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Athletes and actors have them. So do chess champions, public leaders, and business executives. Nowadays, more and more lawyers have them, too. Executive coaches, as they are generally known, can help attorneys at every level enhance their skills, productivity, and effectiveness. This can mean helping a new partner improve management and communication skills, helping a senior partner who’s hit a wall get going again, or supporting a promising associate who’s floundering. Coaching aims to enhance work performance, as well as bring more energy, passion, and balance to both professional and personal spheres. The rewards can be great for both the individual and the firm. As an executive coach, I have been called in by law firms to help one or more attorneys overcome an obstacle standing in the way of moving up in the firm. Usually, the obstacle is of a personal or interpersonal nature, such as communication skills, self-confidence, or ambiguous expectations. The lawyer in question does not always see the roadblock, but usually does know that he or she is stuck. I have found that a lot of the time the perceived problem is not the real one. As the following account illustrates, it can make a great difference to see things from a new perspective and get some specific suggestions for turning apparent weaknesses into strengths. LAST-MINUTE MADNESS One of my clients, a partner who was successful and well-regarded, had begun to wonder if he was working at his best. Most recently, he had been losing sleep in anticipation of a major summation, and didn’t sleep at all the night before. In the end, he went to the office very early that morning, wrote out his ideas, resigned himself to disappointment, and made his best summation ever, by all reports. “But,” he said, “I shouldn’t have done it that way. It’s no good to lose sleep like that. I could really have screwed it up. I should have been more systematic, and not written it out at the last minute.” This was not the first time he had worked in this manner, and he wanted to change. He and I examined carefully what had happened. Among other things, he realized that he felt energized and happy after the presentation, and slept contentedly and soundly that night. He then remembered other times he had lost sleep, felt ill-prepared, and performed well. As it turned out, this was often what happened whenever he faced important events, whether it was an exam, job interview, or court appearance. In fact, he nearly always “waited until the last minute.” Or did he? We reviewed each of the incidents we had discussed, this time switching all negatively valued adjectives for their positive opposites. This sometimes produced humorous results. “I wrote so badly I couldn’t read some of it” became “It was good that I scribbled so fast and could read almost all of my writing.” But he began to realize that each time he had actually been working and reworking the challenges, often in the back of his mind, as the moment of truth neared. He used the quiet and isolation of night to compose his best work, and his burst of energy at the end helped put it all together. These last-minute efforts, and their good results, were so energizing as to be their own reward. He never really suffered the consequences of lost sleep, and always rebounded quickly. He never missed a deadline and always did well. “A revelation!” he declared. He began to re-examine other aspects of his life, including the social and financial spheres, looking for the patterns that showed how he did things well — despite his usual harsh judgments of himself. Gradually, his unhappiness with his pattern disappeared, and he began to look forward to the next time he could apply himself at his best. How can you apply the lessons in this example to yourself? First, you must be willing to look at yourself in new ways and to find a new perspective. Here’s one technique for accomplishing this: 1. List everything you think is getting in the way of your professional advancement. Include especially things you don’t like about yourself. Brainstorm without boundary: if you don’t list anything you’d be embarrassed to say out loud, you haven’t been thorough enough. 2. Wait a day and then edit or expand the list. 3. Eliminate everything that’s out of your control. (An important technique in and of itself, particularly for stress management, but that’s another article.) 4. Eliminate everything that includes what others might be thinking (you’re not really a mind-reader) and anything that is too vague to have been easily understood by you when you were a college freshman. 5. You should now have only about five items on your list. If you have more, rank them according to your view of the degree of detriment that each presents for you and use the top five. You could also reduce the number by grouping them in categories. 6. For each problem, write a paragraph or two about a recent time when it held you back, or when you think it held you back. Be sure to include your judgment of yourself (e.g., “I wish I didn’t always … .”). 7. Change all “bad” descriptors to their opposite. For example, you may have listed taking on too many tasks for too many clients and said in Step 6, “I can never get it all done for the clients I have, much less the new ones that are coming in the door.” You could change that to: “I know just what I’m doing. I always do my job. New clients come because they know that I will do what I promise.” 8. Read the paragraphs out loud. Probably, it’s best to do this alone. Don’t skip this step. 9. Chances are, at least one of the narratives will really stand out and will put you in mind of other times that you let the original “bad” quality hold you back. You’ll realize that you don’t have to see that pattern of behavior as your enemy. For example, in the task-packing example above, you might come to realize that having back-to-back activities is what keeps you doing your best — and moreover, that it’s energizing rather than draining. In truth, your “enemy” is your friend — only now you realize it. You probably have a lot of “friends” you weren’t aware you had. Feels good, doesn’t it? Do try this at home. Or in the office. Of course, this exercise is just the beginning, but it should get you well on the way to dealing with what you view as your own roadblocks. Charles J. Fogelman, a licensed psychologist, is principal of Paladin Coaching Services, an executive coaching and organizational consultation firm that specializes in working with lawyers and law firms. He can be reached at (301) 587-0005 or [email protected]

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