What Good Shall I Do Today?

Most of us, I’m guessing, have recently had days where we didn’t really know where to begin — much less, how to realize the highest level of productivity.

This past weekend, while enjoying Ann Handley’s new book, Everybody Writes, I was reminded of the daily schedule of one of America’s most productive and innovative historic figures.

(A quick side note — you should add Ann’s book to your list of must-reads. It is one of the best, most practical guides to effective writing for business that I have ever read. It is, as you’d suspect, well written.)

But back to our point. Somewhere along the line — probably in some management class I attended — Benjamin Franklin’s template for daily productivity was cited as the quintessential example of the kind of organization that facilitates productivity and progress.

Franklin’s blueprint, however, failed to turn me into a productive genius; but it quickly became clear that the model wasn’t the problem. I tried at least a dozen “systems” — all the popular brands…all the super-organized notebooks, notecards and tools, all the new apps. None resolved my allergy to organizing. None made me as productive as I wanted to be.

Missing The Point

It took a while. But eventually I came to understand that at least part of the problem was that my definition of productivity was, to be clinical, screwed up.

My focus was on making a list, and checking things off — calls, meetings, administrative duties, project milestones.

Shortening the list meant progress.

In the process (tell me if this sounds familiar), on many days it felt as though I accomplished little of real consequence. Frustration doubled on days dominated by the need to react to the unexpected, meaning the to-do list got longer.

The Missing Ingredient

Turns out I was pretty much ignoring two things that make Franklin’s an approach that is genius — one that transcends even the best daily planner action list.

The first is its simplicity

With a day broken into just six blocks, there is structure, yet the schedule remains flexible enough to accommodate leisure, distraction, a real lunch break and the unpredictable.

This simplicity is big; but the second ingredient is the real game-changer.

A Guiding Principle

Embedded in Franklin’s personal template for each day are bookend questions:

    • Morning question — “what good shall I do today?”
    • Evening Question, as if to hold himself accountable — what good have I done today?”

These questions are the missing link — a guiding principle for each day.

Direction For These Days

As what we had come to think of as normal days continue to be disrupted…as we wrestle with unease or even a measure of fear…as we question how we should respond and what we should do today, maybe there is value in bookending our days with these questions.

Coming days are almost certain to present new challenges. Maybe We can zero in on direction if we’ll begin by asking, what good shall I do today?.

A Marketing and Sales Effort That Builds Trust

If the only reason you want to connect with me is because you have a sales pitch to unleash, I hope you’re selling a commodity.

Most of us make scores of commodity type purchasing decisions regularly — from toothpaste and soap to phones and computers — and we become experts at filtering the pitches.

When in need of a commodity, we either tune in or memory calls up relevant marketing messages; we may factor some combination of personal experience, brand equity and pricing data, and make the purchasing decision.

When timing isn’t right or the need not acute, most of us become relatively adept at postponing or tuning out the steady flow of requests, inquiries or pitches.

Playing A Numbers Game?

Those selling soap or phones understand the way their market behaves, and counter with frequency and creative branding, sprinkled with efforts to heighten felt need. Some combination of market size, frequent visibility, time and message determine the degree of their effectiveness. 

You may want to call it by some other name; but if you’re indiscriminately collecting names this week for use in next week’s mass-produced pitch, you’ve chosen to compete in a crowded and noisy marketplace.

On The Other Hand

If you seek to connect with me because you have an understanding of the challenges or opportunities I face, and you believe you can help, you have the makings of a different marketing and sales approach — one that, when executed properly, will immediately differentiate you.

For decades our prospective clients have been telling us — they hire service providers they believe they can trust. As our last post suggested, this is ultimately about believing that, at every turn, you have your client’s best interest at heart.

This is the essence of trusted advisor status.

A Bridge To Trust

A bridge isn’t built overnight, or in one or two conversations. But invest in developing a relationship based on the belief that you only act in the best interest of your prospect or client, and you’ve moved into rare air.

The blueprint? Be about the client; not about you.

This is, admittedly, easier said than done. But figure out a way for your marketing and sales efforts to deliver value — even today, in the midst of Covid-19 — and you change the face of your efforts.

