Tailored Talent Supervision

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By David Cruickshank | Apr 2, 2016

While working with counsel at a top global firm recently, I asked them: “What is your best tip for supervising associates?” I received some terrific ideas, but one that stood out was this from a transactional lawyer: “I ask them what they need from me.” This counsel had turned the normal supervision wisdom upside down. Instead of assuming that the senior lawyer knows best, he wanted to know what actually worked best.

If you are a partner or senior enough to be supervising associates, it is not that easy to adopt the wisdom of “tailored talent supervision.” You may have several associates and little time. Associates come and go – from your matters and your firm – so it may be frustrating to invest in more individualized attention. And even if you go down this path, the associates may not be frank with you in asking questions or giving you feedback. Here are some thoughts on how you might move from “standard supervision” to tailored supervision.

First, the senior lawyer needs fundamental skills in delegation, ongoing supervision and feedback. Furthermore, skilled supervisors pay attention to ongoing career development of their team members. Many law firms now teach these skills, but if necessary, seek an outside program. For example, if you do not have a core delegation system or a well-conceived approach to feedback, you will not have a base from which to customize your talent management. You want to acquire the full Swiss Army knife first, then use the right tools.

As each associate gets better with your assigned legal tasks, you will use a lighter touch. You’ll have fewer check-ins. Perhaps you’ll delegate with more shorthand. In my own training program on delegation skills, we discuss “situational delegation”. But how do you know when you are supervising at too high or too low a level for the tasks and the individual?

I recommend a conversation with each of your associates, using some recent delegated tasks as examples. Some of these tasks should be recently completed, but one or two can be in progress. Your goal in this conversation should be to find out what each associate needs. However, if you ask a broad question, like “How is my delegation and supervision going?” most associates will play safe and say “fine.” Instead, try narrower questions that are harder to duck. Here is an effective series of questions.

“I am trying to tailor the way I delegate work, supervise and give you feedback. I want to have some of our recent assignments in mind, including at least one that is ongoing. Thinking of those assignments:

  1. Has there been enough clarity in my delegations so that you do not have to ask many later questions – to me or others?
  2. Thinking of my supervision or your matters, am I sufficiently (a) available to you, and (b) responsive in a reasonable time?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is very “hands off” and 10 is very “close” supervision, where would you rank my ongoing supervision?  Follow up: Are there situations where you need me to lean to less or more supervision?
  4. While I cannot give you feedback on all your tasks, is my feedback to you (a) timely (within two weeks of completed work) (b) specific enough to help you develop you future skills?”

The answers to these questions should lead to a summary of your listening back to the associate: “From what you are saying, you need me to….”

Then make your own bullet point notes and strive to follow those needs in your future delegation, supervision and feedback. But after a year, the tailoring will have to be updated and you should revisit this conversation with each associate.

David Cruickshank is a principal at Edge International. In addition to delivering training courses on delegation, supervision and feedback, he provides coaching to partners who have significant management, leadership and supervision challenges.