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Both of my daughters love Band-Aids. They love the miniature pictures of their favorite cartoon characters printed on the ones we buy. Of course, they’re not quite old enough to openly admit how much they love the attention they seem to get when claiming the need for a Band-Aid (often in the absence of any visible injury). What could Alexandra and Marissa’s love of adhesive bandages possibly have to do with leadership in law firms? That became clearer to me recently when Alexandra decided she no longer wanted a Dora the Explorer on her forearm. “Daddy, can you please pull the Band-Aid off? — and make sure you do it fast!” Somehow, in her sixth year of life, she has come to grips with a lesson that we all come to know intellectually but often struggle to apply. Law firm leaders face trying times these days. Strategic change, associate retention, diversity, firm morale, competition for talent, and the pressure to maximize profit all pose challenges. On top of all that, though, there is a leadership action that seems to scare even the most committed leader: the need to create constructive candor. In my leadership coaching practice, in which I advise law firms and other professional service organizations, major corporations, and small businesses, I find that it’s a glaring deficiency. Those who are supposed to be leading their organizations all too often avoid the quick pulling of the Band-Aid. They avoid difficult and direct conversations about such things as poor performance or bad behavior. They choose instead to hope that benign neglect will somehow make the problem go away. Those who lead law firms seem to face an even greater challenge than just the issues of the day. Lawyers don’t typically make good leaders. The work of leadership requires comfort with risk-taking and the intangible world of leaps of faith, hope, and trust. The most effective leaders are deeply curious. They listen more than they talk, and they are fairly comfortable with collaborative problem-solving. Lawyers? They are schooled in, trained in, and rewarded for risk aversion and the search for the winning argument, guided by the intellectual certainty that not only are they right, but that there are concrete and tangible steps to prove the correctness of their position. Throw on top of this an unending drive to pile up billable hours, and it’s easy to conclude that leading is the antithesis of lawyering. Argument over? Hardly. Firms that want to embrace change, inspire growth, and, in the end, succeed must find a way through such obstacles. As Winston Churchill reminded a colleague during preparation for D-Day: “Don’t argue for the difficulties; the difficulties will argue for themselves.” First, let’s clarify what’s meant by “constructive candor.” After all, many lawyers believe they are quite comfortable telling people what needs to be done and what needs to be changed. That sort of candor is littered throughout firms. It creates demoralized, disaffected people who are unclear about — and ultimately unwilling to make — the demanded changes. All that’s left are bad feelings leading nowhere. These lawyers see their bluntness as the equivalent of pulling the Band-Aid, but they actually are doing the opposite, worsening the pain. Constructive candor, on the other hand, is characterized by deliberate and sustained conversations that highlight behavior or performance problems (or both) with the intention of solving them. To begin to understand what it takes to build constructive candor, it’s useful to think about a series of tensions that the leader should resolve. Telling and asking: Our best conversations are the ones in which the amount of telling we do is balanced by the amount of genuine asking we do. But in hard conversations, our natural tendency is to begin by believing that our sole job is to “deliver the tough news.” Productive conversations strive to do much more. The opening message will in fact be candid — it must be — but the problem stands a much higher chance of being solved if extra effort is devoted to gaining the input of everyone involved. Effective leaders know that if they want people to change (especially smart, driven, often insecure people), they will design their conversations with as many questions as there are statements. After all, it’s the other person who is being asked to adapt; it only makes sense that his voice at least be heard. Criticism and advice: Too often, the benefits of a hard conversation are blunted because it stops at telling what the problem is. My clients summon up every ounce of courage available just to say what’s wrong, so too many of their talks end with an admonition that “you’d better figure out a way to deal with this.” What a huge waste of communication and time! They would benefit far more if they would come to these conversations prepared to help their colleague think through options and ideas. The offer of an empathetic ear and ways to engage help, support, and development go a long way toward finding a constructive solution. Even if the message is one of separation from the firm, an offer of assistance and understanding is a sign of strong leadership. Facts and hope: This is perhaps the hardest balance to strike. With a tip of the hat to Jim Collins’ book “From Good to Great,” I suggest that the best leaders are able to equally articulate the brutal facts and preserve hope for the best end to the story. The most constructive hard conversations about performance demand this. Unfortunately, they all too often are out of kilter. If the message is delivered at all, it ends up either being sugarcoated or catastrophic, leaving the participants either misled or devastated. The chance for future dialogue about the facts and hope is diminished. In the end, no one learns new ways to get better. Not only is that bad for firm development, it is bad for the people facing the problems. In working on issues surrounding leadership in professional service organizations, I’m probably not the first outsider to notice that firms have powerful perceptions about how problems should be solved. But a firm is a collection of individual choices made and acted upon by different forms of consensus. To develop leadership, people, not firms, must make the sustained choice to take some risk and let go of the mistaken belief that people can be controlled and changed through argument and formal power. The superior leadership strategy for change and growth lies in starting a new conversation between people, whether they are members of a managing directors group, two partners, or a partner and an associate. Most important, leaders should prepare for what will be a necessary struggle. Alexandra and Marissa’s late grandmother taught me that the more important something is, the more difficult it will be to accomplish it. Pulling the Band-Aid quickly on a colleague is painful. There is no coaching or strategizing that will eliminate the hurt. Leaders have the obligation to minimize it with all the courage and dignity they can muster. To a person, each client I work on this with agrees that they would want the “fast pull” done to them. Wouldn’t you? Of course. We would do nothing less for our children. Drew Kugler is the founder of The Kugler Company, a Los Angeles-based leadership coaching practice for law firms, other professional services organizations, and corporations.
STEPS TO CONSTRUCTIVE CANDOR Perhaps more than any other type of client I have, lawyers demand specifics: What do I (or my firm) need to do to create constructive candor? In the end, my advice is to just have more conversations about people’s performance and behavior. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that. But in the spirit of specifics, try the following: � Prepare. Spend some time before the conversation focusing on the reason why it’s important to have the conversation, a sense of what the positive outcome may be, an outline of both the problem and your recommendations for action, and three possible questions to ask the colleague about his sense of the situation. Resolve that the colleague will talk more than you do. � Make the start brief. The goal is conversation about a weighty topic. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, but it also sets the appropriate tone. The longer you ramble at the beginning, the more likely you are to create a perception of indecisiveness and insecurity. Plus, like the slow pulling of the Band-Aid, you cause unnecessary pain to the colleague. � Ensure listening. With your questions and purpose clear, you will more likely listen. Not only does listening show respect to the colleague, it also communicates the gravity of the situation. You also increase the chance that you will learn something new about the situation, to your benefit. Given that this is possibly the start of a series of conversations, the first will set the tone for future ones. � Keep your word. Creating this candor is one of the major tests of leadership that you — and, indirectly, your firm — will face. The most important steps will happen not only in the conversation, but also afterward. You must keep whatever commitments you make for follow-up meetings and actions. Too many good starts to leadership end too quickly, destroyed by excuses of busyness. Leadership that matters is rarely convenient.

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