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Missteps NEW Firm Leaders Make

Patrick J. McKenna.


Having worked closely with new firm leaders for over two decades through my one-on-one counselling and interview research, I have witnessed a number of common mistakes that I see inexperienced leaders often making – even those who have served on the firm’s elected Board or as an Office Head for some years. These missteps can seriously impact one’s effectiveness and even diminish peer acceptance as the firm’s leader.


Here are some of the more common traps I’ve counselled many a new firm leader not to fall into:


1. Immediately engaging in formal strategic planning


Nobody would rise to a firm leadership role without being driven to succeed, but many new leaders think that their very first initiative should be to develop a new strategic plan for their firms in some effort to define a future direction and to make their mark. The only problem with that approach is that to engage in any meaningful strategic planning process requires a disciplined investment of perhaps four months of significant time devoted to research and meetings – all of which dramatically decreases the new leader’s visibility and ease of access – both critically important to your colleagues in your first weeks of office. This is not the best way to enhance your working relationships.

2. Not adequately debriefing with your predecessor


It is critical for the two of you as firm leaders to arrange a closed-door, one-on-one meeting for you to interview and learn everything you can from your predecessor and work through some of the important transition decisions together. In my work with leadership transitions I have identified no less than 30 different questions that you need to ask to ensure an adequate orientation and you cannot expect your predecessor to remember to brief you on everything you might need to know. One of the many questions that I am always amazed is rarely asked, but frequently will come back to bite you in the ass later, is – “Were there any promises made to anyone that I should be aware of?”


3. Not really understanding your predecessor’s leadership style


How did the former firm leader actually lead? In other words, what was their style? You need to understand what your predecessor’s leadership style was and whether is was complimentary or divergent to yours. Let’s take an extreme example. Let’s say your predecessor was a micromanager and that you tend to be more of an empowering leader. If you come into a micromanaging environment and that typically means people have been told what to do – and you try to be this empowering leader that has everybody thinking creatively, coming up with ideas, and then going and doing stuff – guess what? Your firm is going to go into paralysis, because the defined leadership style that they’re used to, which they’ve operated effectively in, is now completely different. What you need to do, at least initially, is to adopt a hybrid style. In order to get to your preferred style, which is a more empowering style, you have to start out sort of with a micro aspect to your leadership. And then as people prove that they can think and act differently from a leadership point of view that allows you to extend the rope. But you can’t go all the way to your preferred style instantly or you’re going to put the firm and your team of administrative professionals, into a state of paralysis.

4. Speaking when you should be listening


There is an old adage that a new leader should hit the ground running . . . and nothing could be further from the truth! It’s tempting to want to make yourself heard during your first days and weeks in your new position, but smart leaders listen before they speak. They know that their first priority should be to conduct a ‘listening tour’ throughout their firm to gauge the pulse of the partnership (and in larger firms at least with your equity partners) and ask a lot of “why” questions. Not only will listening serve to raise your credibility with these colleagues, but assuming you ask the right questions it will help you identify critical issues that should comprise your personal strategic agenda going forward during your first year.

5. Making any promises – trying to please everyone


It’s tempting to try to win favor with your colleagues right away by promising to make certain changes, especially in wanting to be responsive to some concern you have been informed about while conducting your ‘listening tour.’ Telling your colleagues that all of their many issues will be addressed now that you’re in charge, is guaranteed to set you up for inevitable failure; especially after you have obtained further information on the particular issue in question. Then when you can’t deliver on your promises, you’ll look foolish and lose credibility.

6. Choosing the quick-fix over the more sustainable solution


If you identify an area that needs addressing simply inform your colleague that you will be arranging to conduct some research before promising any quick-fix solutions. Almost every problem has a short-term answer (if you look hard enough) but the quickest fix isn’t necessarily the best. A good leader understands that the fix, that may take longer to achieve, can also reap far more benefits.

7. Not assembling the right team


It may not be fair, but you will be judged by the competencies of your professional support team – from your COO to your CMO. Good leaders recognize that instead of ignoring any skill or behavior gaps, avoiding the reality that some members don’t belong, or waiting in hopes that the situation will correct itself, you need to make some hard decisions. You had better make sure and determine quickly whether you have the right support team working with you. You cannot ever be in a position of having some senior partner ask you what one of your administrative chiefs and their department are actually contributing to your firm’s fortunes and not have a solid answer.