Delivering legitimate value — something your prospect / market defines as helpful versus a one-size-fits-all mass-produced mailing that might as well be a copy of something the competition is distributing — requires learning what the prospective client will find valuable.

Translation: like the market has been telling us — invest in understanding the business of your target.

Building Blocks For Today’s Reality

Practically speaking, there are four things to apply to your Covid-19 marketing and sales efforts.

1. Do some Smart Targeting. Identify five specific targets to connect with this week — one per day. (If your schedule allows, make this two or three or five a day. The point is to be strategic. You can’t do this today with your list of 1000.)

2. Identify Business Drivers. Spend thirty-to-sixty minutes each morning researching your target of the day. (Again, spend more time here if your schedule permits.) Search newsletters, blogs, industry sites and content produced by your target and relevant competitors for common themes that provide insights into challenges or opportunities. Keep an eye out for consequential change.

3. Get Personal. Develop communication designed specifically for your target-of-the-day, and do two things:

    • Spotlight what you suspect to be a current need or issue based on what you’ve learned about your target’s business; and,
    • tee-up a complimentary follow up conversation for the express purpose of exploring the above. (or any other issue that is causing them sleepless nights). Making this conversation complimentary underscores your desire to provide value in an uncertain moment.

4. Follow Up. Of course, your communication should provide contact information. In addition (and especially in the case of existing clients), the “tee-up” noted above should include a follow up call from you two or three days hence.  When you make this call, remember the purpose: to see if you can find a way to contribute value. And if at first you don’t connect, try again.

The Consequence of Trust

It won’t happen overnight. But go to your market intent on building trust (versus selling a phone today) and you will have reinvented your business development efforts.

It is a frequently invoked label; but you know you’ve attained trusted advisor status when you are invited into the most strategic conversations.

Those who have cultivated trust are in meetings today — albeit a Zoom meeting in most cases — collaborating on solutions, and shaping what the market will look like when businesses begin to emerge from Covid-19.

A side bar: if you are among the group believing that understanding the law or compliance issues related to your market is the same as — to borrow the consultant-speak — understanding what keeps your prospect / client up at night, you may earn a measure of your target’s trust; but you are almost certainly leaving the most rewarding strategic opportunities for your competitors.

Finally, in acknowledgement of the fact that talking about it is not the same as actually doing the work, and in the spirit of wanting to provide value where possible, I have blocked Thursday afternoon for the next four weeks in order to offer a complimentary 30-minute conversation with anyone wanting to discuss marketing, business development and sales. No sales pitches. Just an effort to contribute where we can. Use the contact info here, or shoot me a note at eric@ericfletcherconsulting.com.

The Ultimate Building Block For Communication During Crisis

When your audience or market believes you always have their best interest at heart, every message will resonate — even in the midst of crisis.

Nothing drives the impact of a message more than the presence (or absence) of trust.

Trust provides a more effective platform than any pulpit…from sanctuary to bully. Once earned, it lifts communiques above the noise and confusion of any market place.

Trust shapes context and tone, making it possible to eliminate all of the ifs, ands or buts that characterize average messaging.

Trust makes it possible to accomplish more in less time, with fewer words and less falderal than the grandest strategy.

Trust is the product of an intentional, disproportionate investment in listening. This is the brand of listening that, to borrow from St. Francis of Assisi, seeks less to be understood than to understand. This kind of listening speaks volumes.

Where there is trust, there is mutual respect, a ready ear, and fertile ground for motivation, collaboration, innovation and change.

If You’re Wrestling With Communication

The degree to which an audience embraces a message — whether it be partners, work force, professional allies, vendors or a target market-at-large — is in direct proportion to the degree to which the audience trusts the messenger.

This should be good news where genuine relationships have been cultivated.

Even so, many wrestle with the content of messaging in a crisis. What should a communication plan look like? Here is a suggested framework.

    • Be proactive — when it comes to communicating with stakeholders, internal as well as allies and vendors, take the initiative — communicate early.
    • Be honest — trust is a powerful building block, but nothing can destroy it more quickly than blowing smoke.
    • Be transparent — akin to honesty, this is about pulling back the curtain, and telling the whole truth — done properly, nothing deepens trust more quickly.
    • Make it about the audience — messages that resonate address real issues or needs, and deliver value.

