Three more plan tips


There are indeed a lot of cunning planners out there.  So for you, and having written or reviewed a lot of these docs (the good, bad and the ugly), here are three more guide points to help make them work to the max.  This is important.  Well-written ones get read and have a far better chance of being acted upon.  Bad and ugly ones get condemned to the (digital) closet.

SWOTs that (again)?  Last time, I looked at how distilling key issues from SWOT content is crucial (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).  But what if the content itself is less than perfect, ambiguous, or even confusing?  Ever read one in which the same issue or factor appears more than once e.g. it is both a Strength and i) a Weakness or even ii) an Opportunity?

For i), you must make a judgement call – decide which it is on the weight of evidence and impact and stick with it.  In ii), the most frequent reason for such a mix-up is unclear understanding of the differences between SW and OT.  SWs are intrinsic issues that fall largely under your or the firm’s control or ability to influence; OTs are extrinsic issues largely beyond your control/influence.

SFA your options   Once the plan has generated a number of real strategic options, choosing which is best to pursue becomes critical. The one that seems to deliver most financial ‘bang’? Or that you are personally most vested in? Here, the three classic strategic SFA option criteria* and appropriate analysis tools for them need to be used:

  • Suitability (would it work?): whether a strategy addresses the key issues identified in the plan
  • Feasibility (can it be made to work?): whether the resources required to implement the strategy successfully can be made available, developed or obtained.  These include funding, people, time and information.
  • Acceptability (will they work it?): whether the expectations of the various stakeholders will be met so that they buy in and better ensure success.

Monitor, review and update  I have jested about plans never seeing the light of day because they are too long.  But even if they are OK as a ‘product’, they can still not be used once formal acceptance has occurred: so into the dark recesses of the cupboard they also go.  This tends to occur in organisations where there is no real buy-in to the need for planning and thus no real importance attaches to its achievement.  It is just a “paper exercise”.

Good firms ensure such importance by adopting the maxim: “what gets measured and rewarded gets done”.  Performance against plan is tracked and monitored rigorously by senior management; partners and teams are held directly accountable for what happens (or does not happen) and what is (not) achieved.  As a result, funnily enough, plans tend to get reviewed and updated regularly by their originators and users.

* ‘Exploring Strategy: Text & Cases’ (2013) Johnson, Whittington & Scholes

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones.



Three tips to improve feedback


“I don’t think partners are as good as they should be in giving praise and recognition”*

There seems to be more trending than ever for the giving of proper feedback and recognition to staff: as an important plank in the edifice of employee engagement and a strategy to retain and grow better the Y Generation that is reaching maturity in the workforce.  Sadly, the picture is far from rosy when it comes to best practice.

Talking to an experienced colleague recently, she concluded that “probably no more than 20% of senior management professionals I have come across seem to really get and do it well” – despite feedback’s increasing visibility on the organisational agenda of many firms.  Part of this can be attributed to the “clinical, detached, analytical attitude”* that some of these people managers bring to it: small wonder perhaps then that 40% of UK senior associate lawyers in a recent survey regretted their choice of profession.  It isn’t all just down to the long hours.

Things need to change: here is a modest start, with three tips that can oil the wheels of better feedback.

It’s meant to be nourishment not target practice  Traditionally, the annual appraisal is the preferred and sometimes only forum for feedback.  In many cases, our detached brethren simply pull out the ‘rap sheet’ and apply forensic analysis to what the accused has done wrong.   This concept and its philosophy needs to move on and the clue is in the name.  Feeding is a process of nourishment, precious little of which occurs in many appraisal conversations.  It is time to really feed back to our employees rather than just point the critical gun at them.

Immediate, regular, committed  Contextually, once or even twice a year appraisals are not the ideal feedback medium, which is why more and more firms are abandoning such infrequent formality.  One of the reasons for this is that recognition has most impact on the receiver when it occurs as close to the event as possible.  If you manage people, when did you last tell a member of your team what specifically they had done well at or near the time it occurred? The best deliverers also build into their schedule regular ‘sit downs’ with staff to talk, two way, about work and performance – and they stick to them despite the heavy pressures applied by clients, work, and other organisational commitments.

Be clear and supportive  If you are serious about providing good feedback, then communicate to your team that you are and what your expectations are when it comes to their performance and the process of development. From experience, too many senior professionals never have such meta-conversations, often because they are not committed to performance management and development in the first place.  Staff are left in the dark and have to learn (sometimes painfully) on the job what the minimal contact rules of the game are.

And of course not all feedback is about a job well done.  But having the ‘difficult’ conversation about something that could have gone better – assuming it happens at all – should be about supporting the individual’s development rather than just telling them what to do next time: make it a chance for them to reflect on what they could have done differently.  This is about both mind-set and learnable skill/ability.

