A Cautionary Tale: Broken Glass

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By Gerry Riskin | Mar 14, 2014

by Gerry Riskin

Once upon a time there was a practice group that thought it was special. It thought it could accomplish much more than many of its counterparts within, and outside, the firm. And it came to pass that the practice group did accomplish a number of measurable results. And the firm said it was good…

In a sad moment that I will not forget, a senior member of the group confided that the practice group leader had been punished for his devotion to the group. Senior management had encouraged the leader, paid lip service to his efforts, and praised the accomplishments of the group, but had not come through in terms of his compensation. That senior individual used the phrase, The glass is broken. He meant that senior management had said one thing and done another.

How ironic, and sad, that such a capable group perceived that it now resided on broken glass. The lesson here, in my respectful opinion, is not that the compensation received by the leader was adequate or inadequate. In fact, the compensation is almost irrelevant. What matters more than anything else was the absence of any clear communication between the firm and the individual as to how his performance would be measured and how he would be compensated.

What Managing the Managers Could Look Like

Senior management in most professional firms tends to play it safe. Many believe that it is safest to remain nebulous about how performance is measured or appreciated. This leaves the optimum number of options open to senior management so they can play the game as it goes along. It also helps senior management avoid difficult decisions, like making value judgments on the worth of contributions.

Indeed, this failure to honestly and openly confront what kinds of performances are desirable and how they will be valued is a symptom of an even deeper problem: failure of senior management to manage the managers. When a practice group leader is appointed, for example, the mandate is like receiving an award or recognition. It is perceived as an honorary role. Being a leader might involve watching the printouts a little more closely. It might mean acting as an extension of the firm’s administrative arm by identifying lackluster performers or work in progress or receivables that exceed expectation. That the goal as leader should include greater profitability, better client mixes, higher client satisfaction, higher personnel satisfaction or greater cohesiveness seems to be completely foreign. Optimum achievement by a group will not occur if the group perceives that it resides on broken glass. Predictably, the efforts of the group will wane. It is very unfortunate to see a cold towel of mediocre management thrown upon the warm enthusiasm of a highly capable group. In this highly competitive world, the time has come for senior management to manage the managers with more sophistication.

Sheer Expectations

This begins by allowing senior management some time to manage. In the legal profession, busy practitioners who carry a full load of billable work and client attraction and maintenance responsibilities are asked to magically manage a group in their spare time. The typical leader lives under a set of unarticulated expectations. If asked, most would assume that the expectations include a mix of better clients, more profits, lower turnover or, in some cases, simply ensuring that neither the group nor its practice erodes. In most cases, it is a practice leader’s job to maintain the status quo. In times of prosperity, most leaders focus on their billable practice and can’t understand why there would be a return on investment for managing or leading the group.

This is precisely why senior management must be clearer in articulating expectations. While improved profitability, client mix and enhanced loyalty are desirable, the firm’s evolution over the medium-term may require focusing on a single attribute at the expense of the rest. For example, in a large firm attempting to globalize, it may be more important in the medium-term that members of like groups from across different offices learn to practice together in harmony. This objective may be far more important than focusing on a short-term goal such as signing up a certain client. In another practice group, clients may be extraordinary but profitability mediocre. Perhaps this occurs because good group members tend to focus on their technical expertise because they gain satisfaction from being good practitioners. Such a group requires a leader who can sensitize people to the drivers of profitability and the way the firm delegates, supervises, schedules work assignments and assesses mandates. These impact not only profitability, but the quality of the work as well. In yet another group, the turnover may be much too high and extremely costly to the firm. A practice group leader who could turn around that trend would make a significant contribution to the firm.

Double-Sided Glass

In all three preceding examples, a clear, precise direction from senior management and a larger view of the firm’s priorities would help practice leaders contribute to the firm’s health. Once senior management sees the virtue of managing the managers with some precision, then it follows that there must be a realistic expectation as to how the firm will reward accomplishment. If the firm is simply going to reward the personal performance of the leaders regardless of the success or failure of the group, then those leaders will focus primarily on their own practice.

If the firm measures the performance of the leader based on the accomplishments of the group, then it must be precise. Otherwise, there is a misunderstanding, and remember, even honorable people can misunderstand one another. Senior management may invite the perception that it did not come through on its promise and, therefore, good leadership went unrewarded or unrecognized. Such a situation is ripe for one of its significant members to say, The glass is broken. It is another way of saying that the accomplishments of the group have been torn. One cannot easily argue with the benefits to a firm whose senior leadership has the courage to manage with precision.

As published in Law Practice Management, May/June 2000