Mount Everest Syndrome

Print PDF

By Gerry Riskin | Apr 10, 2014

by Gerry Riskin

End the cycle of making big plans for nonbillable project…and accomplishing nothing. Here we offer practical suggestions for breaking that cycle…

Most professionals in good law firms tend to think big. If someone in the firm decides it might be a good idea to take up mountain climbing, it will not be more than a nanosecond before someone in the group exclaims, If we are going to do climbing in this firm, we’re going to do Everest and nothing less!

Now, one might think that having lofty goals is a positive characteristic. But let’s see how this plays out. Assume the group decides that climbing Mount Everest would indeed be worthwhile. Before long, someone volunteers to look into it: I’ve seen a documentary on Everest. I know you need a Sherpa, a tent or two, some oxygen, maybe a helicopter. I’ll look into it for the group.

The group reconvenes a month or so later and our volunteer is asked for a status report. The report is quite predictable. Notwithstanding the volunteer’s good intentions, as a result of intense client pressure, not too much has happened. The nature of the explanation will depend on who is present. The more power there is in the room, the more elaborate the excuse.

The critical issue is not that the task is not moving forward, but whether the individual will be forgiven for not having done anything. In order to make that determination, the group silently considers two questions: How are his billings? and How is he at attracting and maintaining clients? If the answer to even one of these questions is strongly positive, our volunteer will almost assuredly be forgiven. After all, Everest is a big mountain, it’s a long way away, and it can wait for another month.

The Mount Everest Syndrome is when group members promise big, deliver nothing, and are forgiven. Over and over again.

The damage is not so much that little or no progress is made; the real damage arises from the fact that the group members learn from their observations and become rather cynical. Some will say, Why do we continually promise each other these things and never deliver? Surely, if we are never going to do any of the things we say we’re going to do, we would be better off just spending our time practicing law.

Others will chime in, You know, that’s probably right. Since it is rather hopeless to get any of these grandiose schemes executed or implemented, maybe we should plan a lot less and just practice a lot more.

MANAGEMENT NEEDED

In fact, for this very reason, many good firms spend 100 percent of their time on their practices and absolutely no time on other valuable activities.

I would respectfully suggest that the missing ingredient is management by the group or firm leaders. The volunteer who offered to investigate Everest needs to be managed in this process. Whenever there is a competition between client pressures and the desire to do some quality nonbillable work, the client pressures will win. Accordingly, the score will always be Clients: 100; Quality Nonbillable Time: 0. This score is disastrous for the firm’s future.

Let me be clear: I don’t think that the ratio should be the reverse. Any practitioner who has primary responsibility for a billable practice ought to keep the amount of nonbillable projects to a reasonable minimum. In fact, the time invested in nonbillable projects should be highly efficient and effective and spent on projects of extremely high priority.

When it comes to a quality nonbillable project, why would a self-motivated, independent, mature, and responsible professional require management? After all, the same individual shows a great deal of initiative in the practice of law and does not have to be managed very much in relation to files or matters. The answer is simple: Billable projects are hard-wired to self-esteem, self-respect, dignity, sense of worth, and prestige within the firm. For example, a real estate lawyer who has a deal to close by a certain date will almost always do everything that is required to meet that objective.

Nonbillable projects simply do not compete very well against billable ones, period. Nonbillable projects normally do not have immediate gratification associated with them. They are investments in the future. Furthermore, at any moment in time, if a client matter demands the attention of the professional, that client pressure becomes a perfectly acceptable excuse for not having accomplished the nonbillable objective, no matter how valuable. Appropriate management by the group leader can compensate for this. How? By ensuring that small and appropriate amounts of time are dedicated to quality nonbillable projects, at least from time to time.

The theme here is that it’s OK to spend almost all of one’s time on billable work in any given period, but it is not OK to spend none of it on quality nonbillable projects.

STEP BY STEP

Managing the volunteer who agreed to look after the Everest expedition might entail a few basic questions, like, All right, Everest sounds like a very good idea for our firm. In fact, I can’t think of anything more wonderful than having the name of our firm on a flag on the top of that mountain. But tell me, where does the project begin for you? What would be your first logical step?

That question forces the volunteer to think through a sequence of actions and to paint a picture for both the leader and himself of the path the project will take. The volunteer might say something like, Well, I suppose I should look at a map and find out exactly where that darn mountain is. I know roughly, but I guess I should be precise.

