Leadership Challenges

What Leadership Messages Are You Sending?

Whether you are a managing partner or practice head, act like you are on stage at all times… because you are! Everything you do and say will send messages, set a tone, establish expectations and communicate direction about what is of priority to you.

With that in mind, you need to carefully orchestrate what symbolic acts you may want to execute to create a lasting impression and convey what you stand for in 2019. In other words, you need to always think through the following items.

Where You Spend Your Time

The primary thing that your partners will always look to is where and how you spend your time. Leaders spend time on whatever issues they think are most important. Examine your day-timer, compare it against the actual activities that consumed your time during just this past week and identify for yourself what your activity says to your colleagues about your most important priorities. Now, what would you rather have ‘your time spent’ say about your priorities in the coming months?

A classic and often misquoted study by Dr. Albert Mehabrian from the University of California-Los Angeles stated that the total impact of any message is based 7 percent on the words used; 38 percent on the volume and tone of one’s voice; and fully 55 percent on facial expressions and other body language signals. But, Dr. Mehabrian never claimed that you could view a movie in a foreign language and accurately determine 93 percent of the content by simply watching people’s body language. What is important to consider as a leader, however, is that the non-verbal aspects of your communication will reveal your underlying emotions, motives and feelings. Your colleagues will evaluate the emotional content of your message, not by what you say or what you inquire about, but by how you say it and how you look when you say it.

How You Spend Your Budget

What we purposely budget for and the way in which we choose to spend our money says a lot about our priorities and our values. What will your 2019 budget expenditures tell people about where you are focusing your leadership attention?

What Specifically You Measure

Usually a clear indicator of what you think is important is what you measure, what you generate written reports about and what you track on a regular basis. If you say, that as a firm leader, we should be more focused on delivering value to our clients, are you rigorous about looking for more efficient ways to execute your transactions and seeking to constantly measure improvements in efficiency? Are you emphasising the importance of measuring the quality of the services provided as well as the client’s satisfaction?

What You Celebrate and What You Rebuke

Will what you publicly reward — those behaviours you identify and successes you celebrate within the firm — reinforce the values and priorities that you as a leader are trying to emphasise? When one of the partners takes a measured risk with the intent of benefiting the firm and their actions fall short, is there a history of that partner being rewarded for their initiative or reprimanded for their failed efforts?

In the words of one exemplary firm leader who counseled:

“I learned that little gestures have huge significance. Everything you do is magnified, and you have to realize that. Even if you are a bit worn down, smile. People derive a lot of their outlook from the outlook of their leaders, and it makes them feel good if you appear in good spirits.”

When Two Must Work as One: Sharing Leadership

One of the inherent problems of having two professionals sharing any senior leadership role starts with role clarity. Indeed, the need for developing role clarity is not easy when most firms do not even have a formal written job description for their Chair or Managing Partner positions.

The job of leading a law firm may certainly be demanding enough for two professionals; but the test is selecting the right two people to share the role. There have been attempts to split the firm leadership job that led to clashing egos and crippling power struggles, especially if one of these two partners conceals any ambition for holding the position alone.

The most successful pairs often consist of firm co-founders or partners who started at the firm at the same time when it was smaller — also, it’s easier in those firms that truly have a “team-oriented” culture. Despite some problems with sharing responsibilities numerous professional service firms have made it work. Here are the key components where the two co-conspirators need to focus:

Cultivate Self-Awareness

One of the initial hurdles to sharing leadership responsibilities is that neither of the two co-leaders usually get a say in choosing their counterpart and this can obviously cause some frustration.

In the ideal situation, the firm should be selecting co-leaders that have complimentary capabilities and different sets of experiences. Perhaps one is perceived as the more senior statesman while the other is recognised for their youthful entrepreneurial spirit. In other words, the best situation is where the two partners bring different skill sets and different talents to the table such that either would freely admit that they could not do the things that the other does. This allows their different leadership styles and different competencies to benefit the firm.

In beginning to understand each other, each co-leader has to be brutally honest — in understanding their respective strengths and weaknesses. It is advisable, early in any working relationship, to engage them both in some form of self-assessment to obtain a measure of leadership strengths, personal work style and emotional disposition in order to establish some hard data to examine and compare.

Ensure There Is a Shared Commitment to the Firm

For two professionals to successfully lead one firm, they need to come together in developing a shared ambition for where they wish to see the firm go and what they would like to achieve during their joint tenure.

Having examined a number of shared leadership arrangements, one factor is paramount — partners have to be prepared to work together as a team for the good of the entire firm. This factor, more than any other, allows them to work through any differences and collaborate effectively. Each must be prepared to learn how to take a step back in the areas where the other is better equipped to take the lead. There can be no competition for power or accolades; and a very specific problem arises when motives are suspect. If either is perceived to be pursuing a personal agenda — that is a clear red flag.

Develop a Working Relationship

Being a co-leader is demanding in that it runs counter to the natural tendency of professionals to strive for individual achievement. Indeed, co-leaders must agree to share the responsibility — both the glory and the agony — as a team, not as individuals. When some outcome is achieved primarily by one of the co-leaders, the partners may assume the two worked together or feel that it is appropriate to recognise both leaders equally.

The greatest challenge for both to overcome will be to subordinate respective egos. Co-leadership can only work if each partner is prepared to share credit and share blame, equally.

Clearly Define the Roles

Agreeing to work together as co-leaders always involves some upfront discussion about roles — and those roles must be carefully designed. One of the more common distinctions when dividing the workload is to have one individual dedicated to the external environment (strategic direction, client service and new business development) while the other takes responsibility for the internal environment (budgets, personnel and operations). Or, one might be responsible for the international offices, while the other focuses on the domestic operations. One might be in charge of technology and finance; while the other oversees marketing and partnership issues. Responsibilities can be divided by interests (strategy vs. operations), skills (innovation vs. implementation), or personality bent (being task-oriented vs. people oriented).

The firm also needs to be very clear concerning the degree of freedom each has around taking individual action. For example, will it become an eventual cause for conflict if one of the co-leaders is constantly the source of media commentary and has their name in the papers representing the views of the firm? Or, while it may be unrealistic for both co-leaders to be present in all meetings and interactions with other partners, on which subjects does one co-leader have complete discretion to represent the other?

Finally, there needs to be a purposeful effort to ensure that no administrative professional (CFO, CMO, HR, etc.) ever reports to both co-leaders. It is important to avoid any potential for confusion; and much like with parenting, subordinates should not be allowed to play one co-leader off against the other by asking one for something to which the other co-leader has already said no. 

Editorial note: A version of this piece was published by the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute (www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com)