The premise for this article is that you do not have the resources to attain perfect leadership for every group in your firm so you have to decide where your biggest return is--and then discriminate in terms of where you put your efforts. Your only hope is to choose effective leaders who can in turn help the various pieces and parts of your firm succeed in the missions that will have the greatest impact on your future.
Unspeakable but effective…stealth discrimination: A model for choosing and managing your leaders…
If you find yourself responsible for the leadership of a law firm of a significant size, then you need no convincing to realize that you have far too little time to accomplish even a small portion of your objectives. In many cases, you still carry a client load that most mere mortals would find overwhelming.
At the end of the day, you, like everyone else, will be judged. No one will remember the excuses, only the achievements.
While this article was conceived for Managing Partners, you may be able to transpose the principles to your own situation, regardless of your position.
'Busy'–The Grand Excuse
If you are too busy to manage even your most important group leaders, and they in turn are too busy to manage their constituents, then there are only two rational options open to you. First, you can abandon management altogether and hope that everything will work out well. (Even entrepreneurs don't take risks like that, but it isn't far from where many law firms are today.)
The other option is to reduce the scope of what you wish to accomplish. Trying to do too much with an extremely limited amount of time is a traditional trap. We'd prefer to make a case for concentrating your efforts on a few key areas.
Consider the two leadership factors that would play into such a discriminatory approach.
- Factor One: Potential Benefits of Leadership. I would suggest that some groups would benefit from leadership far more than others. For example, a group that has significant potential in making inroads into an emerging area of practice–like intellectual property /biotech, where there's a potential for incredible value-added service (think genetically altered agricultural components)–would benefit far more from excellent leadership than a group that is dealing with a declining area of practice, like individual residential real estate deals. Granted, both groups could benefit from leadership and in a perfect world would have leaders suitable to their situations. The IP/biotech group would benefit from an entrepreneurial leader who can assemble capable people and drive the practice forward with verve, while the residential real estate group might benefit from an administrative leader who is an excellent caretaker and who can develop cost-effective internal systems.
- Factor Two: Willingness to Be Led. I further suggest that groups can be distinguished by virtue of their willingness to be led. For example, a young dynamic team that perceives vast opportunity may show considerable hunger for vision and direction, while another group may be for all practical purposes a collection of senior sole practitioners who are perfectly happy to remain independent and free, and who would aggressively resist the notion of either vision or direction. You might argue that the second group is not a group at all–nor should it be–but such configurations are not uncommon.
Of course, most groups are not monolithic and have characteristics at many points on the spectrum. We could perhaps call them hybrids. However, such ambiguity does not absolve you from deciding what the dominant nature of each group is, and then courageously managing it accordingly.
I would refer you to The Discrimination Model and suggest that you think of each group in your firm as it relates to this model. Imagine you are compelled to make a choice and decide into which Quadrant each of your groups would fit.
Hybrid Groups–The Grand Challenge
A common reaction to this analysis, and the suggestion that you slot groups according to a discrimination model, is that it might be fine for groups that are almost homogeneous but not applicable to the more common heterogeneous groups. While most groups do have attributes that cross the spectrum of analysis, most will have dominant attributes and those are the ones on which you should consider focusing. My advice here is to forget the labored refinements of lawyering. Trust your visceral instincts. Go with your hunches. You won't be tested in a court and, if you believe you have made a mistake, you can return and regroup your choices in a number of imaginative ways.
If you find that a group just doesn't fit anywhere, ask yourself whether such a group really is a group or if it might be a composite of several groups. If so, you may need to render additional breakdowns into component subgroups.
Unless you can be all things to all people, you might as well help those who would benefit from leadership and who genuinely want it. The results for the firm will reinforce your decision. Remember, you won't be judged on explanations but on results.
Many of the larger firms we advise do not see their managing partners having hands-on involvement with each group and group leader. Instead, they show a configuration where department heads and/or executive committee members each have responsibility for a few groups. At such firms, The Discrimination Model is as important to each intermediary leader as it is to the managing partner.
A structure in which group leaders report (albeit indirectly in many instances) to executive-level partners can be a potent institutional force on the national or global stage, but there's a fundamentally determinative question that comes first: How effective are the Department Heads and/or Executive Committee members at managing their leaders? If these managers abdicate their responsibility to manage the leaders for whom they are responsible, then, far from potent, the structure is instead a disabling barrier for the Managing Partner. That's because he or she must now face the political cost of overriding the ineffective people layered in the middle.
Capable Leaders–The Great Prize
Leaders whom you choose for the groups are going to have the biggest impact on your firm's success and on your reputation as a leader. It may make you a fabled leader, a Flom or a Sonsini. After all, this is the cutting-edge of your firm where maximum receptivity is coupled with maximum potential benefit. These leaders will need to be action-oriented to the point that they will appoint assistant leaders (second-in-command lieutenants) as necessary to ensure that they achieve their objectives. Furthermore, their assistant leaders will have attributes that complement theirs. These are the individuals who should be a priority for leadership training.
Can you name great President with a terrible cabinet? Have you ever heard of a great commander with pathetic generals? Those leaders whom you have considered great have accomplished great deeds through others, or at least with a lot of their help.
The leaders you select will be like you in the sense that they do not have sufficient time to achieve all of their objectives on their own. They, too, will require the talent to achieve through others. You will therefore need to make absolutely certain that each leader has a capable Lieutenant. This lieutenant may be called something quite different. If the leader is chair of the group, the lieutenant may be the administrative head of the group, or the co-leader, or the assistant leader.
The nomenclature can be adjusted to fit the politics and realities of the situation. What's important is actually having such a person, not what they are called. Furthermore, titles need not be consistent throughout the groups of the firm.
The leaders we have seen who are most effective tend to have other leaders assist them who complement their style. For example, hard-nosed leaders who offend fragile temperaments often choose lieutenants who can smooth the waters in their wake. Similarly, detailed-oriented leaders need to ensure that there are visionaries on the team. Perhaps even more important, visionary leaders require detailed-oriented lieutenants who can ensure that the i's get dotted and the t's get crossed.