Use this framework for your communication in the midst of today’s crisis, and you’ll accomplish two things: you’ll have a much better shot at delivering a message that resonates; and, you’ll strengthen the bond of trust with every facet of your audience…which will have its own payoff on the other side of Covid-19.

Things Aren’t Broken Enough

The Managing Partner spoke with measured emotion.

And conviction.

The topic was the desire he and his senior partners shared to continue the legacy they were beneficiaries of by passing on a thriving firm to the generation of lawyers, now laboring as associates and young partners.

I was taken by the forward thinking…the commitment to something more long term than the monthly hour-watch or annual budgets backed by little more than what it will take to increase earnings.

The conversation included articles to support this focus on the future. Speaking of their search for business development and marketing leadership, he emphasized, “we’re not making this move for this year or the next. We’re looking three to five years down the road. We want a framework that will serve the next group of equity partners.”

It was encouraging. Refreshing. We want to build a capability we don’t have…something that will serve the firm long after we’ve stepped aside…and we recognize this requires a different perspective.

Two Views

Simon Sinek, the organizational and management consultant best known for his TED Talk and best selling book Start With Why, has a new offering available. The Infinite Game focuses on the effects — both short and long term — of approaching particular endeavors as though they are finite in nature, with a beginning, an end, a winner and a loser.

In a finite game, Sinek suggests, there are accepted rules, known participants, and a clear conclusion to the game. Baseball is offered as an example — accepted rules, the participants are known, there is a beginning, an end, and a clear winner.

Then there are infinite games. “Rules” are much less clear. It’s difficult to identify every participant; in fact, players may come and go. And there is rarely a clearly predefined and specified end.

I’ll resist the temptation to do a full review; but if you’re interested in the dynamics of leadership, relationship and effecting legacy in any arena, the book is well worth your time.

For purposes of this discussion, here’s the suggestion: to the degree we operate as though we’re engaged in an endeavor that begins on January 1 and ends at midnight on December 31, the hallmarks of an infinite game will be tough to realize. Namely, a shared commitment to something that transcends higher profits this quarter.

Decisions and operations that infringe on the finite measures of winning — more hours billed each month, higher rates realized, and therefore higher profitability this year — are easily dismissed. Winning in the short term is the most important calculation.

Once you’ve bought into the rules of a finite game, not much is going to shake this focus.

Clarity Around Where Things Never Change

We can theorize or rationalize til our eyes glaze over. But, no matter the venue, there is one reason big change is slow to come: things aren’t broken enough. The status quo is too comfortable. The benefits of playing a finite game are simply too good. Why should we change?

Talking about innovation…opining over operational shifts…meeting after meeting focused on what we should change with respect to our approach to diversity, client development, succession, mental health in the workplace — and the list goes on — these are game pieces that are ever present because we know something isn’t working right. 

Sadly, the only time things tend to change is when the status quo is broken to the point of being irreparable. When what we thought were rules suddenly shift, and the forces of a volatile market conspire against what we are playing for — numbers this year — perspective tends to change. But often, it is too late. Ask the now defunct firms that were once industry leaders…benchmark-makers.

Where we postpone innovation, it is because the price this year is viewed as too great, and we’re comfortable right where we are.

Where we fail to deal with the opportunities of diversity, it is because investment is required; and there are simply no penalties for not dealing with it in substantial fashion.

And where we continually experience little-to-no improvement in business development efforts — fight the same battles…engage in the same debates…have the same conversations every year — it is because there is no real pain associated with rocking along with the way things are.

I am fairly sure the Managing Partner who spoke years ago of perpetuating a legacy spoke out of honest aspirations. But the firm was successful. Partners were comfortable. The way things had always been done had worked just fine. What was the compelling case for change? His partners did not see one.

Things simply were not broken enough to inspire a different perspective.

{Postscript to all aspiring to instigate a new game. Sinek suggests that the object of an infinite game is to keep the game going. The application for us might be to keep the conversation going. There is little victory in many of the skirmishes in which we choose to engage.}            T

Chasing Better Conversations

The fact that a lot of people are talking doesn’t mean there are a lot of real conversations going on.

