In the National Basketball Association, less formally known as the NBA, it’s a general rule that great players make poor coaches, witness: Bob Cousy (player/coach); Magic Johnson (player/coach); Dave Cowens (player/coach); Kurt Rambis (player/coach) . . . wait, I said great players. Rambis sucks. Heck, Kareem Abdul-Jabbarcan’t even get a pro coaching gig. And, that’s just Celtics and Lakers players. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, as well: Larry Bird’s coaching career with the Indiana Pacers was very successful; but, then, of course it was: Larry wins at everything. Bill Russell, too, as player-coach of the Celtics, enjoyed success, winning a title in 1968-69; but, Bill Russell was the greatest winner in the history of professional sports. Even so, the vast majority of great players who become coaches flame out, often spectacularly. One theory that has been advanced is that great players don’t understand/don’t know how to cope with failure; so, consequently, they cannot coach other, less talented persons through those teaching moments. This argument is buoyed by the fact that less successful players are often more successful coaches, potentially because they can direct others through times of struggle, due to their own particular experience. The litany of crappy NBA players who have become good coaches is numerous, with Phil Jackson (player/coach) probably being the exemplar for that class of individual. (Of course, crappy players can also become crappy coaches. I’m looking directly at you, M.L. Carr. And, college coaches generally make for spectacular failures in the NBA. Rick Pitino is not walking through that door— neither is John Calipari, for that matter. But, none of this is making my point . . .)
The NBA, being the most like an individual sport of all the team sports (fewer team members; more isolation play(s), etc.), means that the NBA player-turned-coach is most analogous to the solo attorney-turned-employer/managing partner. To be a successful solo attorney, you probably have to believe that you’re pretty darn good at what you do: you’re a superstar — at least, in your own mind. But, What happens when you become so successful that you need to hire staff, whether secretaries, paralegals or associates? Will you be able to recognize others’ weaknesses and help to convert those to strengths? Or, Will you be unable to tolerate weakness, when you’ve worked very hard not to make any recognizable in yourself, in order to project the appropriate image of professional confidence? Again, this is likely the main reason that all those superstar NBA players have failed so miserably as coaches of other players: because they couldn’t tolerate the shortcomings in others that they never saw in themselves. Consequently, they could never ‘coach up’ any of these ‘lesser’ players.
Now, if you want to become an effective manager after starting up as a solo entrepreneur, it will take more than teaching your staff the execution of an effective pick and roll — though, it would be pretty awesome if you held drills in your office. Fortunately, there are some other things you can do to teach yourself to more effectively manage your new hires:
Develop Empathy. Lawyers get paid to be cold and calculating. The touchy-feely cannot often intrude. Of course, you don’t have to be a weepy tub of goo to be empathetic. The prerequisite for having empathy is to understand another’s feelings/position. If you have an understanding of where someone is coming from, it is far easier for you to help them on the way to where they need to go.
Understand Your Own Systems. One of the chief frustrations of staff in a law firm setting is frustration relating to a haphazard collection of systems, or a misunderstanding of applied systems by management personnel. There are many attorneys who rely entirely on staff, or junior attorneys (especially in this economic climate), to establish and run systems, especially technology-based systems, for the office. However, this is a poor management decision; not only should you not be relying so heavily on staff to run your business, it is ultimately a question of competency, if your lack of understanding of your own systems prejudices your ability to serve your clients. So, implement and know your own systems, even where you allow staff to manage updates and the majority of data input. Your people will become more invested, seeing that you’re more invested.
Create Clear Instructions. There’s nothing worse than an amorphous assignment; this is especially true when you don’t even quite know what you want . . . because, then, how can your staffperson divine it? This is another obvious source of frustration for law firm staff, and a clear hindrance to effective training. It’s almost inevitable, if your instructions and desires are not clear, that you will not get exactly what you want, which is likely to lead to at least some level of bad feeling between you and your staff. So, take some time to think about what you really want out of a project. Then, be clear, and concise, about what you want, in communicating it to your staff. If it helps, relay the assignment orally, and follow up with an email respecting particular tasks/steps. The email serves as documentation for the process, and as a useful guide for your staff in moving forward. Not that you should be a micromanager — but, you should work to create expectations, and the understandings engendered through same.
Treat Mistakes as Teaching Moments. Nobody’s perfect, not even you. Mistakes are going to happen; and, the worst thing you can do is to blow up about them. If you want to guarantee that mistakes will continue, you should absolutely berate your staff after each one occurs, so that they’re good and pissed off and resentful, or too frightened to ask you another question, ever again. Consider mistakes to be teaching moments. Along with the offending staff member, try to get to the bottom of how the error occurred, so that you can highlight a change in the part of the process that needs to be corrected. Use the mistake as a method for building your staffperson up, rather than tearing him down. Assure the person of the general quality of their work, explain the importance of correcting the mistake and reiterate that if any questions come up, or if that person is unsure about a process, that he should not hesitate to ask. In addition to opening lines of communication, and buoying the staffperson’s spirts, you’re underscoring the importance of eliminating errors (and) moving forward. The commission of continual mistakes that could/should be avoided eventually leads to travel down another route; but, the question of when and how to release underperforming employees is a subject for another day.
Utilize a Team Approach. As I’ve alluded to earlier, part of training and coaching your staff is getting them invested in your business, if not monetarily, at least by way of the establishment of an esprit de corps. In that vein, you’re far better off treating the grouping of you and your staff as a team, rather than establishing your own little fiefdom, inclusive of you and your worker bees. Work closely with your staff on projects, when required, and involve your staff as much as you are able at the intersections of your work product and theirs. Introduce your team to your clients; not only will this make your staff feel more involved in the process, if you’re a solo, it can also ease your client’s concerns respecting the most common objection to that sort of practice: you’re just one person. Your staff, especially those who answer the phone, often serve as your public face (or, at least, your public voice); so, you don’t want them to feel excluded from the business they advertise. The more you involve your staff, the more likely it is that they will express their gratitude in the ways in which they engage your clients. If you can convince your staff of the value of their work, and also show them how their contribution adds to the whole, you’re liable to have happier workers, who are truly concerned for your success, and by extension, their own. And, ultimately, self-interest is a pretty darn good motivator, as well.
Be Transparent. Part of involving your staff in the life of your firm includes making appropriate information disclosures to them. Discuss the well-being of your firm with your staff. If you’ve had a down quarter (and, people will know), reassure them. If you’ve had an up quarter, congratulate them on their hard work. Educate them about business cycles. Hold semi-regular staff meetings; but, don’t spring them on your people at the last second; respect others’ schedules. Set a date, time and place, and create and distribute an agenda. Give your staff a forum to address their concerns, and to engage in an open discussion. If you’re selecting a new technology product for use in the firm, don’t just make the announcement, and expect everybody to get up to speed on the double quick; instead, involve your staff in the process of selecting the program: assign certain, suited staff to beta test options, allow your staff to gather input for choosing a program, identify power users and set them up to train the remainder of the staff and/or make a staff member the official contact for product support. The more open and honest you are, the more you make your staff feel as though they are an integral part of your operation, which, by the way . . . they are.
Of course, on occasion, you’ll make a hire that just doesn’t work out, despite your best efforts. In that case, you’ll have to let someone go, and you should do so quickly, once you realize that the fit just isn’t there, rather than letting things linger, and making the decision, and its execution, even more difficult. However, if you use some of these techniques, to lead effectively, and to teach in a constructive manner, it won’t be for lack of trying.
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