In our last two posts, we’ve been discussing “Magical Thinking,” the tendency of firm leaders to assume that rank-and-file partners can and will divine the reasoning of the Executive Committee and will take all necessary steps to keep abreast of firm economics, strategic decisions and operational guidance. This tendency produces frequent disconnects between the way firm leaders and managers see their world and the perspectives of individuals toiling away in their personal practice disciplines.

Magical Leaders, Magical Managers

What is true at the leadership level (i.e., the land of vision, strategy and firm culture) is no less true at the management level (i.e., the direction and control of lawyers’ here-and-now activities).  These two levels often intersect – and sometimes conflict — in the Practice Group Leader (PGL) role. PGLs must articulate and champion the firm’s strategic vision, as well as translating leadership policy mandates into practical action. In managing specific engagements, however, they must supervise individuals and client teams with highly self-interested motives. But, all too often the PGLs are the big rainmakers of a practice area and truly lack the interest or skills to lead a practice group.

Herding those Cats

Engineering cat collaboration is hard because it involves trying to align all sorts of very different incentives, rather than painting a rosy abstract picture to which all the cats can swear allegiance without seriously impairing their personal autonomy.

For example, we heard recently from a litigation PGL who regularly needs to draw on partners in different practice disciplines, or partners in far-flung firm offices to serve as local counsel in various matters. “I’m invariably on a very tight budget, and I tell them I really only need them to help with a narrow band of tasks. What do they do? They read every filing, document, email and mailing label in the entire matter, merrily running the billing clock all the while. Their quest for billable hours creates real problems for me and triggers serious friction between me and my client. I can’t bill the client for the time, but if I have to write off a lot of time – and I do – it negatively impacts the lawyers in the other offices and makes them less likely to collaborate with me in the future.  There is just no managing these people.”

Escaping MTS

Both firm leaders and practice group leaders need to learn basic skills for avoiding MTS – Magical Thinking Syndrome. Neither leaders nor followers are well-served by making untested assumptions about the other’s motives and priorities. Avoiding MTS involves focusing on a variety of communications-oriented action steps:

1)      Make Implicit Things Explicit. That is, engage in upfront discussions (okay, negotiations) about goals. At the leadership level, this involves painting a true and detailed picture of the impact the firm’s strategic and tactical priorities are likely to have on all levels and areas of firm operations. The troops need to know what they are in for, and they must be given a chance to assess how change will impact their personal self-interest. At the management level, this means translating the big picture into what the lawyers must do (sometimes called “action steps”) to pull the strategic priorities into daily reality.

2)      Eschew Obfuscation. In their drive to avoid personal confrontation and discord, lawyers commonly employ euphemisms, vagaries and broad generalizations that mask the true implications of their communications. This is a false comfort, because it is poor trade-off to swap some initial friction and discomfort for the furious blame-throwing and name-calling that accompanies poorly-managed crises and damage control.

3)      Quantify Expectations. To some people, the phrase “we have a little problem” means that we have a little problem.  To others, it is an understated coded signal that something potentially catastrophic impends. Far better to cast expectations in specific terms: “We need to generate $40 million more in revenue by the end of June, 2014.”

4)      Delegate Responsibility Specifically. Yes, it’s time-consuming for leadership and management to drive expectations down to the interpersonal level.  It’s far easier (and less accountable) to say, “We all need to work harder to pull our weight,” or “We all should be mindful of the budget constraints of projects we’re brought in to assist with.” These broad imperatives really are no imperatives at all: they impose no specific responsibility, standards or accountability. They are utterly easy to ignore.