More to the point, the fact that there is measurable attention being paid to any particular topic does not guarantee progress.

In the mid 1940’s, the Congress of the United States introduced legislation to make it illegal for women to be paid less than men for comparable work. Decades of talk have failed to realize the goal.

And while the relative timeframes may not be quite as jarring as in the case of equal pay for equal work, the list of issues that have been the subject of conversations for years with little movement is lengthy. In no particular order:

    • How long have those in and around the legal industry been discussing challenges associated with the billable hour? (It was a hot topic when I first worked with a law firm in the early 2000’s — and it had been going on for a while by then.)
    • Or Diversity & Inclusion?
    • Or how about the challenges facing the educational infrastructure?
    • Or mass transit in your community?
    • Or the cost of healthcare?
    • Or the national debt?

As noted — the list is long. It can easily balloon to ten or twenty times what we might list here — without breaking a sweat.

Without respect to the topic, wherever today’s attempts at meaningful dialogue are framed by the same principles, perspectives and values as yesterday’s conversations, movement — never mind, progress — will be marginal, at best.

This is not to suggest there hasn’t been movement — even scrambling — on many of the issues we’ve been talking about for a long time. There has.

And we’re sure not suggesting that we should shut down the talk.

But how much time are you willing to invest in conversations that barely move the needle.

Keys To Better Conversations

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — Samuel Johnson

There are circumstances that, by their nature, tend to sharpen focus. But where important issues are at hand, and progress is the goal, we should hope for productivity before there is impending doom.

To that end, here are five thoughts on instigating better conversations.

1. Make Listening (vs. Talking) The Priority

We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about listening (yes…ironic). This is likely a subconscious reaction to the fact that we are so bad at it. But the focus is warranted, if for no other reason than nothing is communicated until someone decides to listen.

Intentions listening is not about hearing something; it is about dispensing with agendas, suspending preconceived notions, and striving more to understand than to be understood. NOT natural; but if the only thing we do is commit to the act of intentional listening, we will instantly change the quality of our conversations.

2. Connect Around Shared Values & Aspirations

Intentional listening is the key to the identification of core commonalities. Shared experiences are a good place to begin; but conversations that become substantive enough to effect measurable progress around big issues find footing in core values and aspirations. This is why communication aligned with things such as personal health and the future of our children tend to capture attention.

3. Dispense With Expectations

Listening is tough; but this one is nearly impossible. Yet, in conversations that matter, expectations are often a predictor of failure. Expectations easily morph into conditions; and when it comes to better conversations, a condition is synonymous with an agenda. Most of us resist conversations that are driven by an agenda.

4. Agree on Milestones

Identifying specific milestones serves three purposes. (1) It outlines the conversation, providing bite-sized continuity; (2) agreed upon milestones provide another point of alignment around commonality; (3) realizing a milestone serves as a win-win moment. The more you realize common goals, the more you experience the possibilities that come with building around shared values and aspirations.

5. Build a Bridge to the Next Conversation

Better conversations do not seek to end a discussion, but to make on-going dialogue a given. Next to Listening, nothing will change the nature of your conversations more than a commitment to tee-up the next conversation. This is the real win — a demonstrated understanding that learning is never ending, and that better conversations are the only path to real change.

No matter the topic — innovation, mental health, diversity & inclusion, leadership, a better world for future generations — if we continue to have the same old conversations, the past is, indeed, prologue.

The key to a better reality tomorrow — however you might define it — is a better conversation today.

Is It Marketing, Or Is It Sales?

Years ago I worked with a Managing Partner who regularly referred to the Marketing Department of his law firm as the PR Department. I’m certain it was a habit rooted in the days when law firm marketing efforts centered on work that was public relations in nature.

Though I believe he knew the marketing group’s responsibilities covered a broader terrain, the habitual use of the wrong label both perpetuated and was emblematic of a narrow view of the discipline. 

Today many professional service firms do something similar — saying marketing when what they really mean is sales.

Or perhaps more to the point — expecting (or hoping) that marketing efforts designed to create visibility and awareness might be able accomplish the lead generation and one-on-one work required to land new clients.

