bandwidth to wear all the roles of technician, manager, and entrepreneur and espouse the key principles of agile leadership. And a leader must not only monitor and excel at self-care, but also be a role model for and inspire their team.
As we move closer to a post-COVID-19 world, we must learn from our crash course in agile leadership, and not let it be a one-off, temporary learning experience. COVID-19 has forever changed the way we will practice law, run our firms, and live our lives. It has also changed the way the government and courts will function and interact, and, more importantly, how our clients will want to receive legal services.
As Winston Churchill was working to form the United Nations after WWII, he famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”