On Servant-Leadership: What’s in it for them?

Leaders are often depicted as resolute, visionary, motivational, intent on reminding followers to get with the program or get off the team.  And we’ve all heard that it’s lonely at the top.  No question that leaders may be called on to make difficult decisions and to demand compliance with those decisions.  To fail to do so would, at times, be an unforgiveable dereliction of duty.

Servant-leadership, which may incorporate similar traits and approaches, operates from the perspective of leading for the best interest of the people or organization being led.  Robert Greenleaf coined the term in a 1970 essay that drew a picture of a different kind of leader:

The servant-leader is servant first…  It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…  The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.  Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The different manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.  The best test, and difficult to administer, is:  Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

M. Scott Peck wrote, “Servant Leadership is more than a concept.  As far as I am concerned, it is a fact.  I would simply define it by saying that any great leader, by which I also mean an ethical leader of any group, will see herself or himself primarily as a servant of that group and will act accordingly.”

Consider what it might mean for a lawyer to consider him- or herself a servant of the group he or she is leading.  It’s a natural model for client relationships, since an attorney is ethically bound to serve a client’s interest (within appropriate boundaries) and to conduct an engagement not by asking what’s best for the lawyer or the firm, but what’s best for the client.

What about the law firms?  Imagine law firm leadership determined to serve the firm.  Partners might be more inclined to mentor more junior lawyers, to grow them not only in substantive lawyering skills but also as ethical, civil professionals, viewing the activity as an investment in the firm’s future.  Rather than cutting associates when the economy dips as a way to protect the firm’s income (and the much-reported profits per partner), firm leaders might elect to put the economic burden on those who might best afford it — the partners, particularly those who earn jumbo partnership draws.  The culture would likely value “we” over “me.”

Before you conclude that such an approach would be too “soft” to survive, consider the leadership that would be required to enforce the policies.  I suspect that any leader would require a backbone of steel to invite a major rainmaker to leave the firm rather than to allow the rainmaker to put his or her own interests ahead of that of the firm as a whole.  Difficult decisions remain to be made and implemented.  Servant-leadership is not by any means weak leadership.

How might a firm run under a servant-leadership approach differ from one run with a “me first” mentality?  What do you suppose would happen to associate attrition?  How do you imagine associates who did choose to leave such a firm would regard the firm?  Would the firm be more or less stable?  Would clients notice a difference?  What’s the downside?

For reflection:  how would you change your leadership (of self or of others) if your focus were on serving those you lead?

WRA 12/10/09: Finding out who’s naughty and nice

It’s the time of year for holiday specials, and last night’s offering was Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.  And while I enjoyed the story and the theme, I was dumbfounded when I realized that there’s a bit of a link between Santa and client development!  If you remember the lyrics to the song, you’ll know that Santa is “making a list and checking it twice, [and] he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”  And we all know that Santa doesn’t reward the naughty.

Do you reward naughty potential clients by letting them hire you?  Just about every lawyer has had the truly awful client: one who doesn’t pay or pays so slowly that the process is agonizing, one who blocks your efforts to get information you need to handle the representation, one who’s routinely rude or unduly demanding or critical, and so on.  Unfortunately, naughty clients come in a lot of flavors.  The good news is that you can avoid many of them if you know what to watch for during your initial conversations.  A few red flags:

  • You’re the third or fourth lawyer this person has consulted or (worse yet) hired on this, or a closely related, matter.  Clients fire lawyers for good reasons sometimes, but you should explore to find out what went wrong.  Trust your gut as you listen to the explanation.
  • The potential client balks at your fee.  As I discussed with a client yesterday, a negative reaction to your fee may be sticker shock, or it could be a sign that the potential client isn’t going to value your services and will argue every step of the way.  Listen carefully.
  • The potential client misses the first appointment, is very late for it, or arrives unprepared.  This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker because, as we all know, sometimes life interrupts the best-laid plans.  But pay attention.  As with dating, the behavior you see early is likely to be the best behavior you’ll see in a representation.
  • The potential client seems to have unrealistic expectations and is unwilling to hear a contrary point of view.  Clients often expect a more favorable result than their lawyer.  If you explain counterveling considerations that make a matter less certain or less favorable and hit a brick wall, think carefully before you proceed.
  • The potential client blames everyone and everything for his or her problems.  Chances are high that you’ll end up on the blame list, and possibly on the wrong end of a malpractice claim or bar complaint.

None of these red flags necessarily means that you shouldn’t accept the matter, but if one arises, you need to listen carefully to what is and isn’t said and to pay attention to non-verbal communication.  And trust your gut.

