How to promote and develop good leadership at your firm

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] September 17, 2019

Executives have to let go of some of the skills and practices that helped them to get to the top in the first place if they hope to become truly valuable leaders, writes Keegan Luiters.

The best lawyers aren’t always the best people leaders. This scenario, whereby excellent technical performers are promoted to broader leadership positions, is common across professions.

In law, however, it seems like there might be a few particularly strong currents against which firms are swimming. For starters, research suggests that lawyers tend to be highly skeptical, autonomous, antisocial, resistant to new ideas, easily discouraged by setbacks and have a high sense of urgency. You may know a few current or former colleagues who fit this description.

These behavioural traits are not inherently bad. In fact, many of these could be linked with high performance as a lawyer. The challenge for firms is that these traits are not well suited to the cause of leading people.

New skillsets required

Quite often, the best-performing lawyer gets the next promotion. This makes sense and usually works, so long as the requirements of the promoted role align well to the previous role. What we are increasingly aware of, however, is that effective people leadership involves a set of skills and behaviours that are often independent of being a good lawyer.

What happens to most people is that, at some point, they become aware that the game has changed. The value that they are required to deliver is less about their technical ability and far more about their ability to align the goals, values and capabilities of three intersecting entities:

  • the leader themselves;
  • the team they lead; and
  • the organisation.

Working to align these three groups leads to two things that leaders are often challenged by – tensions and letting go.

There is almost always tension between the needs of these three groups. A healthy degree of tension promotes growth, personally and professionally. If there is too much tension, though, one of the groups will not have its needs met. This becomes a volatile system in which one or more party’s needs are not being met. In other words, leaders can become burnt out, teams become disengaged (and often leave the firm), or organisations do not have their objectives met.

Identifying these tensions often takes leaders a while, but it is only the first step. Letting go is most frequently the big challenge. There are lots of things for leaders to let go of. For instance, they often need to let go of a part of what made them great at their previous job in order to free up space to support and develop others in their new role. They may need to let go of ‘boss-pleasing’ – professionals are increasingly displeased if their leader ‘kicks down and sucks up’. Likewise (or conversely, depending on how you look at it), other leaders may need to let go of prioritising relationships with peers over the needs of the firm. It is unsustainable to not deliver on commercial or organisational outcomes.

Choose leaders wisely

In summary, it is often a case of organisations and leaders realising what American leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith has famously said: “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Leading people is hard – and not everyone is suited to the role or wants to be a leader. The opportunity to recognise and reward people who prefer (or are best suited to) a technical role is increasing. If your firm has not done so already, it is worth considering how you can develop an equally appealing and valuable path for excellent lawyers to develop their capabilities that do not include people-leadership responsibilities.

There is evidence that development activities can and do improve leadership performance, individually and collectively. It’s important to know, however, that training alone won’t develop leadership capability. In 2014, consulting group McKinsey released a report that highlighted four common mistakes of leadership development programs:

1. Overlooking context – with an acquisition-led growth strategy, for example, McKinsey says a company will probably need leaders with lots of ideas and strategy skills, but if it is trying to pursue organic opportunities, its leaders will probably have to be good at nurturing internal talent.

2. Decoupling reflection from real work – the report notes that even talented leaders often struggle to transfer their offsite experiences, such an academic learning, into changed behaviour on the front line.

3. Underestimating mindsets – too often organisations are reluctant to address the reasons why leaders act in the manner that they do.

4. Failing to measure results – in many cases, according to McKinsey, organisations trumpet the importance of developing leaders but fail to quantify the value of their investment.

These mistakes seem to boil down to failing to take a holistic view of how to integrate leadership behaviours into something meaningful for participants and the organisation. These mistakes also elude to a phenomenon described by Heifitz & Linsky in their book Leadership on the Line as “using a technical solution to solve an adaptive problem”. Technical challenges are clear and predictable. Solving these can be achieved through robust solutions that require good implementation. Adaptive challenges are novel and complex. Solving these requires experimentation and learning about what is working.

People leadership is an adaptive challenge. Training alone is a technical solution. To promote and develop good leadership at your firm, it takes a consistent and holistic approach that values, develops and promotes leadership skills independently of technical skills. Your firm needs both.

Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.