When Michael Phelps dove in the pool for his record-setting 200-meter butterfly final at the 2008 Olympics, his goggles broke and filled with water. He still won Olympic gold. After all, Phelps was used to swimming in adverse conditions. He was trained, conditioned, and coached to swim in extreme temperatures, with his coach holding one foot, and every other disadvantage his coach could throw at him.
If women want to lead a team of lawyers in the icy-cold legal waters at the top ranks of the profession, they too need to coach their teams in adverse conditions. Women leaders need to be pushy, and propel the top performers they manage on their teams to be gritty.
To be a managing partner, the top position in most law firms, you need to be an excellent manager. Think back to the best boss you ever had. Describe why they were your best boss and why they made the biggest impact on your career. Odds are you will not list traits that we typically use to describe a manager. You will list traits we use to describe leaders. The best legal leaders are really legal coaches.
If you want to rise in the ranks, not only must you have a book of business and more work than you alone can handle, you also must have an incredible team that supports that book of business. First, you have to have top recruits—the best and brightest legal minds and hardest workers that you can find. How lucky are you to be able to spend time coaching the best and the brightest! They will follow you if you inspire them. Inspire them to reach their own top potential and they will support you on the rise to your own.
The country’s most renowned coaches challenge their teams. Similarly, the best business leaders challenge their teams to do it faster, more efficiently, more creatively, and they regularly push them to win. Leaders don’t coddle their teams and worry about hurting feelings, saying good job even when it is mediocre and they have to spend the evening re-writing the brief.
Instead, they mark up the brief and share the red-line version with the writer, and purposely sit down with them to show them how to improve their writing. The next go-round, they hold their feet to the fire and expect that the writer listened to what they were told. If they make the same errors again, they send the work product back as unacceptable. You must push your team to greatness.
But before you can push, your team must respect you. You have to build trust. You must prove yourself to them every day by being at the top of the profession: the epitome of professionalism and legal excellence. Then you must invest in your relationships. Start every meeting off with something personal about your team member. They need to know and feel that you care about them and their careers, or they will not go the extra mile for you when it counts. Meet with them at least twice a month to review their work and goals. Set a loose agenda and task them with the follow up items. Respect them and show them they are important to you by keeping the appointment and showing up on time. Have them write down their goals and then review them together, offering ideas on how to obtain those goals and keep the goals in mind as projects are assigned. Each year, in addition to their annual performance review, set a time to talk about their career advancement. You must lead these meetings to develop your team.
Additionally, hold whole-team meetings monthly. As your team grows, be sure to coordinate communication among them. At your monthly meetings, treat them like practice for client meetings. How you behave each day in the office is your practice for the real deal. Again: be prepared, have a set agenda, and start and end on time. In the meetings, focus on team development and building the skills you want them to have. They will appreciate the investment and you will gain a loyal following.
The best bosses create a healthy tension in their relationships with their team. Women need to embrace this concept and implement top leadership tools alongside their natural ability to connect to rise in the ranks. There is a deep divide between being so difficult to work with that your employees dread coming to work and frequently quit, and a boss who creates the most loyal following, who would climb mountains of discovery for them.
If women can wear high heels and pink nail polish in the board room, they also can learn to push a team to greatness and create that loyal following. Embrace the tension to climb higher, with or without your goggles in the pool.
About the Author
Jeana L. Goosman is the founder and CEO of Goosman Law Firm in Sioux City, IA. She is a contributing author to Marketing Success: How Did She Do That? (ABA 2015) and numerous other publications. Des Moines Register, and Argus Leader. Follow her on Twitter @JeanaAtGLF.