A Sense of Urgency

A Sense of Urgency
by John P. Kotter

John Kotter, a noted expert on leadership and change management, fervently believes that attachment to the status quo is a silent but deadly killer.  Through numerous examples, Kotter demonstrates that organization stall and atrophy as change fails.  Kotter’s bottom line?  If it ain’t broke, break it.

A Sense of Urgency draws on an earlier Kotter book titled Leading Change, in which he proposed instilling a sense of urgency as the first step of an eight-step process to implement successful transformation.  However, he found that increasing urgency is the most difficult and the least developed of the steps, thus prompting him to write A Sense of Urgency.

Kotter notes that change is continuous in nature.  Rather than a single enormous change, such as an acquisition, continuous change exists in the form of (for example) new strategies and new projects.  Organizations must adopt a proactive approach to these continuous changes, which require creation of an appropriate sense of real urgency.  Kotter maintains that carrying out proactive change requires organizations both to diagnose and overcome complacency (which he defines as “a feeling that a person has about his or her behavior, about what needs to be done or not done”) and to avoid false urgency, which creates a flurry of activity that distracts participants from legitimate activity that will produce meaningful change.  Kotter proposes several methods to do just that.

One of the most effective methods that Kotter recommends is to seek out opportunities and hazards coming from outside the organization, perhaps from clients, competitors, or the marketplace at large.  This awareness encourages innovation and discourages complacency:  “When you don’t see opportunities or hazards, your sense of urgency drops.  With less urgency, you are even less inclined to look outside for the new possibilities and problems.  Complacency grows.”  Kotter offers a laundry list of approaches to develop this outside awareness, including listening to those who have the most interaction with the customer; using the power of video to bring important issues alive; sharing news — good and bad — with all members of the organization; sending people out as scouts to gather intelligence; and bringing key customers, prospects, new hires and information into the organization.

In addition, organizations should develop “urgent patience,” in which workers reject frenetic busywork in favor of working toward goals with purpose and intention, to avoid the danger of false urgency.  By remaining focused on key goals rather than merely generating activity, energy and attention are reserved for formulating actions that will produce desired movement.

One particularly interesting aspect of Kotter’s work is the marriage of logical, analytical, business-centered goals with an emotional connection to those goals.  Bringing emotion to a solid business decision creates engagement, promotes workers to set and achieve higher goals, and prompts them to challenge the status quo and their ordinary comfort zones.  The result?  Meaningful change.

What’s in it for lawyers?  There’s no question that the legal profession has undergone a complete sea change over the last year to 18 months.  The legal industry has been shaken up, and some lawyers are seizing the opportunities that are emerging.  Others, however, seem to be hunkered down, waiting for the storm to pass.  In my opinion, even when the storm itself has ended, we’re going to be left with a new world — there’s no going “home” anymore, Toto — which makes this a dangerous response.

Kotter’s theses speak to why those who are proactively seeking opportunities will be more successful than those who are just responding to crisis.  Effective change agents, he writes, “take carefully considered action to convert intial anxiety and anger into a determination to act now and win.”  Crises force re-evaluation and improvement, and in the absence of an externally-imposed crisis (a “burning platform”), Kotter urges organizations to torch their own platforms to stay abreast of change.

What has your (or your firm’s) response been to the downturn?  If it has been reactive rather than proactive, I’d urge you to pick up A Sense or Urgency.  For most lawyers, the platform is in flames, and — to invoke the overused and somewhat misleading device — the crisis brings both danger and opportunity.  If you’re having trouble finding the opportunity, Kotter’s book provides substantial direction.  While complacency is unlikely to be the risk these days, false urgency (“We’ve got to reduce expenses!  Slash the business development budget, now!”) is running rampant in some circles.  Kotter can help.

Are you wasting your time?

Do you know how to get the most from your sponsorships?

If you’re building your “brand,” whether it’s your personal brand or your firm’s, the goal is to raise others’ awareness of you.  It’s an opportunity to let them know what you stand for and what space you occupy in the market.

An example here:  Jeep might sponsor an outdoor enthusiasts’ conference as a way of saying, “We are the kind of car that outdoor enthusiasts drive.  We are your people.”  Mercedes, in contrast, would never sponsor such an event, because Mercedes doesn’t match the outdoor enthusiasts’ way of life.  Sure, some people who drive Mercedes love being outdoors, and some Jeep drivers don’t, but each company positions itself based on the average driver who might purchase and drive their car.  Moreover, note that Jeep’s reason for sponsoring such a conference is to raise attendees’ awareness of the brand, its offerings that might be appealing, and so on — NOT to sell cars during the conference.