8. Initiating TOO many priorities


The best leaders know that it’s a rookie mistake to outline numerous goals that they want to immediately achieve. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can spread yourself across multiple priorities or that if you have numerous projects than perhaps some will ultimately be successful. Instead, outline only a few of your highest priorities and don’t be seen to be vague or frequently changing your priorities. Remember, ineffective leaders often lack the good sense to say “NO.” Be very careful not to give in to requests from your partners that serve to only draw you away from your strategic priorities in an effort to try to be all things to all people.

9. Thinking you should have all the answers and not asking for help


The worst leaders usually turn out to be the ones who think they already have all the answers, believe they’re better than everyone else—and they don’t bother to hide it. Leaders who forgo conferring with other firm leaders, an experienced external coach or a more experienced internal peer, risk not being in leadership for a long tenure. Asking for needed help isn’t a sign of weakness in a leader, it’s a must.

10. Failing to delegate and “letting the urgent crowd out the important”


This one is a classic and indicative of how the urgent will crowd out the important every time! One of the self-confessed shortcomings I always hear from new firm leaders after they have been in their position for a few months is how they were tempted to shoulder the workload themselves, working under the assumption that every request needed their attention. And of course, then there is the over analytical new leader who is obsessively absorbed in small details and too controlling to allow any of his or her team members to take the reins. Avoid this pitfall by delegating work smartly. Give your COO and other support professionals assignments according to their interests and their expertise—or, even try letting them volunteer for tasks themselves.

11. Not making sufficient time to properly strategize


I often ask new leaders what percentage of their week is spent solving problems versus exploring opportunities. Even when you delegate most tasks, it’s easy to spend all day putting out fires, answering questions, meeting with your team or dealing with the endless onslaught of email and requests from colleagues. You’ve efforts will suffer, your stated priorities will go unrealized, if you’re not taking time to strategize. Book this time out on your schedule and make it sacrosanct. Business conditions seem to change at the speed of light today, so you can’t afford to be reactive—you must be proactive.

12. Thinking it’s a waste of time to work on your leadership skills


So what was the last leadership book you read and when was the last time you participated in a leadership course? In many firms it is typical for those who end up in firm leadership positions to be chosen based on their perceived technical expertise, their intelligence, and past client origination performance. This doesn’t necessarily mean that because you have the skill-set to feed people you are properly skilled to lead people. And even though you may have had some experience as a practice group or office head, we continue to hear from those who take on firm leadership responsibilities, how you need to invest some time in leadership development during your critical first few months as you attempt to get a good handle on the magnitude of what this job of being a firm leader really entails.

13. Believing that everyone wants you to succeed

Finally, learning to lead takes courage, tenacity and dedication. After all, if it were easy, everyone would be a Firm Leader. Real leaders have to be willing to be disliked as they lead. They also have to avoid seeking the pretense of harmony, pushing for “one happy family” while ignoring the fact that not everyone is in agreement. Some professionals who take the reins believe that all of their colleagues actually want to see them succeed . . . only later to unfortunately discover that some, for whatever self-serving reasons, may not! (See my last article: “Becoming Firm Leader: How Difficult a Job it Can Actually Be”)


We all make mistakes. And those with the biggest responsibilities can be prone to making their share of missteps. It comes with the territory. I hope reviewing this list helps you to recognize that these are mistakes that probably can be easily avoided.

About the Author

Patrick is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, strategist and seasoned advisor to the leaders of premier law firms; having had the honor of working with at least one of the largest firms in over a dozen different countries.


He is the author/co-author of 11 books most notably his international business best seller, First Among Equals (co-authored with David Maister), currently in its sixth printing and translated into nine languages. His two newest e-books, The Art of Leadership Succession and Strategy Innovation: Getting to The Future First (Legal Business World Publishing)) were released in 2019.


He proudly serves as a non-executive director (NED) or advisory board member with a variety of professional service firms and incorporated companies. His aim is to instigate innovation, provide independent strategic insight drawn from his years of experience, and support effective governance.


His three decades of experience led to his being the subject of a Harvard Law School Case Study entitled: "Innovations in Legal Consulting" and he is the recipient of an honorary fellowship from Leaders Excellence of Harvard Square.


Read more articles from Patrick McKenna, or read online/download his latest eBooks



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