Improving Management - Improving Performance

It is often said that a manager’s role is to get ordinary people to deliver extraordinary results. Managing any business is a challenging occupation, but law firms are not comprised largely of ordinary people – they are often replete with highly intelligent, gifted and sometimes headstrong individuals who by the nature of their work have a high degree of autonomy, and at times including many who have no desire to be managed!

However, we must ask why (if this is the case) some firms consistently out-perform their peers, and why some firms become “destination employers” – and why, furthermore, there is so much concern about the stability of much of the “mid-sized” sector of the market.

A Dual Challenge

There are two aspects to this challenge. Most of the attention of management time and literature is focused on how to make positive improvements: how to get the best out of the resources (including human resources) available to the firm. Far less attention has been devoted to the alternative perspective – how management can stop demotivating their professional colleagues (including partners) and thus wasting the available talent.

As this article from the McKinsey Quarterly demonstrates, the evidence is that too many managers (in all industries, but law is no exception) in fact harm the performance of their teams by dealing ineffectively with destructive behaviours, and in particular by discouraging people through inappropriate people management.

The fundamental question then becomes how managers can make it easier for people to perform. How can they remove the frustrations that prevent people from performing, and wanting to give of their best?

At Wilkinson Read we have for many years used two short scorecards as part of our initial client take-on process. We have found a clear relationship between the results our clients achieve and how well-motivated their answers indicate they are.

Perhaps more pertinently, on the second scorecard we ask them to rate themselves and their colleagues as managers – and the scores are rarely flattering. We also ask them to identify the best manager in the firm – and it is not uncommon for the answer to be “no-one”!

The Law of Management

The effectiveness of management can be extremely difficult to appraise. However, we have for some years used an acid test of management in an SME law firm, which is really quite simple:

The profits of the firm should exceed the billings of the Partners

This rule ought to be axiomatic, but too often we find that the fees of the partners far exceed the profits of the firm. In other words, partners work long and hard to generate fees in their own name – and then spend the proceeds cross-subsidising and tolerating underperforming employees, rather addressing the management issues of getting their staff to perform better – or at least less badly.

In many cases they see the answer to their firm’s underperformance in putting in, and billing, more hours themselves, and devoting less time to “management”.

It is true that releasing potential does require creating a firm where staff are positively motivated to develop themselves and deliver results; however, in the real world (and particularly in some of the turnaround situations we see), a good starting point would be to stop demotivating the talented, capable people who could deliver so much more.