Q&A: Kriss Will – “Great workplaces are not just about who has the best wellness program; they’re about the people with whom you work”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] April 4, 2019

In the first of a two-part Q&A, Kriss Will, a respected long-time HR consultant to law firms and the founder of Kriss Will Consulting, shares her views on creating happy and productive workplaces, and why face-to-face networking can often be more effective than social media branding. Kriss, who has retired after being diagnosed with a serious neurological illness, recently received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the legal profession.

For more than 25 years, before announcing your retirement recently, you have been advising law firms and contributing to the development of legal professionals through a range of industry groups. What have been the highlights for you?

“It’s always about the people for me and, at a personal level, the friendships. At a broader level, I’m proud of the associations that I have helped found and which are still running – Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL), the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) and HRMinds. I remember a friend of mine, Deanne Weir, the first convenor of VWL, saying when we established the group that we have to make it bigger than just the four founders. The three associations are still operating, they have strong memberships and they’re all doing good stuff.”

In your opinion, what has contributed to their longevity?

“In the founding stages, you have to do a hell of a lot of work and you will inevitably make a lot of stuff-ups. But if you’ve identified a need, there’s interest and people can access the associations, then they will keep going. The key is to engage a lot of people along the way – get them early and get them interested. I still urge people to join those associations today, just as I encourage them to also get involved in the Law Council of Australia and the Law Institute of Victoria. When the three associations were set up, a lot of women lawyers were young and lacking confidence, while many managers didn’t see themselves as being part of the legal profession. I had an advantage in that I had an Honours degree in Psychology, so I didn’t see myself as being inferior when I engaged with lawyers. I just bought a different skillset to the profession. These groups are still making a difference today.”

You are known for your people skills and the ability to connect people. Has that been crucial to your success?

“I am a connector of people, and I don’t like reinventing the wheel. I remember another consultant getting really mad at me because some potential clients had asked me about a piece of work and I said, ‘Why don’t you call this law firm because I’ve done it for them and you can just get that firm to talk you through it’. The consultant pointed out that I’d just done myself out of work, but I’d rather connect people and make a difference that way. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never had a shortage of work, and I’ve never had to advertise. I have seven friends on Facebook and a basic presence on LinkedIn. But I have a lot of industry connections. I believe in letting your reputation stand for itself.”

Personal branding through social media platforms has become a big thing in professional services firms these days. Do you think it’s over-hyped?

“It depends on your business. If you’re in an organisation that is trying to influence people, they like to know about you and social media can probably help. I find a quick way to let people know about you is to actually talk to people. If you’re trying to reach an international audience you probably have to be on those platforms. But I didn’t get a website until 15-odd years into my consulting business. Some people look at that stuff, so it can be important, but word of mouth has been the key for me. People ring me and say, ‘I saw you speak at a conference – can you talk to me’. While I am a good connector of people, I don’t work a room. Talking to everyone at a function is not my cup of tea, but I’m always happy to talk to someone as long as there is a purpose.”

Has your psychology degree given you a better understanding of the behaviour of people, including lawyers?

“Well, I used to laugh because my thesis for my psychology honours was on the aggressive behaviour of preschool children. And I’d say it’s not irrelevant for law firm partnerships! A degree in psychology probably gave me some credibility that I didn’t deserve. I have an MBA, but nobody asks me about that. The psychology degree gave me a sense of standing in a management world where many women had come through the ranks as legal secretaries to be managers – and they were very good, but they didn’t have a piece of paper. I think my degree did make it easier for me.”

You started working in law firms in the 1980s and have witnessed the era of digital disruption. How do you reflect on changes to the profession over the years?

“I was really lucky. I applied for a summer job while I was at university and it was with the first law firm in Melbourne to put in computers, Allan Moore & Co. Mr Moore was a techno nut and, now in his 90s, he still is Mr Moore, by the way. So I did see a lot of that early technology. In those days law firms were relatively small. Allan Moore & Co was considered a biggish firm with a head-count of 95, and then there were a lot of mergers in the 1990s and firms got bigger and things got more sophisticated in terms of management. That has been a good thing. The other change I have witnessed is the acceptance that there is going to be staff turnover in law firms. Early in my career I used to run a workshop entitled ‘Stopping Staff Turnover’ – built on the concept of firm loyalty versus the idea of career building that prevails today. These days, you don’t want the same people staying at a firm forever. I once consulted to a firm that was so proud that it had had the same staff there for many, many years. But it didn’t benefit from change and regeneration.”

Have lawyers changed over the years?

“These days there are a lot more lawyers and the diversification in the legal offering has been great. However, I still think fundamentally that good people who want to do good stuff still go into law. I’ve always liked working with lawyers because they are smart. I was happy to work with smart people who would always keep me on my toes.”

You have said in the past that as a HR professional your aim has been to help create work environments where staff are happy and productive. How do you do this?

“I’m a big subscriber to the theory of giving people mastery and giving them purpose. Help them develop their skills, give them a purpose and let them work in a pleasant environment. There’s a lot of focus on workplace bullying and harassment, and rightly so, but there are also people who are a bit nasty who are tolerated in firms. Too many people commute to work every day thinking, ‘Oh, what am I doing here?’ Great workplaces are not just about who has the best wellness program; they’re about the people with whom you work. You need to create a culture of good management of people at the day-to-day people-interaction level. You can have the best HR people in the world, but if you’ve got a bunch of unpleasant, inconsistent, power-wielding people in charge of other people it’s not going to be a nice place to work and people will move on, or they’ll stay and they’ll be unhappy and unproductive.”

Are you saying that firms should not tolerate rude rainmakers, even if they attract a lot of billable hours and fees?

“Allan Moore’s son, Danny, just retired after 40-odd years in practice and all the retirement messages to him reflected on the fact  he was not just a good lawyer, but a nice, decent person, and clients liked him because he was decent and reliable. That kind of decency as to how you treat people is very important. You can have the smartest rainmakers in the world, and you may have a good couple of years with them, but you’re not going to have a long-term business if they are nasty or unpleasant.”

So good management comes down to decency and people-management skills, right?

“Yes. I find that small firms either do it really well or really poorly, and that’s because whoever owns the small firm is the dominant personality. In the larger firms, it comes down to pockets of your team or practice area. It’s difficult if you have a situation where people are told that the firm wants them to be capable and competent in many areas, but then someone says at the end of the day, ‘Hey, you’ve only billed 7.2 hours, not 7.5 hours’. Yet nobody addresses the person around the corner billing eight hours a day who is an absolute horror. In such circumstances, there’s some very clear messaging about culture and what’s important within a firm.”

In the second part of this Q&A, Kriss Will will discuss her medical diagnosis and the importance of personal resilience.