Recently, the originating Partner of a medium-sized insurance defense firm reached out to Woven Legal for our Firm Diagnostic Services. The information our processes uncovered shocked this seasoned litigator. Just “outside his office door” was a rather complex clique of employees who wielded petty power and likely brought about costly employee turnover.
Throughout the past 18 months, our client had been busy networking to gain new business and grow his firm. He also accepted several pro-bono matters. Meanwhile, he trusted a core group of four department managers (the DM team) to carry out his operational plans and pursue the agreed-upon goals.
Determined to not be a micromanager, this attorney said he carefully reviewed monthly metrics but trusted his DM team to work the plans for business success and manage the team. They did. Revenue continued to climb, the numbers were overall very positive and the firm’s metrics showed continuous revenue growth month over month (despite COVID conditions).
One column, however, began trending south. What started as 1 employee leaving the firm in November, grew to include 3 more staff members who gave notice in December and escalated to 6 employees exiting the firm between January and March. Our client said he realized with alarm that almost 1/3 of his employees – several of which had been with him from the start – chose to apply their skills and experience to other lawyers just across town.
When he called us to discuss the state of the firm our client shared two main things: The first was that he “took his eye off the ball” and had been too focused on numbers and metrics instead of the people who believed in the mission and in him. He admitted, “This mistake has cost me.” It was clear he wasn’t speaking only of money. The second thing he reported was that he just didn’t have the knowledge or experience required to get things back on track and feared losing more good people if he faltered.
Introduced through another Woven Legal client, this no-nonsense attorney rapidly entrusted us with applying our experience to help turn things around. So, without delay and with his blessing, our team set out to gain an understanding of his firm’s true culture and what may have caused or contributed to the high turnover rate.
When several key issues came to light our client embarked on the, “I should have…” path but we quickly shut that down since nothing can be gained from this exercise. Instead, we reminded him of the choice he made to OWN the problems and that he was taking action to correct them. In fact, his words were, “I’ve learned that when you find yourself in a hole, don’t decorate.” Through sharing his experience in overcoming this “derailment” as he refers to it, our admirable client hopes to help other managing partners avoid the mistakes he’s made.
The 5 red flags we identified that were missed:
- Employee sick days had increased significantly over the past 12 months.
- Numerous staff members attempted to enlighten our client on the team’s problems only to have him reiterate the policy recently adopted to accommodate the firm’s rapid growth, “Questions or concerns should be taken to your manager.”
- Employees held information & knowledge hostage, leveraging their proficiency with firm technology, for example, for power, status, and job security.
- At some point, the staff no longer disagreed with our client. Gone were the lively business conversations during team meetings where dialogue was organic and dissenting opinions welcomed in the name of better outcomes and good business. A culture of fear took hold and the CYA approach became the status quo.
- Snarky comments and petty observations about general staff were increasingly expressed in leadership meetings. Although our client did not contribute to these conversations, he didn’t stop them either. He rarely thought about the negative banter he heard and assumed it was contained to those meetings, minimizing in his mind the greater impact those sentiments could have. After all, he felt his leadership team were his best employees.
The Firm Diagnostic Process
Equipped with our client’s previously created statement on firm culture, the first step was reconnaissance. We drilled down into the work environment and the bedrock of exhibited values. Experience has taught us the best place to start meeting the staff is usually at the “bottom,” of the org chart working our way up to management. Also, when a new employee goes through onboarding, they generally observe many things which can result in a cache of valuable information. Fortunately, our client’s junior staff liked and respected him and said they wanted the firm to be successful. So, they shared their perspective with candor and spoke openly about processes and people.
Making our way up the firm’s hierarchy, meeting with employees, and probing for details to add color to the picture taking shape, we eventually arrived at the DM team. As is often the case, management was fearful we were brought in for the dreaded “re-org,” which would result in cutting a department or eliminating jobs. Our team was quick to assure them we were not seeking to “trim the fat,” and restated the end goal: the managing partner hired us to understand the current culture – and specifically what he had missed – which contributed to 10 people leaving his firm within the last 6 months.
To say it was an easy free-flow exchange of information would be untrue. At times, voices and the level of discomfort rose. Professionalism did, however, remain intact and despite some early finger-pointing and blame placing, all but two of the participants reported being grateful for a forum where they could (“finally”) speak openly about the tension which had developed.
Not surprisingly, the two Department Managers who were our team’s greatest critics were the same individuals whose names arose again and again as driving diversion, exclusion, isolation of certain employees, and negative gossip. Manipulation, shame, favoritism, micromanagement, and passive-aggressive treatment were all part of their arsenal and applied liberally as needed to maintain control of the staff and ultimately our client. They exhibited savvy expertise when positioning day-to-day occurrences to their boss, our client, which painted them in the best light and he had little reason to doubt.
“Numbers don’t lie,” our client said initially and revenue continued to rise. “How could that be?” you might ask, as our client did. The first answer to that question is a question: What numbers & reports are being reviewed month to month? It’s important to run reports which provide a comprehensive, unvarnished view of any business’ performance. (Watch for our July blog post on 2021’s Best Reports for Assessing Your Law Firm’s Performance.) And, the second answer to that question is what we refer to as…“the yets.”
