New and Cool to You? Doesn’t Matter (to Your Clients)

I just received a breathless mass email that states:

The all-new website is here! Take a look. Check it out…, and it’s all new! Visit today to [get info and find stuff]. Take this quick tour to get an overview of what’s new [in four bullet points1 and happy sentences]….

Of course it includes links, a colored background, and a stock photo of two happy people and what might be a tree.

I. Don’t. Care. I am a client of the company that sent this, but I don’t care about their website.2

Dear sender, I know it’s something you’ve worked hard on. Very hard. Balancing a lot of internal politics, competing needs, and limited resources. Yup.

So what?

Why does it matter to me?

I assume, if I go to your website, that I’ll be able to do exactly the things those four bullet points tell me I can do. Because any reasonably competent website for your industry will let me do those things. And your old website was not so bad that it was driving away all your clients and you now need to win them back.

Oh, and this was the second such mail. You sent me one a few days ago to tell me to look out for this mail!

The Project Management Connection

When you’re managing a legal project, understand what your clients care about.

You may (and should) care about things like deadlines and staffing and the incredibly hard work and grace under pressure your team has contributed. But before you share that with the client,3 ask yourself, Is this on the client’s top-three list regarding this project?

Sometimes it is. If your client doubts you can deliver, or is curious about (or wants proof of) your project management skills, or insists on knowing everything about everything, then fine – share the info.

Otherwise, figure out what the client thinks is important, and focus your communication efforts on that.

Don’t assume that what matters to you matters to the client. It’s like the old saw about people not wanting to watch the making of either sausages or laws.

Become a Five-Tools Project Manager

My bimonthly article on Slaw, the Canadian law magazine, talks about how to build on five key tools for project success.

Now if I could only find the one tool that would resolve printing issues with my new book so I could release it….

#8 of Ten Not-To-Dos

Today’s not-to-do comes courtesy of Mark Herrmann. He’s the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, a regular columnist for Above the Law, and usually dead on the money.

Not today.

He rails against one-one-one meetings, but I believe he fails to understand their purpose. So here’s #84 – and remember, this is the don’t-do-it-this-way phrasing: Avoid one-on-ones with your team.

A one-on-one is a powerful and employee-empowering management tool, when used effectively:

  • It’s a regularly scheduled meeting between a manager and her report. The manager can be a project manager or a reporting manager.
  • It should happen weekly until you reach senior levels, then biweekly. (Recognize that schedule issues will cause about one in three to be canceled, which will push these meetings toward the right frequency.)
  • It needn’t be long. Sometimes fifteen minutes is enough, especially for a manager-report pair where both parties are be-brief-be-brilliant-be-gone. If you schedule them for longer, neither party should be shy about ending early.
  • The agenda belongs to the report, not the manager. 

    #8: One-on-ones reflect the report’s agenda, not the manager’s.

  • Let me repeat that last bullet. The agenda belongs to the report, not the manager. This is critical, and it’s the part Mark Herrmann misses. People need guaranteed time with their busy manager to bring up issues, seek help with roadblocks, receive coaching, feel supported, ask questions, make cross-company connections, all of the above, and anything else on the report’s mind. If the manager has an item she wants to bring up, reserve time at the end of the one-on-one – though you’ll discover how often that same item is on the report’s list as well. Some managers like to see an agenda in advance. I wasn’t one of them, but it’s a personal preference.5

Don’t blow off one of the easiest and most effective tools in your management arsenal – no, your leadership arsenal.

Our list so far, phrased as the right thing rather than the not-to-do behind it:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.
  3. Don’t let reviews become either blamefests or mutual backscratching.
  4. Don’t “know” what you don’t know.
  5. Don’t make it up.
  6. Don’t assign action items to no one in particular.
  7. Don’t blow off questions of responsibility.
  8. Don’t shortchange your reports by avoiding regular one-on-ones.

(Two more to go, but it may be slow. The past few days I’ve been rechecking proofs of my new book and working with a publisher on specs for the one beyond that.)

Building Leaders

Slate is running an interesting article on GE’s management-training program.

One key paragraph regarding their Crotonville Managment Training Center, where up-and-coming managers attend a two-week training course:

Even during the depths of the financial crisis, when it could have easily chosen to slash this cost center, GE kept Crotonville running at full bore. And [CEO] Jeff Immelt makes the helicopter trip from the company’s Fairfield, Connecticut, headquarters to greet every new class of management trainees. There may be no more data-driven corporation in the world than GE, and—though it’s difficult to quantify the precise value of an improved executive class—for more than half a century the company has done the math and deemed Crotonville a smart investment.

Microsoft, too, ran these types of programs when it was at the top of its game.6 So do other companies.

Training matters. (And good training is more than listening to a dry lecture while collecting CLE credits.)

Believe in the future of your legal practice, and invest in those who will carry it into the future.