You know this. But in case we need to underscore the point — marketing and strategic business development (sales) are not the same thing.

Confuse them, attempt to blur the distinctions in hopes that one will cover for a lack of focus on the other, or ignore either, and be prepared to be completely unhappy with the sum total of your investment.

Hit Pause

I need to inject two relevant notes here.

  • First — I do my part on a daily basis to spread the problem. The very title of this Blog — Marketing Brain Fodder — suggests that everything we discuss here falls under the marketing banner. This is not true. An audit would probably reveal that the majority of content for at least a decade has focused on business development / sales. So I’m guilty…and I’m considering appropriate options.
  • Second — I believe the siloed-nature of our organizations works against us…diminishing the value of resources, inhibiting creativity and strangling innovation. Turf wars and resource battles consume too much time and energy. Underscoring the distinction between sales and marketing can easily be twisted to be an argument for more defined silos. While the topic for a separate post, we should underscore that this is not a case for more defined departments, teams or silos.

Hit Resume — Here’s The Point

If this is just a labeling issue, that is one thing. Anyone working in the legal space for 15 years or more knows of the problematic nature of the “Sales” word. Again — a topic for another post. 

For now, if while we’re using marketing as the umbrella, we all understand that when it comes to the pursuit of new business in the professional service arena, sales is a different animal, then we might debate the value in saying what we mean.

On the other hand, where we’re not clear about the difference, we run the risk of inadequate planning, misappropriation of resources, faulty expectations, and poor ROI in both marketing and sales.

Understand The Difference

If you’re part of a leadership team, prior to judgements as to whether your marketing efforts are effective, be certain you’re not looking for target identification, lead generation and qualified pitch opportunities. These are the purview of a strategic approach to sales (or, if you’re squeamish over the label, business development). An increase in sales requires appropriate investment.

If you’re in marketing or sales, clearly articulate the difference. Great marketing is an asset, to be sure. But perpetuating confusion between the two serves the objective of neither. Marketing is not the same as sales.

A Recession IS Coming — Proactive Business Development Is The Only Way To Prepare

You’ve seen the articles. Many knowledgeable observers believe a recession is inevitable; some are predicting a severe slow-down as early as spring 2020, based on certain indicators.

I do my best to avoid trafficking in fear and doom, but it is difficult to find a serious economic observer that doesn’t believe a downturn is coming.

If it occurs, law firms (and other professional service providers) that are not doing the strategic planning today to prepare for whatever happens in the market over the next six to twelve to twenty-four months are likely to find themselves reliving the dark days of 2008, and following.

Roger Hayse, a colleague and consultant to law firms in transition — particularly those dealing with crisis — just authored a terrific piece on this topic.

With his article as a jumping-off point, here are two ways firms can become proactive with business development efforts today, and be better prepared for whatever the market at large has in store.

Talk To Your Clients

Your best clients are constantly looking at projections for the coming months. If you don’t know what their concerns are — first, why not? And second, you should assume someone is having this conversation with them. If it’s a relationship you value, that someone should be you.

There are a number of outstanding professionals who can help you construct a client feedback program that will do 3 things:

    • Let you know what your client’s most significant business concerns are — for the near-and-long term. Your job, should you choose to engage in the proactive pursuit of trusted advisor status, is to become valuable to your client in this specific area. (SIDEBAR: you’re going to have to resist the temptation to disregard something just because it doesn’t appear connected to the service you provide.)
    • Shine some light on just how loyal your best clients might actually be. Regular, strategic conversations is the key to improving your score here.
    • And as a bonus, you should uncover
      • any existing immediate opportunities
      • threats to the relationship that you’re unaware of.

Build Allied Relationships

Unless you are a unicorn, the core of your practice lands on your desk either by virtue of a direct or indirect relationship — those who know and trust you, or those connected to those who know you. We refer to these as allied professionals.

One of the most valuable assets for business development professionals is a robust pipeline of these allies.

Consider the example of an estate planning consultant who, rather than waiting for families in need of his specific brand of counsel, proactively built relationships with CPAs, bank trust officers and others directly connected to those who would benefit from his practice.

