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Getting the structure right is only half the battle

Posted in Leadership

Recently I was working with a group of leaders in a mid-size law firm who were wrestling with the issue of how to make the “income partner” role more attractive so as to stem departures. Much of the conversation focused on how to “structure” the role of income partner in the right way–Should this category include partners on the way down? Associates on the way up? Senior partners who are cutting back? etc.

Focusing on structure is not necessarily the wrong thing to do, but recent research suggests that if this is all you do, you may be missing a more powerful step.

A recent article (“Why is Performance Management Broken?) makes the compelling case that getting the structure right–choosing the right tools, implementing them properly, etc.–is not very effective unless you also pay attention to what they call the “manager-employee relationship”. For example, it’s important to use the right competency model to let employees know what performance standards are expected of them (the “structure”); but it turns out that the competency model alone doesn’t really result in improved performance unless the individuals managing these employees have a good relationship and communicate effectively about their expectations.

The lesson learned is that if a law firm wants to implement a new system for organizing or managing its people, attention must be paid to two very different aspects: (1) get the right system or tool or process in place, one that has been shown to work effectively; and (2) be sure to pay attention to the human element:

  • Carefully select the people who will be managing or implementing the new system or practices.
  • Train them about how to communicate about the new system or practices.
  • Monitor them and provide them feedback about how they are communicating with your lawyers about the desired behaviors.
  • Pay attention to tonality–Is the communication style abrasive? Loaded with innuendo? Disingenuous or incongruent? Communication needs to be clean, direct, mature, and kind or you’ll generate resistance or worse.
  • Did you get true buy-in? That is, does everyone support the new idea or the change in behavior not just verbally, but by actually doing what you ask of them?

Note that these two elements are multiplicative–If you get the procedure right, but get the people stuff wrong, you won’t successfully change peoples’ behaviors; and if you get the people stuff right but have a poorly designed system or set of procedures, you’ll get inefficiency at best and failure at worst. You need to get both right–procedure, and people.

If you have comments or reactions, we’d like to hear from you.

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