The role that organizations and leaders play in talent well-being, engagement, and retention is too often overlooked. We tend to attribute “failings” in this space to individual circumstances or attributes, and seek individual solutions rather than being curious about whether the system or organizational culture is the problem.
Most individuals who leave a firm or struggle to succeed in law do not have fatal flaws. As leaders, we are failing to create cultures that support our talents’ long-term success. The statistics on lawyer burnout, depression, talent churn, substance abuse, divorce, etc., speak to a profession in need of compassionate leaders who connect with all of their members. It is time to modify our collective leadership style.
How You Lead Significantly Impacts Your Organization
Leaders disproportionately influence the culture of their organizations, and, by extension, the well-being and engagement of their people. Culture is at the core of both individual relationship health and systemic dysfunction.
Culture is the way a team, practice group, or organization does things. What is acceptable and expected. The unspoken norms of behavior that are baked into your work relationships. How do we treat each other? What sort of humor is accepted? Is conflict addressed openly with care, or suppressed and allowed to emerge in passive-aggressive currents? Culture is what you no longer notice after you have been at a workplace for three or four months because it is assumed and almost automatic.
Regardless of the rhetoric on a company website or mission statement, organizational culture and the way the internal climate feels are dictated by how its leaders behave – not just the decisions they make, but the behaviors that they model. How they show up and demonstrate what values truly matter is important. Unfortunately, most lawyers have not had good leadership role models. Unlike their corporate clients, legal leaders also do not usually receive leadership training or executive coaching to support their transitions into leadership.
Lawyers usually become leaders because they are good lawyers, are able to work the internal politics of their law firms, and are better than average rainmakers. Sadly, being a great lawyer or rainmaker or being politically savvy means very little about your leadership skills. Unless you have had the good fortune of experiencing good leadership and having that as your model, as a new legal leader you will more likely than not unconsciously model the flawed leadership styles that you experienced.
Most lawyers have only experienced rather dysfunctional and problematic environments at work. Moreover, these lawyer leaders are themselves overworked and stressed out within fast-changing legal environments, and practice little to no self-care, making a perfect recipe for an unhealthy, disconnected workplace culture. There is a reason legal work cultures are the unhappy poster children for toxic environments, particularly for women or diverse individuals.
Law is long overdue for an overhaul in leadership style. We are too intelligent to keep doing the same things and expecting a different result. Savvy leaders also understand that the way to attract and keep star talent is to acquire a reputation as a place where people respect their colleagues, enjoy their work, and feel valued. There is immense gain to be had from focusing on the quality of your team’s interpersonal connections.
The Increasing Importance of Connection
Connection is a basic human need. So many lawyers are struggling now with a sense of isolation, the challenges of a volatile environment, and a lack of belonging. Feelings of isolation are a major contributor to burnout and a loss of well-being. The last two years of the pandemic have highlighted the dysfunctions inherent in our legal work relationships. A key component of that is an absence of genuine connection.
It is no surprise then that people are increasingly looking for ways to meaningfully connect, and leaving firms where they feel isolated and disconnected. Research repeatedly shows that individuals choose to stay where they feel purposeful, autonomous, and are a valued and respected part of a community or team. While many people point to compensation as the reason for talent attrition or problems attracting good people, money is not usually the root issue. Not if you are generally paying close to market rates, anyway. It is all about how people feel at work, and whether they are meaningfully connected to their co-workers, have a clear purpose, and share at least some of their core values.
Does Your Culture Support Genuine Connection?
Does your organizational or team culture support connection? Do an informal inventory by considering some of the following:
- How do individuals relate? Are there favored cliques or ‘in-groups’?
- Do people effectively collaborate, or do they undermine each other or fail to share important information?
- How often do you see duplication of effort (resulting in lost billings) because people fail to communicate?
- Do the unspoken rules for treating each other support mutual respect?
- Does your team handle conflict in an open and fair process?
- What is the tolerance for sarcasm or humor at other’s expense?
- Do leaders demonstrate that they have everyone’s back and value individual contributions?
- Are people held equally accountable?
In reflecting on these questions, does your leadership and organizational culture stand up to scrutiny? Is it welcoming and supportive of all its individuals? Are people treated fairly through transparent processes?
What needs to change to build mutual respect and a reasonably safe space to allow for increased connection? An increased connection should result in your organization shifting its culture to one where people feel connected and know they can meaningfully contribute.
Five Tips for Leading with Increased Connection
As a legal leader, creating a positive work culture experience for your people begins with you and the basics. As with many important tools for creating effective work environments, the concepts are simple but a challenge to consistently apply in real-time. Be kind to yourself, and do not expect to have perfect execution.
Much like changing a bad habit, view your leadership development as a sometimes-messy journey that takes commitment, consistency, and repetition to strengthen over time.
- Prioritize Your Self Care: You cannot be good for others if you are at the end of your rope and burned out. Patience, active listening, developing new habits for modeling relationships, all of these require you to be at your calm, well-rested best. Prioritize your health, well-being, and care. Get enough sleep. Choose an optimistic perspective whenever possible and maintain a good sense of humor. You will need both.
- Develop a Growth Mindset: Seek to develop yourself and your skills as a leader. Get leadership training. Hire an executive coach to assist you with developing a plan. Perform a 360 assessment to better understand how your stakeholders (associates, partners, clients, suppliers, etc.) view you.
- Be Humble and Vulnerable: Those two attributes are particularly challenging for lawyers, AND they are central to developing a leadership style that supports connections between you and your people. Acknowledging that you are imperfect facilitates both trust and, ultimately, respect. In modeling humility and being vulnerable, you let your people see that, while we all strive for perfection in our performance as lawyers, ultimately every one of us is human, and that is okay.
- Listen More; Talk Less: Pay close attention to what people say. Allow them the time and space to contribute. Solicit contributions from everyone in team meetings. Repeat back what you heard them say before responding to ensure you heard correctly. Particularly when we are stressed for time, it can be hard to care what others think. It is when you are most pressed that demonstrating you care enough to listen can matter most.
- Hold Yourself and Others Accountable: Have the courage to call out unproductive or unacceptable behaviors that undermine the collective good and overall organizational objectives. Accountability is central to letting people know what behaviors are acceptable or not. It is also the fastest way to let people know that you have their backs as a leader and will stand up for what you believe is in the best interest of the collective organization and team.
It is time to lead with compassion and pay attention to the quality of the spaces between your people. Only through elevating the connections between individuals can you leverage your team to become a place where people are meaningfully engaged, support their well-being, and, ultimately, want to stick around.
Win the Talent Wars: Creating Cultures that Support Well-Being
February 24, 2022 at 12:00-1:00 PM CT
Speakers: Michele Powers and Amy Marino
Creating a Culture of Well-Being: It Starts at the Top
March 15, 2022 at 1:00-2:00 PM CT
Speaker: Heidi Alexander
About the Author
Michele Powers is a certified coach for lawyers and law firms and chaired the Attorney Well-being Committee of the ABA Law Practice Division. Contact Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org.