Why people vote for law firm leaders

Posted by Nigel Wallis, partner at Legal Futures Associate O’Connors LLP

Wallis: From follow-the-leader to law firm leader

I don’t know about you, but I’m much more Follow-the-Leader than Pokémon Go. Until someone put me right, I thought Angry Birds was a Hitchcock film. I’d like to think it’s maturity but it’s more likely to be my age.

We used to play Follow-the-Leader after Sunday lunch at my grandparents’ house, in the days when The Beatles were still playing live. My grandpa would elect himself first ‘head-of-the-line’ and we’d all gather in front of him, trying to mimic his actions and humour him as best we knew how.

Anyone who failed to follow his lead was out of the game and made to sit in silence on the cold stone floor. The last one standing won a gobstopper and became the next leader, expecting everyone immediately to swap allegiances and follow them instead.

Looking back, it was like many law firms really.

Very few people leap at the chance of becoming the leader of a law firm. It is, after all, a fiendishly difficult job. Most are encouraged to stand for election and then must run the gauntlet of peer interrogation and appraisal.

From our work with many different law firms over the years, I think it’s possible to identify the reasons why some leadership candidates get elected and others don’t. This is what I’ve learned along the way.

The biggest challenge for any leadership candidate is to get the agreement of intelligent, free-spirited and opinionated legal professionals to relinquish some control and be managed.

Putting it diplomatically, legal professionals are not known for slavish obedience or for taking performance management in their stride. So it takes a special type of individual to be accepted by his or her peers as having leadership potential, to be duly elected as leader and then to succeed in that role.

What then are the big questions that are likely to be in the mind of someone voting for a law firm leadership candidate?

Has the candidate demonstrated to me, by words and deeds, that they are driven by ambition for the firm above themselves? Unless the candidate is new to the firm, voters will generally have formed a view on this long before any leadership contest.

They will have been watching the candidate every step of their career to see if they possess what Jack Welch of General Electric termed ‘the generosity gene’.

In other words, is he or she a team player who has shown an enduring propensity to help others, at all levels in the firm, even at a personal cost? This is incredibly hard to fake. Self-centred power-grabbers smell stronger than burnt toast.

Do I believe the candidate espouses my kind of business philosophy? For a voter to give up some control and agree to be led, they will want to be satisfied that the candidate has a strong moral compass and sense of fairness.

Nobody will follow someone who they feel is likely to herd them far from the madding crowd off Principle Cliff onto Hypocrisy Beach. But they will go the extra mile for a candidate who has demonstrated a passion for client and staff care, for quality standards and an infectious enthusiasm for building something meaningful.

This is because they instinctively know that such leaders stand the best chance of delivering financial success for the firm and for them over the medium to long term.

Do I believe the candidate has the business acumen to deliver a good plan? It’s one thing possessing the generosity gene and a strong moral compass, but voters only vote for a candidate they believe has the business skills needed to develop and deliver an inspiring plan.

Voters want to know what ideas the candidate has for the future and what their track record has been for developing ideas in the past.

Has the candidate ever swam against the tide and won others over to an initiative that has ultimately proved successful? Are they a problem-solver that others migrate towards when they are in a jam? Or are they a touchline critic who hops on a bandwagon only when it is already rolling?

Do I believe the candidate has the emotional intelligence to bring out the best in everyone? It doesn’t matter if a candidate can’t tell a gag like Victoria Wood or hold an audience like Cicero. Voters will, however, want to be satisfied that a candidate has the touch to create an environment where everyone in the business can achieve their potential.

Creating this environment requires a leader who is authentic and capable of consulting, listening and coaching in a way that is both challenging and encouraging. Dictatorship produces short-term results at best.

Instead, voters look for a candidate that has proved themselves to be a critical friend to those around them – someone who can push those that need pushing, lift those that need lifting and unleash hidden talent.

Is this a search for the Holy Grail? I think not. There are many notable examples out there.

Are they easy to spot? No, but it’s a bit like choosing a new puppy. Avoid the one that bounds up to you and starts biting your ankles. Chose the quiet one in the corner that’s working out how to open the garden gate.

    Readers Comments

  • Barry Wilding-Webb says:

    Nigel, thank you for your article, which is both poignant and timely for me. Both me and my post of Training Manager are new at a long established law firm in Exeter. Brought in to develop new partners into leaders of the future my first cohort of 10 are feeling the soft bristles of this new brush and at present are being swept along. I anticipate and hope that will change as resistance and challenge to anything new is bread and butter for a seasoned L&D professional. However, early signs are good and I have my eye on the quiet as well as the vocal ones.

  • Patrick J. McKenna says:

    As the author of ‘The Changing of The Guard: Selecting Your Next Firm Leader” I believe that Nigel has nailed it in this article. Brilliant!

  • Rory MccGwire says:

    You should be in publishing Nigel. Another gem of a blog, full of wit and insight.

    We all complain about our managers (I used to, before I became one). Being a good manager is difficult enough, but being a good manager and leader is harder still.

    One tip I’ve always been grateful for is this: “Don’t motivate people. Just avoid de-motivating them. So hire good people, agree the goals let them get on with their work and remember to say thank you.”

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