The firm’s clients haven’t begun to take their business elsewhere…yet. The culture of fear hadn’t resulted in costly, embarrassing errors for the attorney…yet. Income had not begun to drop….yet. But, as is commonly known, a culture built on fear and manipulation cannot succeed in the long run. It’s a matter of time before the YETS materialize in a firm riddled with negative undercurrents and problems tend to arise with greater frequency.
The solution we conceived required input from our client but also his staff. Communication, frequent and authentic, was a key ingredient needed if this team was going to rise up and repair the damage done to their office culture. Additionally, the level of respect they showed for one another was re-calibrated, setting the expectation to fill the gaps with trust instead of assuming the worst.
Rather than initiating a Zero-Tolerance, No-Gossip Policy as our client considered – and we’ve seen exist in some of today’s workplaces (often resulting in segmented, fear-based teams forming truth-capsules with trusted coworkers – privately discussing what’s REALLY going on in the organization) – we encouraged our client to lead by example and not partake in or tolerate disparaging comments about team members.
Furthermore, we suggested the following filters to help individuals pause before spreading negativity:
- Is the information I’m about to share true with no elaboration or exaggeration?
- Is it necessary for the well-being of the firm, its clients, or my team?
- Is my motive in sharing this information sound and devoid of selfishness or ego?
The team also agreed with our suggestion for maintaining a focus of “keeping one’s own side of the street clean,” and allowing others the same courtesy. Adopting this approach complemented the usage of the filters above and further discouraged employees from engaging in negative banter and gossip.
Ultimately, the two “mean-girls” within the DM team quit when realizing their boss was resolute in the cultural changes being applied. It was evident their manipulation tactics would no longer be tolerated. Unsurprisingly, many of the other petty tensions previously plaguing the office climate resolved themselves when no one was around to regularly stir the pot.
Lastly, it was time for us to insert the linchpin. At a final meeting with our client, he stated how pleased he was with the progress of his firm and team. He said his staff had stopped by his office to thank him for, “allowing them to like their jobs again,” and bringing us in to help get things on track, which touched him. We agreed…everyone appeared to be on the bus and excited to move forward. We pointed out how powerful it was that his employees believed in him and his vision.
“Now,” we went on, “You need to continue to LEAD them.” Slightly affronted, he said, “Well, what do you think this is?” gesturing to our team and the meeting we were having. We affirmed that yes, he had undoubtedly been the leader throughout the time we’ve spent with the firm. However, we reminded him that early on, he admitted he had focused more on numbers, cases, and clients rather than his team. We explained we were NOT pointing this out for any reason other than to look at what prompted that choice – and if it is his default setting – then it is likely to occur again.
We asked, “How do you feel about confrontation or emotional conversations?” and he deadpanned, “I’m a litigator.” We all laughed and agreed that, yes, we could easily imagine he excelled at dealing with contentious situations particularly with opposing counsel! But still, we drilled down, “Let’s imagine an employee shows up at your office door looking frustrated and on the verge of tears. What would you do?” Shifting in his seat, our client grew uncomfortable and said with some annoyance, “Well, did I cause it?!” We chuckled and answered, “I don’t know…did YOU cause it?” We all laughed at our Dr. Phil impression which helped break the tension and our client said, “Look, I’m a product of my Irish-American upbringing…I can let things build up until, eventually, I explode. I’m WORKING on it.”
We explained that the point we were trying to make is that his staff is aware of this tendency, making them hesitant – fearful even – of bringing issues to him to be discussed. In our experience, we have seen that recurring office problems usually don’t just go away, as he saw. Someone in the organization will assert themselves (the mean-girls) and the positive culture begins to unravel.
Here’s a truth: Employees want a strong leader who is demonstrably in charge. At that moment, his team was on his bus, buckled up and ready to go – and they wanted HIM to drive them. If he pulls over and gets off to deal with something else, eventually, another individual will take the driver’s seat. We advised him that if he couldn’t act in that capacity he should consider outsourcing his leadership role.
He paused and was thoughtful, rubbing his forehead as he considered what we said then shared, “I’m not sure if I’ll know when I pull over – I don’t always know when my focus has shifted.” We understood and told him he just touched on a key point in our maintenance process which is, “Recognizing Backsliding.” If behaviors lending to prior problems are someone’s default, it’s not a matter of IF those behaviors will be repeated, but when. Having a process in place for the team to address backsliding and a plan for correction keeps a leader’s and team’s choices and actions on track – protecting the culture.
We also assured our client that although our contract was coming to a close, we would continue to check back with him and his employees if he was agreeable. He was very much in favor of having another set of eyes fixed on progress and maintaining their improved office culture.
Providing a solution for our client involved fully understanding the vision he had for his business, evaluating the actual company culture based on interviews of representatives from ALL levels of the organization, and putting in place an environment where candor was welcomed and trust was felt by all team members. And, finally, but perhaps most importantly, our client was committed to not only focusing on the numbers but also remaining engaged with his team – keeping his sights set on the success and well-being of his managers and his employees, as well.