Getting the job done: Some practical examplesSean Larkan
A year ago, I published an EIC article titled ‘Forget systems and structures – getting the job done is the key’.
In that article I suggested effort often goes into putting in systems or structures, but not enough emphasis is put on ensuring the success and implementation of projects – and that, consequently, results don’t always follow.
Successful firms succeed because they get the right things done. This gets results, the real test of everything we do.
On the strength of feedback, I would like to expand on this theme and look at some practical examples and how these may play out in law firms.
The obvious one is developing and implementing strategy. I have found that three things are vital for successfully doing this:
- Get all the pre-strategy items agreed and out of the way before you commence developing the strategy per se: I call these “Core Purpose” while my colleague Nick Jarrett-Kerr refers to them as “Strategic Intent.” These would include things like determining locations, practice areas, industry sectors to focus on, values and cultural attributes (guiding principles), profit-sharing and leadership structures, and the like;
- Limit the number of Strategic Key Objectives (those things, if you achieve them, which will have nothing less than a massive impact on your firm) you identify in the strategy process to a maximum of five or six, and appoint task forces headed up by one person (who has power to co-opt others) to get the job done. Report on progress;
- Formally stress-test the implementation, success of the strategy and make necessary changes at least annually (properly done, you will get more results out of this than the first part of the process).
The next is your brand (your firm brand, employment brand and individual brands), arguably your most valuable but misunderstood firm asset. Ensure this is done:
- Get a brand strategy specialist in to help you, someone who is not principally focused on names, logos, colours, printing, websites and other aesthetics. These are important, but come later;
- Ensure a common, simple understanding around brand (you need to all speak the same simple language and know that you each play an important role in strengthening and supporting your brand) and educate each and every member of your firm around this – every lawyer, every support staff member, every partner; this is not something you leave to ‘marketing’. It is a strategic matter which should be owned by firm leadership;
- Develop a brand strategy to ensure the critical elements are tackled and actually implemented. In the first year this may chiefly involve item 2 above, but that is no bad thing. One example of these elements is achieving Brand Fusion™ – i.e., ensuring that what you as a firm suggest or promise (review your website and brochures to find many examples) you actually deliver, and people inside and outside the firm actually experience in practice;
A final example is achieving consistent, across the board partner-team performance and contributions. Most firms who seek our advice point to this as an ongoing issue.
It is hard to summarise this complex matter in a few points, but these are key areas to address:
- Ensure all partners have a clear understanding of what it means to be a partner and the range of contribution criteria they need to meet;
- Ensure those contribution criteria are focused on the right, critical elements for the firm at its particular stage of development, growth and market positioning. This will differ from firm to firm;
- Develop a suitable feedback, support and development system for partners to ensure regular feedback, actioning of issues and support where needed;
- That there is absolute clarity around partner responsibilities and accountabilities for building and running successful teams of lawyers (a somewhat controversial subject in some jurisdictions). We have developed a sophisticated Responsible Partner™ methodology to address this;
- Develop an efficient one-page ‘snapshot’ or ‘dashboard’ reporting system, which is produced at least monthly, and provides feedback on all critical performance and contribution elements;
- Ensure some form of appropriate partner accountability and consequences based on the above results.
The above are just three examples, but do even these and you will be well on the way! I hope they provide some useful pointers. I would be happy to expand on these based on individual firm circumstances.
Successful Strategy: The Essential Supporting Acts (Part Two)Sean Larkan
In Part One of this article, I focused on some important pre-strategy initiatives which should be tackled to lay a sound foundation for successful strategy implementation.
Here are some others:
Key governance structures
Fundamental to strategy success is a cohesive partner effort and involvement. It is not something that can simply be done and driven at EXCO/Board or MANCO level. But there are still many firms that have not yet tackled fundamental structures like clarifying what is expected of partners – contribution and performance criteria, and how feedback around meeting those criteria should be gathered and fed back to partners. In some cases this may come with consequences, depending on the basis of your partner equity structures – meritocracy, lock-step or managed lockstep and so on. Depending on the culture of the partnership this will usually flow into partner performance management or feedback, support and development systems.
Get these in place and there is a much greater likelihood you will get your partners focused on assisting to implement firm strategy – after all, it will be a key contribution requirement and criterion for partners and they will be measured on this.
In some cases you may need to streamline decision-making structures in the firm. There are still firms, and quite large ones, who go through a laborious process of having partners review and agree upon virtually every decision of consequence about to be taken by a leader or management executive. Strategy requires decisions being taken, and decisiveness. It usually calls for partners to relinquish some control and decision-making powers to their managing partner/director.
Key information systems and management structures
Once you embark on a strategy exercise, and finalise partner performance management or feedback and development systems for partners, your information and support service management structures and personnel should, and will, be tested to the full. Where possible (in the time available), it is wise to vigorously review these at this early stage to ensure they are adequate and ready to support your strategic initiatives. Otherwise shortcomings here can in themselves cause strategy implementation to stumble or even fail.
The strategy document itself
As noted in Part One to this article, keep the document “lean and mean.” I would suggest limiting this to a short summary of your Core Purpose (however you decide to constitute that), your strategic key objectives (or call them “key result areas”) and key strategies.
Don’t bog it down with too much detail or layers of actions, time-lines and responsibilities for all and sundry in the firm. The detail can come later in the form of implementation plans by task force Leaders, practice/industry group heads, senior support service managers or even partners in their individual business plans.