By becoming a valued and indispensable resource to the professionals serving his target market in related ways, the estate planning advisor built a pipeline of relationships that, overtime, delivered a steady flow of the work he sought.

The key is to become Proactive.

We’ve made just two suggested here. There are certainly other important and productive ways in which your business development efforts should be intentional, and proactive.

The firms and service providers that elect to count on the flow of work historically enjoyed from sources that have been there for years will find themselves making decisions about who and where to cut, when and how to maintain stability, and how to survive what appears inevitable.

Firms who muster what it takes to become proactive in a strategic way have a much better shot at being prepared for recession when it rears its head. 

The Difference Between Managing and Leading

(This is an update to a March 2018 article originally published on Forbes.com.)

The role of leadership in any enterprise is fraught with a number of legitimately urgent distractions — especially in a volatile marketplace. A single projection missed, one team assignment blown, a silver bullet misfired can wind up costing precious resources. In short order, leadership can find itself caught up in the management of commotion.

The challenge is that commotion is a constant. Responding to it is a full time job.

And when reacting to commotion occupies the attention of leaders whose highest calling is to see beyond distraction, it threatens the timely recognition of real disruptions — some of which may shake the foundation of once stable firms.

Dealing with daily commotion should not be mistaken for visionary leadership.

To be clear, the issues that cause commotion can have a measurable impact. So this is not to diminish in any way the task of managing daily operations. This is not an either/or proposition. And one is not better than the other.

But in great organizations, responding to issues related to personnel, processes and systems is the purview of a strong management team. Admittedly, in some organizations — especially small businesses or those possessing an entrepreneurial nature — one or two members or a small team must both manage and lead.

And though they often are, the two roles should not be confused.

The difference is leaders have the ability to see through the commotion that can potentially characterize every day, and recognize the signs of what might disrupt and threaten an organization.

When the response to disrupting factors is born solely in the experiences of daily commotion, the outcome is likely to be less than satisfactory. Organizations that mistake even the most effective daily management for the core responsibility of leadership are likely to miss impending fundamental change until it is too late.

The contemporary marketplace offers vivid examples of the dangers that accompany the absence of leaders who are able to recognize disruption. Consider the consequences inside once stable industries like film (Eastman Kodak), print production (typesetters), home video (Blockbuster) and public transportation (taxi cabs).

Where management is mistaken for leadership, and success has historically been gauged by monitoring daily, monthly or quarterly metrics, there is an increased risk of missing severe disruptions.

For example, within the professional services industry — accounting, consulting and law firms in particular — innovators are reshaping go-to-market realities. Certain services that were once only available via hourly rate or retainer fees are increasingly using technology and infrastructure shifts to redefine the way in which clients determine value.

To be sure, there is comfort in black-and-white benchmarks. Progress or position can seem clear. Value seems easy to define. Established benchmarks provide a necessary roadmap for managers. Reach this point in this amount of time and you’re on track. Miss a benchmark, deviate from the charted course or take too long along the way and something must be awry.

The challenge comes when a reliance on these management tools comes at the expense of or is mistaken for spotting issues no less real, but much less black and white.

In 1962, speaking of the essential nature of a focus on the future when considering a space program and other issues of the day, President John F. Kennedy often quoted the story of the French Marshal Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey. Reportedly, Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a specific tree on his property. The gardener noted that the tree would not reach maturity for 100 years. Lyautey replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”

There are no processes or project maps…no org charts or committees…no reading of metric tea leaves that will secure the the future. Great organizations acknowledge this and cultivate leadership that sees beyond daily commotion, looking toward a spot on the horizon that beckons.

 

This Is What A Priority Looks Like

When things don’t change, there is typically one reason.

Change is simply not a priority.

Wherever there is a lot of talk, but very little action…when progress is painfully slow (without regard to how essential we say it is) it is almost always due to one thing.

The prescribed movement isn’t important enough to command the necessary attention and resources.

And the venue doesn’t matter.

From inside your firm, to global seats of power…from personal living rooms to centers of social, academic and religious establishments…we prioritize what we care about most.

There are a number of ways to distract or mislead. And most of us learn how to talk a good game.

