The Maraia Minutes


Deepening Relationships for More Effective Leadership

Volume 11, Issue 10

Recently, we have observed an increasing interest in effective law firm leadership. Nearly every firm we work with is now realizing that practice group (and firm) profitability is heavily dependent on the practice group leader. More firm leaders are asking us, "How can we develop better Practice Group Leaders?" Most have a strong desire to develop leaders who are "more coach and less administrator." At the core of this movement is a need for Practice Group Leaders who treat building relationships with the lawyers in their group on par with developing client relationships.

Through our work with dozens of practice group leaders, we have found that becoming an effective leader has a key similarity to becoming a prolific rainmaker -- both must focus on deepening relationships. For the rainmaker, a stronger client relationship means more opportunities, as one becomes the top-of-mind choice for advice and issue resolution. Likewise, Practice Group Leaders can radically increase their effectiveness and transform their group by deepening their relationships with the people they lead.

With due respect to the well-boiled debate of whether leaders are born or bred, our approach assumes that a big part of leadership is skill-based. Leaders can learn, practice, and refine their skills. We've found that when you improve your relationship skills you will also improve your leadership skills.

In our work with Practice Group Leaders, we find people who often feel they are part juggler and part magician who are trying to keep up with administrative duties while performing their leadership responsibilities, and, of course, maintaining their own law practices.

These leaders share common challenges in getting their people to act on the express commitments set forth in practice plans, but also must get their people to achieve those tacit goals expected of lawyers. Those goals include producing high-quality and timely work product, consistently performing the basics of business development, and keeping their billable hours up. Differences in working styles, not to mention external marketplace forces, further complicate the challenge, and the depth of relationship between leader and lawyer directly affects the lawyer's ability to achieve those commitments.

To illustrate, I want to share two anecdotes of past participants in our program called "Leading the Practice Group, One Relationship at a Time." These examples are a composite of behaviors we commonly find in our work.

We'll call our first example Jennifer, a Practice Group Leader who is results-oriented and operates from the belief that a person's word is his bond. If you signed up to do something, you were accountable! Jennifer was frustrated by some because they seemed to take their commitments less seriously than she does.

In addition to her leadership responsibilities, Jennifer is a genuine rainmaker. She acts quickly. When she gave time and energy to her group, she usually spent it on the highest performers. Her group felt less like a team and more like solo practitioners who happen to share office space. The average performers in the group noticed that only the best and brightest received Jennifer's attention, and they occasionally struggled with feelings of isolation and abandonment.

As Jennifer learned a more relationship-oriented way of leading, she became more curious and started using the skill of probing more deeply to understand the needs of her team members. The probing skills were familiar to Jennifer since she used them every day with her external clients. However, she had not considered how using those probing skills might pay huge dividends if she applied them in her group relationships.

As her skills evolved, Jennifer became more tolerant and understanding which, in turn, changed her method of giving feedback from punitive to constructive. Jennifer has learned how to have a conversation for action with people in her group, rather than less focused and directed conversation where she "talked about" accountability.

Jennifer's work with us helped her understand that deepening relationships with average performers is not a waste of time. As a result, some of her average performers are now making contributions that they weren't making before. In addition, she was able to delegate unwanted duties and increase the cohesiveness of her team. Jennifer is now acutely aware of individual potential and the ways to cultivate it. Additionally, Jennifer now has a toolkit of techniques for releasing the negative emotions that rise up from within when people do not live up to her expectations. With fewer negative emotions clouding her interactions and perceptions, she is slower to judge others harshly, and her team feels as if they receive greater support from her as a result. She is now listening far more than she talks.

Our second example involves a Practice Group Leader we will call Sam. He is conscientious and helpful, and prides himself on the frequent "check-ins" he does while walking up and down the halls. He takes pride in maintaining an open door policy and others frequently seek him out for his strategic advice, but the interruptions were wreaking havoc on his billable time. Sam likes working with the high-potential members of his team and believes, through his encouragement, they will succeed.

Even though his desire to help was high, it wasn't translating into results. Sam's group was performing at an average level and was only able to bring about gradual, incremental improvement. Team members weren't collaborating, and weren't sharing best practices.

After several months, Sam began to set aside specific times to meet with each member of his group for thoughtful conversations and personalized coaching instead of walking the halls. Sam found that, by scheduling time for deepening relationships with members of his group, it improved the level of interaction and exposed service gaps in how his team approached their work. The net result was Sam had MORE TIME to teach his team, practice law, and market his practice.

We also encouraged Sam to focus his people on learning the inner workings of a client's business as much as legal results. This led to his team asking clients business questions as often as legal ones. By doing so, his team now knows how clients define success in both legal and financial terms. Sam also developed a method for managing interruptions, and blocking time on his calendar for his own practice that still leaves him available as a resource for his team.

If you want your practice group (or firm) to grow, YOU must grow! The people in your group are watching you very closely. If you tell them relationships are key, and then proceed to neglect the relationship you have with most of the people in your group, your words will ring hollow. Inspired leaders have a profound ability to create conditions that allow others to succeed. Done well, they cultivate a shared sense of purpose that makes others in the group want to perform and be held accountable.

We believe EVERY relationship is a leader's best classroom -- a place to experiment and a place to learn. People and circumstances that challenge, resist, and frustrate us represent our most profound teachable moments. If you are open to the experience, your confidence as a leader will increase.

Becoming a leader in a law firm takes patience and a willingness to examine your own beliefs, strengths, and opportunities for growth. Deepening the relationships within your practice group is a powerful first step.

Copyright 2008 Mark M. Maraia Associates