The reason for this is that you want your strategy walking around in the heads of every partner and manager in the firm. This will only happen if it is short and punchy.
Too often the process of finalising the strategy is dragged out for far too long. As a result partners are lost along the way and interest in and support for the strategy initiative slips. Keeping the document short and focused on truly strategic issues assists greatly. You can test all your strategic key objectives by asking “Will success in achieving this objective have a massive impact on our firm?” If not, it is not strategic and shouldn’t be in your strategy. You will need to be vigilant as partners and managers will invariably try to bring in non-strategic albeit important items on to the list for attention.
Strategy is good strategy when it works and gets results. You will need to spend most of your time on post-strategy exercises, which is contrary to what happens in most firms. By this point many are too often “tired of strategy”!
I find the simple structure of a very small task force (not a committee) headed up by one driven, energetic partner or support service manager can work wonders. They should report directly to the managing partner on implementation. Where appropriate, short implementation plans can be useful, provided they don’t become bigger than Ben Hur.
Bear in mind that successful firm strategy often runs into or requires other sub-strategies for success. These may include a People Strategy, Finance Strategy or even a Brand Strategy. It is important these follow the same principles and are carefully aligned with the main strategy.
Partner feedback and performance-management systems
This is where these systems come into their own, post-strategy. Partners should receive feedback on and sometimes be measured (depending on the natures of your partner structures) against how they contribute to the strategy-implementation phase.
Keep your strategy alive – stress-testing
Most of the benefits of strategy come not in formulation but in stress-testing and fine-tuning it along the way. Be sure to do this at regular intervals – annually or at most twice annually is usually enough.
There are many reasons for this – reporting successes or problem areas, keeping partners interested and motivated and adapting to changing market conditions. Strategy is a living animal, a journey rather than a destination, and one which never really ends, as firms adapt, strategise further and move on to new things to compete effectively – and ideally, to dominate.
Strategy on its own does not achieve success. It is rather everything that goes with strategy to ensure its success.
I hope these ideas will prompt readers to consider what these things may be in the case of your firm. Each firm will be different – as to culture, structures, stage of development, strategic prerogatives – and these will determine how you tackle and support your strategy to successful implementation and results.
Successful Strategy: The Essential Supporting Acts (Part One)Sean Larkan
Behind successful firms is some form of successfully executed strategy. It can be short, punchy, even informal and, at a push, in someone’s head! The test is implementation and results, which always separates success from failure.
Strategy is not simply about ‘doing things better’; it is about achieving serious competitive advantage. It is high level, not operational or administrative.
The strategic plan itself is a relatively small part. It must be reinforced with many other supporting acts.
In this series of articles, aimed at small to medium firms starting out or wanting to upgrade their strategy process, I will outline some of these supporting exercises. If they are not undertaken it will seriously undermine a firm’s chance of getting results from strategy. Leaders will be challenged here – professionals like to jump straight into ‘doing stuff’: i.e. implementation.
The Strategy Document
The plan itself is often viewed as ‘the strategy’. In fact it is only a concise summation of key things that are sought, and, at a high level, how they will be achieved. Keep this document short and punchy. The strategy document must also be kept alive; it must be regularly updated.
But let’s consider some essential steps, ‘pre-strategy’.
Get your Partners Involved – from Inception
Get the partners involved upfront. This gets their support, shows them respect, generates ideas, identifies issues dear to them and improves chances of success and involvement down the line.
You must maintain their interest over a sustained period. They need to know how their role and contribution is valued and will make a difference. This is no easy task, but must be done. It requires real persistence. Keep your partners involved and interested but do not use too much of their time or bore them. This is a real test of leadership, as strategy is a journey not a destination and always a fine balancing act. It never truly has an ‘end’ and takes many twists and turns along the way.
Start by asking some searching open-ended questions based around the tried and tested SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats) framework but also covering ‘core purpose’ items mentioned below. Also ask ‘What is going well?’ and ‘What could we do better?’ Challenge the partners to think about what in the firm:
- it should ‘stop doing’ (e.g. a loss-leading practice area);
- exhibits unrealised potential (e.g. taking advantage of existing client relationships);
- are substantial hidden expenses (e.g. less than full utilisation of expensive legal or support staff).
Do this ‘one on one’ or via a survey, but keep it short, punchy and relevant. Be sure to revert with survey outcomes or at least a summation of key points. Your job is to keep them interested and involved. By consulting, communicating and showing respect you do this.
Core Purpose or Strategic Intent
There is no single way to deal with concepts such as ‘core purpose’ but there should be a structure to it. I like to think of core purpose as clarifying your vision (what you want to be or where you want to go), what kind of firm you will be (e.g. ‘managed’ lockstep), your key cultural attributes (how we do things around here), your values (beliefs and understandings of what you will tolerate and not tolerate), what legal practices you will undertake or industry sectors you will focus on and the locations where you will choose to do this. Get these clear up-front and you will have set a very nice foundation for what is to come.
This is yet another test of leadership as this is arguably the most difficult thing around which to maintain interest. You will be met with all the usual scepticism, cynicism and sometimes downright objection. You will have to work your way through this.
Another thing I like to do early on is combine the values and cultural attributes exercise into ‘guiding principles,’ an idea I got from Norton Rose. Guiding Principles is a simple concept everyone can understand and it simply seems to make sense to professionals, which is half the battle. Otherwise, you will forever find partners or staff confused by concepts such as values and cultural attributes and what they mean. It is another little step in trying to keep things simple.
I look forward to communicating further in subsequent articles on this important topic!