My website may display eloquent proclamations on client service. Or a carefully crafted mission statement might frame purpose in the context of critical conversations — the value of diversity and inclusion, work-life balance, and work-place collegiality, for example.

But beyond copy and soundbites, it is tough to ignore an absence of progress  And it is next to impossible to hide what is most important.

We Invest In Priorities

Sure…finances reveals a lot.

Who we reward and what we support tells a big part of the story. What is often overlooked in this arena is how those we elect to pay defines where and when we decide to withhold resources.

And then there are those spots where financial support can be a proxy for priority.

The real measure of our priorities is where we invest our most precious resource. Most of us come to the realization that we will eventually run short of time. Where and how we spend our hours says everything about our priorities.

If It Is A Priority, We Measure It

Steps-in-a-day. Miles-in-a-week. Heartbeats-in-a-minute. In a given context (and to varying degrees depending on who you talk to), these are measures worth keeping.

We measure what we count as valuable. If it has either captured the imagination or has direct impact on the pocketbook, we find multiple ways to take its measure — from a favorite sport to the machinations of economic indicators.

On the other hand, if we can’t be troubled to recognize benchmarks or measure progress, it simply doesn’t rise to the level of high priority. Period.

And, by the way, to measure begrudgingly does not signal priority…especially when the response is to ignore what the measurement tells us.

I’ve heard the saying since I was a kid — perhaps you have too:

What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.

Translation: actions speak louder than words. Or website copy. Or mission statements. Or the speeches rolled out at annual meetings.

You Name The Issue

    • Diversity and inclusion
    • Succession
    • Client service
    • Firm alignment and integration
    • Business development
    • Or fill in the blank with the area in your organization where movement is needed

In firms where progress is made in challenging areas, it is because a critical issue has risen to priority status.

In these firms, five things drive change:

    • Goals reflect what is most important;
    • Plans exist in order to pursue these goals;
    • Progress is measured;
    • Leadership demonstrates priority status;
    • The priority is clearly reflected in the firm’s investments — in finances and in critical human resources.

This is what a priority looks like.

In The Aligned Firm, Everyone Shares The Vision

If your firm is puzzling over conversations like inclusion, mental health in the work place, succession, stability or any aspect of how to grow, take it as a warning sign: critical areas of your organization may not be aligned.

Not that these topics can’t be plenty challenging. Indeed, any one calls for the best a leader or leadership team can bring to the table.

But if you’re having trouble finding a framework for addressing your challenges, the elements essential to a highly functioning organization are either missing or severely out of alignment. Until these elements are put in place, the pressure on firm productivity, profitability and stability is likely to intensify.

But enough of the dark side.

The good news is alignment changes the decision-making process — even around the most challenging issues —  and results in maximum productivity at every level of the firm.

The First Step — Identify Guiding Principles

In a recent post we suggested 5 areas of every firm where the identification of guiding principles provides the basis for institutional alignment. These areas are:

  • Nature of the Practice
  • Nature of the Platform
  • Compensation system
  • Governance and Succession
  • Work-Life equation

These areas form an interrelated construct of a firm, where the decision-making that accompanies both daily operation and the strategic pursuit of the vision take place. Without established guiding principles, it is difficult to manage day-to-day operations and opportunities, never mind navigate the issues related to leading in a competitive, changing market.

Consider a typical case — the firm aspiring to move into a new market.

Misaligned Growth

When a firm elects to expand its geographic reach by combining with a firm with a significantly different focus, the expansion not only redefines the nature of the firm’s practice; it has significant impact on the nature of the platform — with practical implications for technology, finance, human resources, marketing, administrative, office services and risk management…to touch only the obvious areas.

Though everyone who has been part of a combination knows such a change will have dramatic impact on every area of the firm’s reality, firms continue to merge practices, cultures, and entire operational systems at enormous cost, and with results that call the strategy into question. In a July 2018 article for American Lawyer, Blaine Prescott notes findings that in the corporate world 70 percent or more of mergers meet with questionable success; and the numbers are similar for law firms.

This is not an argument that mergers are doomed to marginal success.