The leader may ask little more of the volunteer than to have a map with a pin in it for the next meeting. The leader’s request should involve a very small step that the volunteer is almost certainly capable of accomplishing by the next meeting. In fact, it should be so straightforward and simple that anyone would be embarrassed not to have accomplished it within that time period.

A good leader doesn’t wait for the meeting to find out whether the volunteer has made any progress. He goes to the volunteer in the intervening time and says something like:

Ralph, it’s extremely important to me that you accomplish the step that you agreed to by the time we get together next for a number of reasons: One, the project is a good one and will be beneficial to our group and to our firm, and it deserves the effort; two, it is a rather modest undertaking and I’m sure that if you impose upon yourself a little self-discipline that you’ll be able to accomplish it with ease; and, three, I need you to accomplish this as an act of leadership for the rest of the group. Too often in our group meetings, too many people have not accomplished what they agreed to do, and that gives rise to a sense of futility and a sense that we are just going to forgive ourselves anyway. As a leader, I want to turn that around. I want you either to accomplish this next step or agree with me on an even more modest step, or I want to have you resign from the project.

The leader might also suggest the possible delegation of pieces or components of the task; after all, the objective is not to get the volunteer to do every aspect of the project, but rather to accomplish the objective. The more that can be done by delegation, the better for that volunteer and the group and the firm.

Let’s say that someone in your group agrees to write an article that would be useful to existing or prospective clients and might demonstrate the unique value that the firm might provide. Traditionally, a leader might ask how long it will take to write the article. An effective leader who is aware of the Mount Everest Syndrome might ask the person, instead, to describe the sequence of events in creating the article. For example, Have you already determined your specific subject?

The leader is not asking these questions as a boss, but rather as a coach: Leadership involves helping the individual accomplish what she would like to do. Furthermore, the leader can act as a conscience to help someone discriminate between low-yielding, time-consuming activities and optimum activities.

Imagine that the person responds by saying that she has a couple of different subjects in mind. The leader may then ask, How long do you think it will take you to comfortably choose one of those topics as the focus for your article? The leader might go on to suggest that the person provide a list of the alternate topics within, say, three or four days, in order to help her think through the selection of topics.

This should not be viewed as micromanagement, but as achieving results. The apathetic leader can sit back and wait for the due date to come and go, and then ask whether the article is done–and unless your firm is very different from most, the answer will be no.

The effective leader is not going to let that happen. The effective leader is going to coach the individual step-by-step through the project. The individual will not be allowed to forget about the project and, furthermore, remains focused on bite-size steps that can be accomplished within reasonable time frames.

After choosing the topic, for example, the leader might ask about the approach the writer will take in creating the article. Again, the leader should not dictate the approach, but should use the individual’s preferred approach to help her move the project forward. For example, one writer might indicate that she tends to do an outline and then fill in the details later, while another might prefer to dictate the substance of the article in an initial draft. The leader’s job is not to impose a style, but rather to use the individual’s style to help get the task accomplished.

So the leader whose writer tends to prefer the outline approach might ask for a copy of that outline by a predetermined date. Again, the purpose would not be to critique it, but simply to keep the person honest in terms of the time frames and to offer assistance wherever possible, either substantive or to suggest resources.

An effective leader will also be keeping an eye on where that article is going to be published and looking for ways to ensure that the article receives optimum exposure. Too often, intellectual capital is used for purposes that are far too narrow. A good article can be put on the firm’s Web site; distributed to appropriate publications, internal and external; can be used in presentations or addresses; and can even be worked into correspondence where appropriate.

If you are a group leader, you will want to think very carefully about how to overcome the Mount Everest Syndrome. Avoid long lists of action items that are never accomplished. The objective is to help the individuals in your group to create a much shorter list of actions that will very definitely be accomplished.

If you are a member of a group and feel that your leader lacks the skills or the inclination to help you accomplish what you need to, then you might want to think about a buddy system where you and a trusted colleague agree to provide a little coaching to one another. You could agree to help each other avoid taking on tasks that are too large, choose appropriate time frames, and then adhere to them.

It is extremely important that those who accomplish their objectives be very visible within the firm. There is no more powerful motivating force for individuals in a group than the actual accomplishment of their colleagues. Criticism and embarrassment in appropriate doses will help, but they pale in comparison to the effectiveness of being in a group where accomplishments are routine.

Gerald A. Riskin is a former managing partner and a founder of Edge International, which consults to some of the largest law firms in the world. He has taught client-relations skills in more than 300 law firms. He can be reached at riskin@edge.ai or +1 202 957 6717.

© 2001 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from Legal Times (1-800-933-4317 or subscriptions@legaltimes.com).