The art of coaching is this: all your athletes are highly motivated when they first start, but your job as a coach is to create an environment that inspires them to use that motivation to get better and you do that by having the right balance of stimulation and fun.
The All Blacks’ season has just started, with a timely reminder of what a magnificent job Steve Hansen and his team do in building, maintaining and re-generating their team. I heard him speak at an ANZ function a couple of years ago, and much of what he said could be directly applied to any team in a law firm or other business.
A good team can change the life of a partner or senior associate. When things are working well, you can delegate increasing amounts of increasingly good work which flows to the right level for efficiency and personal development. There’s accountability and ownership and it all just works, while freeing you up to do all the other important, but not urgent things, you need to do to work on your business, not just in it.
Conversely, if you haven’t got a team you can trust and delegate effectively to, it can be difficult to turn around quickly and there is a significant opportunity cost in:
• time spent re-working things
• doing more yourself to avoid deadlines being missed or estimates being blown
• falling motivation (theirs and yours!)
• time spent on “unhappy people” issues.Unless you can change the cycle, it can get harder and harder.
In my time in practice I worked very hard to attract and retain the best people I could, and with consistent effort did pretty well. I searched widely for best practices to adopt, tried to learn from my mistakes, and over a number of years developed a good reputation as a manager.
Here are a couple of approaches that worked well for me:
Remember that you’re always recruiting
Our team grew significantly over my first few years as a partner as our work expanded, and I learned the hard way that if you only start recruiting once you’ve realised you’re shorthanded, you’re in for a miserable few months until someone new can start, and you may not get the best person you could have if you’d been more proactive. There are a couple of real stars I missed out on because I was helping them find jobs with other people when I should have been hiring them myself!
You can always see this in evidence with the All Blacks. While “rotation” and expanded squads has been controversial at times, you can see that the depth the All Blacks coaches and selectors have built through anticipating the need to cover injuries and departures, now means they are rarely caught without strong people in every position.
After some tough lessons, I started to meet great candidates every time the opportunity arose. If I couldn’t find an immediate opportunity to hire them (including by placing them on a secondment while waiting for a gap), I looked for ways to keep the relationship warm so that they knew we were interested and that they should keep in touch (and not go anywhere else without checking back in!).
Recruiting is an important topic, and I’ll write more on this separately.
Use your current and former staff to find new people and close the deal
Word of mouth is greatly under-rated for finding staff. A number of firms offer recruitment bonuses, but most people would be happy to recommend their friends for free if they thought there was a good match.
If they think you offer a great place to work, and that their friend would be a great addition, it’s a promising start. They’re unlikely to recommend someone that will breach the no ‘a#@hole’ policy (the legal version of the All Blacks’ celebrated no d*&!heads policy) you should strictly enforce, and they’ll usually know their friend is open to changing jobs before any recruitment agent (or even their friend) is.
One very successful example was when one of our teams had recently hired someone good from another firm. We also needed someone good for our team, so I asked our new hire who we should poach from his old firm and why. A couple of hours later I had a memo on my desk, listing all the possible associates, their levels of experience, and personal insights into where they currently sat in their current employer’s thinking and their possible motivations to make a move. We approached the best person and she jumped at the chance to come across for reasons I never would have guessed if we didn’t have an inside line on her thinking.
I always made sure that people I wanted to hire got to meet people in the team they would work with. While I had to be a partner that they felt they could trust to give them good enough opportunities and development, unlimited access to other members of team was probably more important. I wanted them talk about how it really is in the firm and the team – the good and the bad. You’re looking for the best fit for success and my team were very good at selling our firm and team as a good place to work.
A lot of firms talk a big game about how great it is to work there, but don’t back it up. You need to explain what you will do once you’ve hired them, and then prove that you will walk the talk. Your existing team can do that more convincingly than you can.
Next week I’ll write in more detail about some of the things that I focussed on once someone was in my team to help them be as happy and effective as possible.
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