The articulation of basic values and shared aspirations in the five areas noted above provides a kind of manifesto — a set of Guiding Principles that are born of the vision partners have for the firm. Leadership is able to use these Principles to vet opportunities, analyze possible responses to challenges, facilitate better conversations and streamline the administrative process.

Given this framework, opportunities can be purposefully measured — from where and how to grow, to the ideal client profile; from what constitutes an appropriate investment in office space, to how much and where to focus marketing resources; from the comparative value of a million-dollar conference facility, to a client-driven technology capability.

Add the questions you’re investing disproportionate amounts of time on.

A set of Guiding Principles frames productive conversations.

Spotlight The Right Questions

When it comes to decisions that matter, success is often about asking the right questions. The presence of Guiding Principles makes this infinitely more clear-cut. For example, in our growth example above, Guiding Principles might lead to a series of questions like:

Is the expansion consistent with the footprint we envisioned in our strategic plan? Do current key clients benefit from this expansion? Are the demands caused by the acquisition consistent with the way we view the role of the platform, and our guidelines for investing in it? Does the expansion demand new technology? Will the infrastructure requirements tempt a compromise in what we’ve set forth as a guiding principle? How does this expansion impact our diversity and inclusion goals? Do the cultures mesh, or collide? How long will integration take?

How To Define Guiding Principles

Each of the five interrelated areas named above will have multiple areas that should be considered. For example, we suggest at least 7 issues to be considered as you seek to define the nature of your firm’s platform. Guiding principles should be identified in each. (See Fig 1, below)

  • Size — What size do you aspire to be — specific goals, parameters, and timetables, as well as investment parameters should be specified;
  • Footprint — Does the partnership seek to build a local, regional, national, international firm…and is there a strategic driver;
  • Leverage — Define the leverage formula the partnership views as ideal;
  • Cost per Professional — specify the ideal, and the acceptable range each lawyer will be asked to contribute to the creation and maintenance of the desired infrastructure — cost to operate should never be a surprise;
  • Inclusion Profile — specify diversity and inclusion goals, and to the degree this is a challenge, a time table for realizing the goal;
  • Career Path — define parameters and timeline for varying career paths;
  • Professional Staff — define the specific role of the non-subject matter Professional Staff, including the role each team plays in pursuit of the Vision — IT, finance, HR, and Marketing should have a clear understanding of how their roles connect to the firm’s vision.

Fig. 1: The Aligned Firm | Platform

There is no right or wrong answer here. The objective is to identify the few basics your partnership feels strongly about — a set of principles agains which critical decisions will be tested. As noted, each of the five functional areas has a similar set of issues and questions that will yield a complete set of Guiding Principles. And yours may evolve over time.

Guiding Principles Reveal Vision And Drive Strategy

Sure — in some firms conversations around alignment and vision are met with an obligatory wink-and-nod. Sure…everyone says we should have one. It will make nice filler for the website; but we all know what the real vision is — a larger profit-pie this year. When push-comes-to-shove, wherever revenue is in question we all know what the guiding principle is gong to be.

Four things typically characterize partnerships with this view:

  • Little-to-no organic growth (ironic, given the degree to which organic growth increases the profit-pie);
  • Fractured culture — where few believe the firm stands for anything more than a pay check;
  • Alignment has given way to silos, fiefdoms and fractures’
  • Mediocrity — where there is little appetite for change, and zero incentive to innovate.

There are multiple benefits to the alignment that results from the identification of a set of Guiding Principles. Most can be summed up in two categories (and not necessarily in this order):

  • streamlined operational efficiency;
  • a culture where aspirations are shared, and core values are reflected in a set of guiding principles that shape daily operation and strategic execution.

In his paper — The Aligned Organization for McKinsey & Company Thierry Nautin characterizes it this way:

when people understand and are excited about the direction their company is taking, the company’s earnings margin is twice as likely to be above the median. And it showed that high-achieving organizations are also better than others at turning their visions into viable strategies that guide operational planning— something many business leaders may believe they already do well, but which often proves difficult in practice.

Earlier we mentioned that Guiding Principles form a kind of manifesto for the pursuit of a firm’s vision. As such, they provide an outline for how to begin to strategically address the issues, challenges and opportunities that present themselves today.

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