* Legal Week “Best Legal Employers” 2015

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones.


Getting the professional leadership “thing”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most professionals are employed and achieve success primarily for their technical expertise.  This can make leadership and other skills “nice to have” rather than essential.  If it occurs at all, leadership development can happen only by accident.  As a result, sadly, some firms get the leaders they deserve.

“The process of influencing others to achieve their and the firm’s goals successfully” 

If this is an accurate definition of leadership, then it is a skill required not just at partner or director level, but for anyone in an influencing position or role throughout your firm – including you? Here are three tips that focus on simple, practical issues that leaders at all levels must address to be a more positive influence.  Of course, we all know that leadership is about many other things…

Do what made Alexander great  Now we are not suggesting that warfare is an exact model for business or professional services!  The point is though that Alexander the Great inspired the fiercest devotion in his soldiers (and achieved the unachievable as a result) by sharing some of the burden and privations of his armies personally, especially when things got tight. We contrast this with numerous war stories we have listened to of senior personnel in firms regularly leaving the long hour, tough deadline assignments entirely to junior staff – all of whom were suitably inspired as a result.  Not.

You are in a goldfish in a bowl.. Interviewing staff at all levels in a major firm a few years ago, we were struck by how many negative myths were created and perpetuated by the day-to-day (mis)behaviours of certain leadership figures; sometimes for only trivial (to them) but important things (to others).  These leaders seemed blissfully unaware of what they were doing and its impact on the people that they were supposed to be influencing positively.  Remember that as a leader in any context, you are being watched all the time.  You are a bit like a goldfish.  Except that some people observing you closely will take their lead directly from how you (mis)behave.

Adapt or stay frozen with CJ  It is a common myth (perhaps attachable to stories about historical figures like Alexander the Great) that there is one right way to lead.  There isn’t.  Good leaders adapt their way of influencing others according to the relative ability and willingness or motivation of those they seek to influence.  Less effective ones stick rigidly with their preferred style, the style “that got them where they are today”. We call this the ‘CJ Syndrome’, after the less-than-inspirational boss in David Nobbs’ very funny satire of business and working life: “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”.

Don’t be CJ.

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Business Development Resolutions Part 2

Last time it was about getting the picture, a mentor or a buddy. There are three more resolutions that will build on this good work to help create a tide of success for you or your professionals’ business development efforts over the coming months. These are not complicated things but, if they are missing, the firm’s individual/collective success and achievement can be oh-too-easily compromised.

Get proactive
“I have a good reputation with the clients/partners who have the gift of work. They know where I am”
This is the better mousetrap fallacy as applied by some practitioners. In this mind-set, believing that they have a better professional gizmo than their neighbours is sufficient for the world to beat a path to their door. Except it won’t be and it doesn’t – as some have found to their cost particularly in the leaner times of the past five years.

Part of this problem is about conditioning. Lawyers, accountants, and other experts can grow up in their firms only ever being fed work and then measured on how well they complete it. By the time they are deemed to be mature, it’s a big ask to then overlay the bit that says “I must now go and win my own”. (NB This is often the point at which the mentors or coaches mentioned in Part 1 can become useful). So early exposure to the skills, practice of, and responsibility for work-winning is vital.

But ultimately, it comes down to a simple realisation for everyone. Assume nothing about what your clients are thinking or about the self-perceived excellence of your mousetrap. Proactivity in finding and delivering ongoing ways to engage with them is the key, particularly with the proliferation of communication media now available to all of us. Plan it and then do it.

Build momentum
So for a number of professionals, BD is not perceptibly a primary business function. If it is treated as a ‘nice to do’, the consequences for achievement and results are usually serious. Witness the plans and activity being happily implemented from Tip 1 by Practitioner A that are dropped the moment a new significant piece of work comes in, only to be taken up again perhaps months later, if at all.

Disappearing off the grid thus, it becomes extremely difficult to build any sort of momentum with clients and contacts that will deliver a stream of new future work opportunities. The solution is partly a management one: that means supervising partners or department heads delivering on their leadership remit by setting specific agendas for Practitioner A and other individuals for whom they are responsible, reviewing progress regularly against what was agreed, and providing guidance, encouragement, or sanctions as appropriate. But it is also about individuals themselves recognising their overweening deal focus (often not easy so more guidance required here) and then applying coping strategies to deal with it…

Take it bite-size
The boom/bust nature of business development implementation described in Tip 2 requires an adjustment. Instead of working flat out just on fee earning punctuated by infrequently large and indigestible ‘chunks’ of business development, allocate a small amount of time each day to BD/marketing (say 15 or 30 minutes) and stick to it. If, as often, this is about communicating with people, the beginning and the end of the day are timely periods that minimally impact on work flow and that offer the best chances of success.

