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“If only she could see herself as everyone else sees her, she’d see why her practice isn’t taking off.” You’ve probably heard something like this, whether it referred to an associate learning the ropes or a more senior person who’s reached a business-development plateau. You may also have heard: “There’s no one to take over as managing partner when she retires. Do we have any hidden jewels that somehow we’ve overlooked?” There’s a management and professional development tool that can help answer this question; it’s called a “360.” Briefly, a 360 is an assessment process that gathers information from someone you’re interested in developing as well as from peers, supervisors, subordinates, and, in some cases, clients. “360″ comes, of course, from the idea of looking at things whole, as in a full circle. The assessment usually focuses on current and potential leadership and management characteristics and skills, but it can also address competencies that predict performance, such as teamwork, conscientiousness, good judgment, and communication. The results of the assessment are used to understand a person’s strengths and weaknesses, with an eye to creating a development plan for the future. In the corporate world, 360s and other processes can help identify individuals who are likely to be the company’s leaders in the years to come. These individuals are said to be in the “leadership development pipeline.” Thus, 360s are a critical element in leadership succession planning. In picking leaders, law firms sometimes make good choices, and sometimes they don’t. If a firm thinks carefully about what makes an effective practice-group leader, director, or managing partner, it can create criteria for making a selection, but, more important, it can begin to identify a group of people who might eventually meet those criteria. Most important of all, it can encourage the development of those people so that they become ready to move through a series of increasingly demanding leadership positions. STEP BY STEP What are the steps in a 360 process? First, identify the individuals who will be the focus of the assessments. In most corporate settings there’s a very large number of people from among whom to identify “high potentials” to fill the pipeline. The numbers are generally much smaller in law firms, so a larger percentage of attorneys can be selected, and not just for filling the pipeline. Some people will be obvious choices, but in general it’s a good idea to start with one stratum (say, new partners or senior associates) that is high enough in the firm to include individuals committed to its future. Once people are comfortable with and see the value of the 360 process, it will be easier to use it with one person at a time, as circumstances might dictate. You should also consider the potential value of using 360s with your professional support staff. After all, they keep your firm going day to day and are just as likely to have managerial failings and potential as lawyers. You also have to identify both the assessment tools to be used and the professional who will oversee the process. It’s best to use an outside consultant who has access to, and experience with, a broad range of assessment instruments; this will most often be a consulting psychologist or an organization development professional. Formal assessment is a realm that requires training and skill not usually found in-house in firms. Moreover, this way employees see that the process is confidential. There are many ways of doing a 360. Most commonly, a person will fill out a questionnaire about himself, estimate how others might fill it out about him, and describe what his ideal responses might be. The same questions will be answered by peers, senior management, and supervised associates. Often, supplemental interviews, including more open-ended conversations, and direct observation, such as watching an individual leading a meeting, will also be included. There are many standard questionnaires on the market, but these are only part of what’s required. A competent professional will work with a firm’s management to create questionnaire items or to customize existing questionnaires particular to the firm’s function, interests, strategic goals, and leadership criteria. The questionnaire part of a 360 is computerized. Generally, the data will remain at a central and secure server at the test publishing company’s site. The individuals selected to participate will log on and complete the questionnaire online. Once everyone has responded, the company and your consultant will analyze the data together. At the same time, the consultant will be gathering information in other ways, most often by interviews with the principals and through direct observation. Sometimes other materials, like performance evaluations (with permission, of course), are reviewed. NEXT, THE SURPRISE Once all the information is gathered, the consultant will analyze and organize it and present it to the subjects of the 360s. People are very often surprised at the differences between how they see themselves and how others see them. In fact, in my experience, what seems important to the individual is not necessarily what’s important to the others who’ve responded. I also find that people often judge themselves more harshly than others do. Finally, and perhaps most important, I find that most people, when presented even with information about personal or managerial deficits they might have (“does not communicate well with peers,” for example), are genuinely interested in changing — especially if changing increases their opportunities. Individual results are confidential; patterns in the whole set of people assessed do not have to be, and can be used to create general programs for the firm and to identify aspects of the firm’s culture not otherwise apparent (like perceptions of prejudice or favoritism, or understanding of the firm’s strategic goals). The main purpose of performing a 360 is to aid in the development of a firm’s major asset: its people. It must, at least initially, be completely separate from the performance evaluation or compensation process. Later, it might be fair to judge a person on his commitment to his own development or his standing against a publicly stated criterion, once the opportunity to grow has been offered. It must also, therefore, be a confidential process. If an individual thinks the results of a first 360 will be known to others, there’s a pretty good chance everyone’s responses will be skewed and not terribly useful. Think, for example, about the partner who has great analytic and financial forecasting skills and is even a pretty good one-on-one mentor to associates, but is thought of generally as having an abrasive interpersonal style — though no one’s willing to tell her so. This is a characteristic that can be changed, and she could turn into a good firm leader, but if the 360 results are to be made public, it probably won’t happen. On the other side, happily, the process might uncover, and develop, someone you had overlooked who has the potential to become the greatest managing partner in your firm’s history. In general, the results will be summarized according to characteristics of thought, styles of interaction, and observable behaviors. Often these are further subdivided into leadership competencies. For example, as part of one of its reports, one assessment firm includes dimensions such as communication and leadership, which then include things such as “attracting and developing talent,” “empowering others,” and “influencing and negotiating.” Reports will show discrepancies between a person’s self-perception and that of others and will often highlight the areas that most likely can be developed. One of the most useful aspects of a 360 is its ability to uncover “blind spots” — those things you didn’t know about yourself, but that everyone else can see. Since growth is the purpose of the exercise, the person should put the results to use. He can draw up a development plan, using the professional who has been running the process as a guide, to make it happen. In addition, the firm must be committed to providing the resources to follow up, with activities such as individualized coaching and training. While 360s are generally useful, there are a few possible pitfalls. One is not having, or not intending to have, a coherent professional development program for the firm. If the firm doesn’t declare in words and actions the value of assessments, follow-up development, and reassessment, few will take them seriously and potential benefits will go out the window. A second pitfall is making poor choices about those who will respond and assess the individual. These choices should not be made by the individual, and the firm should be consistent in the variety and number of those who are chosen. A third potential problem is reluctance on the part of firm management to put in the time and effort to help people grow — not to mention being comfortable with giving and working with honest feedback. The fourth and most important potential pitfall is ignoring the results. If you pay attention to the results and follow up with the right training and coaching, you’ll wind up with fewer people who are blind to what’s holding them back and more who can step into positions of firm leadership.
Charles J. Fogelman runs Paladin Coaching Services, an executive coaching, leadership training, and professional development company.

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