Sponsorships can be good avenues for business development, but simply posting a firm name on a tent at a high-priced (or even high-visibility) event is unlikely to accomplish that goal.  That flavor of sponsorship will build brand awareness, at most.  The article notes that, “Firms are zeroing in on opportunities that allow their attorneys to get out in front of a specific group of potential clients, such as industry conferences.”

And truly, getting in front of potential clients (and referral sources) is the only way that sponsorship can make a real difference toward growing your practice.  Passive activities, such as sponsorships in name only or simply posting a profile on a social networking site, may have a place as part of your business development plan.  You must not, however, fall into the trap of thinking that those activities (or, more accurately, ways of being present) will in themselves lead to new business.  To get new business, you do have to interact with people — or, as the article puts it, get in front of groups of potential clients and/or referral sources.

But “getting in front of a group of potential clients” can mean different things to different people.  These are some of the considerations I recommend you evaluate if you’re contemplating taking on a sponsorship:

  • Who will be present?  Potential clients or referral sources are good; the general public is less likely to produce measurable business results.  If the event you’re considering does not primarily attract your ideal clients or referral sources, think twice.
  • What recognition will you receive as a sponsor?  Will your firm name be on the signage, on the event website, on bags or t-shirts?  Will you be mentioned during the event itself?
  • What perks will you receive as a sponsor?  Look for opportunities to mingle with attendees at sponsored luncheons, coffee breaks, or cocktail parties.  You’re more likely to be able to meet selected participants if the sponsored event is not open to all comers.  This is where you move from a passive to an active sponsorhip.
  • Who will attend from the firm, and what is the strategy for making the most of the opportunity?  As usual, without a plan, your efforts are likely to produce little.  The strategy will depend on your business development goals, the nature of the event, the attendees, and more, but you must be able to identify at least the basic strategy before you commit to sponsorship.

Sponsorships aren’t dead by any means, but your investment won’t yield good results if you take on random sponsorships without a defined objective and a clear plan to reach that objective.  The take-away here:  think carefully before you sponsor an event or an organization.  Once you commit to a sponsorship, be sure you take the necessary steps to make it a win/win.

WRA 12/1/09: Are you doing it wrong?

I recently spoke with a lawyer who had tried a variety of business development activities, all to no avail.  She’d written articles, she’d taught seminars, she’d advertised, she’d attended some networking events, she’d posted her profile on various social networking sites, and so on.  But after all of that, she didn’t have any results to report at all, and she was about to conclude that she just wasn’t meant to be a rainmaker.

That reaction is so common.  It’s so discouraging to work at something — especially something as important as business development — and to see no results.  But three mistakes often come clear when I talk with someone who has worked hard at rainmaking without meaningful results.

  1. The lawyer is measuring the wrong thing.  Sure, new business is the clearest measurement of rainmaking success, but that’s like starting a diet and measuring success only by reaching goal weight.  There are all sorts of midpoints that indicate success: making new contacts, developing relationships, building a strong reputation in your field, and so on.  These “interim successes” indicate forward movement — assuming, of course, they’re measured as progress toward the ultimate goal of bringing in new business and not as an end in themselves.
  2. The lawyer hasn’t brought in new business. . . Yet.  “Patience & perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish,” John Quincy Adams observed.  In other words, don’t give up before an activity has had time to produce results.  Networking is a key place where lawyers fall short here.  A single conversation is incredibly unlikely to generate new business.  Mere membership in a group, or attending a meeting once or twice, is equally unlikely to be successful in any measure.  Hopping from one activity to another generates a lot of motion but very little forward movement.  Choosing one or two marketing tactics is almost certain to bring better results — unless. . .
  3. The lawyer is doing the wrong things, or doing them in the wrong way.  No matter how persistently the task is undertaken, if it’s fundamentally flawed, it won’t work.  Let’s take networking again.  If your idea of networking is attending meetings, talking incessantly about yourself, your skills, your qualifications, and your experience, plus pressing your business card on anyone who happens within an arms’ length, you are destined to fail.  That’s networking at its worst and it’s unattractive to just about everyone.  In the example that opened today’s post, the lawyer was doing a lot of good activities, but none of them involved actually talking with potential clients and referral sources.  Good activity done wrong does’t work.

Your task this week: are you making any of these mistakes?  Check to see how you’re measuring your success especially.  Because lawyers are trained to focus on the end game (here, landing the new business), this is one of the key mistakes that I often see among new clients.