Of course, there will also be BD tasks that require more time to complete but this is a good baseline to establish.

Staying alert when things pick up

The holidays are over and for some it’s back to a slightly rosier picture than in the last few years. The economy is on the (slow) up, financial results seem to indicate modest growth in many sectors…and the sun has even shone.

However, whilst not wishing to party poop, it is time to stay alert to help avoid the distractions of an improving (but hardly booming) position that can stalk professional service firms – particularly when it comes to Business Development. So here are three things to consider as you seek to motivate yourself or others to do the right thing in the coming months – and beyond.

Mind the “satisficing” gap
First, if workloads and utilisation are on the increase, some professionals will fall into “satisficing” – satisfying some criteria (i.e. client work) and sacrificing others (i.e. business development activity).

Paraphrasing the combined observations of more than one Head of Business Development we know: “The moment fee earning levels pick up, you can see the change almost immediately as they charge into the comfort zone of the ‘here and now’ that they know and love. Meanwhile, I and my team are looking at the emptiness of the medium and longer term pipeline that has vanished from their sight and wondering how the hell it is going to be filled. It’s scary”.

Partly, it is up to the firm’s BD teams to pick this up and keep professionals’ eyes on the prize: a good test of their closeness, credibility and influencing skills. Partly, it is also about more effective “operations management”, the efficient management and delegation of work streams, and strong leadership influence to ensure that business development time does not magically disappear for those senior people tasked with its implementation.

Increase don’t slacken
In fact, I’ll go further than Tip 1. Now is the time not to cut back or take foot-off-pedal on marketing and business development investment (“things have picked up so we don’t need to do so much….it’ll boost PEP/profits too”). It is the moment to really boost the initiatives, time allocation and spend dedicated to profile raising and market-driven investment that will help deliver that medium/long term.

Focus on initiatives that will generate real, measurable Return On Investment to help win the argument….and then the day.

Accept that things won’t revert
Finally, the past is a foreign country – they (and we) really do things differently there.

The increases in buyer power witnessed in most branches of the professions over the past five years will not be reversed. Flexibility in pricing, the desire for greater predictability, and improved efficiency in how professionals firms provide their service will stay. Any firm hoping for a reversion to the old ways is going to struggle.

Those who succeed will be the ones that embrace the challenges of greater competitive pressure by growing and leading professionals who are more “production efficient”, and Business Development teams that will more closely resemble the specialisation, broader client interface responsibility, and expertise evidenced in almost every other branch of commerce.

These will be the ‘New Model’ firms of the future: some will already have their road mapped out for this. Does yours?

Mitigating merger mania

The ‘M’ word is currently all the rage – especially in professional services (and the law in particular) as firms respond to the new competitive market place for ownership in the UK and a continuing low growth economy. According to a recent survey, 50% of law firms questioned have either put in or plan to put in place a new structure to allow non-lawyer ownership. In a traditionally ultra- conservative sector, that smacks of dynamism.

But it is best not to get carried away, so here are some observations from experience on some of the pitfalls of mergers and how to avoid them. They apply not just to lawyers but all businesses contemplating the big M move.

There’s no such thing as a merger
In professional service circles, firms ‘merge’ almost 100% of the time. Nobody ever gets ‘taken over’ or ‘acquired’. In most cases this is a sop to the feelings of partners. From experience, in nearly every ‘merger’ game – at the end – one side invariably emerges from the deal changing room wearing the trousers (so to speak).

When big’uns acquire (sorry merge with) little’uns, those in the minority firm should never fool themselves (but some DO) that things will remain the same as before. They won’t. Nor should anyone else if you aren’t on the winning side.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast
One of Peter Drucker’s pithier comments has a particular resonance for mergers. Firms spend much expense and many hours of due diligence coming up with valuations, assessing financial and resource (mis)match-ups, systems compatibilities, client base analyses and making other assessments and decisions that fulfil the strategic imperative – quite often based around numbers.

I wonder how many mergers really put serious effort into assessing the most important intangible for Mr Drucker – the cultural fit (I think we know the answer to this)? Yes, it is difficult to pin down but there are methodologies out there for making a detailed comparison…if you decide to use them.

What about the morning after?
Yes, and as we’re speaking about all that effort that goes into analysing, deciding and doing the deal – how much grunt goes into the bit that follows, the waking up together on the first day of a new marriage and (hopefully) the next 50 metaphorical years? If you’ve seen most of the focus go on the ‘before’ – leaving the ‘after’ to be “sorted out later” (presumably by someone else) – then you’re not alone.

There isn’t a pill to take. Instead, there is a detailed post-merger plan with clear activities, responsibilities, time frames, budgets, resource and buy-in….and an awful lot of hard work to make it happen.