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The keys to motivating, developing and managing your firm’s lawyers

Do your firm’s lawyers fall into three categories: superstars, middling performers and underperformers? Understanding how to develop, motivate and manage each type can help both your employees and your firm. In “The ABC’s of Managing Your Firm’s A, B & C Players,” management consultants Andrew Elowitt (of New Actions LLC) and Marcia Watson Wasserman (of Comprehensive Management Systems) shared the tools to understand this model and how to use it.

“A” players are the highest performers of the team. They are often perfectionists, and while that can be a positive trait in many situations, perfectionists may also display narcissistic or insecure traits, which may cause them to try and outperform others or take credit from other people.

Perfectionists are usually hard on others and especially on themselves, which can lead to burnout. Insecure A performers may make a manager feel like they must give them an inordinate amount of praise, and if not fulfilled, the A player may feel like they’re being taken advantage of.

A “lone ranger” is a common type of A player who would rather work by themselves, and struggles when it comes to collaboration, Elowitt said. The A player may also work more than needed, take too much time on a project and need extra supervision or end up micromanaging others instead. In this instance, a manager can encourage positive team behaviors, and make it clear that allowing many people to share the work will be more efficient.

Praise for an A player should be authentic, personal and specific. While A players should be treated the same as B and C players, they should receive rewards and even more challenging and interesting assignments. By rewarding the A player for the work they have done, you are encouraging them to continue with their work ethic in a meaningful way.

According to Elowitt, “B” players are workers that are doing enough – they straddle the midline between overachieving and underperforming. There is always more a B player can do, and as a manager you can help them improve their performance and consistency. Elowitt said some B players may be good in a certain area but might not have rounded out their skills yet. They can also be former A players who have decided not to perform at a high level anymore, which can sometimes be seen in older employees or those who prioritize something else first, such as family.

Elowitt suggested one way to help improve B players is to understand that they need consistent recognition of their contribution, and in areas where they need to improve they require constructive feedback. B players may feel stuck in the position they are in, which is why it is important to figure out ways to “stretch them and improve their performance.” Understand what motivates them by giving them context about the role they play in the firm, he said, which should help them realize why their work matters. Pairing A and B players on projects can help each player improve their weaknesses, as it encourages the B player to work at the level of an A player, and an A player to work with others.

“C” players are usually considered the most problematic in a work environment, and managers often find it difficult to know what to do about them, said Wasserman. There are different types of C players, and each one may have different performance issues. For instance, a C player might lack competence, and may feel pushed beyond their capability. Another issue could be motivation, which can be the hardest to fix, Wasserman said, and may have to do with the C player’s own priorities and background. Or, while their skills might be good, the C player may not have the necessary people skills, so the way they interact with others may cause them to underperform. It is important to be proactive and to not wait to address a C player’s performance issues, she said.

Wasserman noted the importance of being collaborative and working with the C player to understand their perspective. As a manager, you need to understand their background, what training they have received and what motivates them. Consider how you delegate, and whether your relationship with the worker needs to be improved. Ask questions to understand their goals, desired achievements, priorities and what they consider to be most important. After agreeing on a course of action, make sure there is a metric by which improvement can be tracked. If the C player does not improve after making efforts to do so, it may be time to terminate them. If this is the case, there should be no surprises when doing so and the relationship should end in a respectful way.

Elowitt recommended “using this model with caution and skill” and keeping in mind the individual needs of each person. Generalizing the performance of a worker can make him or her feel as though they are put into a category that they cannot get out of, he said. They may believe that there is no chance for them to improve, which causes them to become unmotivated and work less hard. After all, Elowitt said, the goal is to respond to problems that keep workers from achieving a higher performance level.

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