#7 of Ten Not-To-Dos

Today’s don’t-do-that, like Friday’s, comes courtesy of the General Motors internal investigation for the Cobalt.

(I should note that there are things to like about GM, and that I drive a GM car. The inside-baseball behaviors that the GM internal investigation has revealed are endemic at many organizations.)

One witness described the GM phenomenon of avoiding responsibility as the ‘GM salute,’ a crossing of the arms and pointing outward towards others, indicating that the responsibility belongs to someone else, not me.

Okay, so the GM Salute is an ugly blow-off, but what should you do when the question comes up and you believe it’s not your responsibility?

a. Do the GM Salute mentally while looking around with a blank stare.
b. Do nothing. Any movement might give you away – or, worse, “volunteer” you as the problem-solver.
c. Affirmatively say, “This isn’t my area.” Maybe even follow that with, “I don’t want to step on anyone else’s toes.”
d. When it’s clear no one in the room owns it, say, “Let’s take an action item to find out. Who’s got this?”
e. If it’s your meeting, get a volunteer or appoint someone to find out.

I hope you’ll see the last two as the best answers. 

#7: Don’t avoid responsibility. If you don’t know who owns it, ensure someone owns finding out.

Many people are scared of choice d) because the obvious response from someone else is, “This is clearly important to you, so why don’t you take it on?” In other words, it’s akin to volunteering, and you already have enough work.

First, in well-functioning organizations, it’s not akin to volunteering. There will be any number of people stepping up with the same question, and the task will go to someone with a good likelihood of coming up with an answer. If that’s you, great – then you’re the right person.

Second, while in dysfunctional groups you will have in effect volunteered, consider it an opportunity. Problem solvers get noticed, become the go-to people in their organizations. And unless leadership is completely clueless, either you’ll start moving up or others will start taking responsibility as well, or both. (If your managers are truly clueless, are you really where you want to be? If you have other options, consider exploring them.)

If a serious issue is raised in a meeting, ensure it becomes an action item with due date for someone, even if that someone is you.

Our list so far, phrased as the right thing rather than the not-to-do behind it:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.
  3. Don’t let reviews become either blamefests or mutual backscratching.
  4. Don’t “know” what you don’t know.
  5. Don’t make it up.
  6. Don’t assign action items to no one in particular.
  7. Don’t blow off questions of responsibility.

#6 of Ten Not-To-Dos

Today, it’s GM that offers a lead-in for the next in my list of work methods worth avoiding.

#6: Don’t follow a “decision” in a meeting with action items, responsibility, and due dates.

GM meetings, according to the recently released report on the Chevy Cobalt ignition switch mess, abounded with something called the GM Nod:

Mary Barra described a phenomenon known as the ‘GM Nod.’ The GM nod, Barra described, is when everyone nods in agreement on a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room with no intention to follow through.

It’s not a GM-only phenomenon. I’ve seen it in meetings in many places, including law firms.

Someone records the meeting minutes, but nothing actually happens.

One of the biggest time-wasters in a meeting is to take minutes. Minutes belong to formal institutions. Meetings instead need the following:

  • A list of decisions taken and tasks assigned
  • For each decision or task (a/k/a action item), the person responsible for seeing it through, and the date by which the next major action is due.

#6: Follow-through. In a meeting, every decision must have a person responsible and a due date.

If you’re using onscreen visuals for the meeting, interrupt them. If possible, project instead the screen of whoever is recording the decisions/action items. Type out those three items – decision/action item, person responsible, due date – right on the screen in front of everyone.

Now, everyone sees who’s on the hook. And that person also sees the assignment clearly, and either announces any misgivings about the date and renegotiates immediately, or they (and everyone else) know what they have to do.

Yeah, occasionally something will come up and a date will be missed.7 But if you get the percentage of follow-through from, say, 50% up to 90%, that’s dramatic progress.

Our list so far:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.
  3. Don’t let reviews become either blamefests or mutual backscratching.
  4. Don’t “know” what you don’t know.
  5. Don’t make it up.
  6. Don’t assign action items to no one in particular.8

Have a great weekend. More next week.

 

#5 of Ten Not-To-Dos

Friday, we hit #4 on this ugly top-ten list, Don’t know what you don’t know.

Making it up is not a good idea in response to a question.

However, checking in at #5 on the bad-idea hit parade, there are also lots of times we “make it up” without needing a question. Information abhors a vacuum. If we know something might be going on in an office environment, it’s human nature to make up a story to fit the observed facts.

Except…

Except that there are usually few observed facts.

Except that most of those facts turn out not to be so factual.

Except that we tend to make it up in the worst way possible. 

#5: Don’t make it up. If you don’t know, don’t assume the worst.

My boss hasn’t talked to me in two days? I’m about to be fired! My client didn’t call yesterday? She’s unhappy with our work. The senior partner didn’t praise my brief? I must not have worked hard enough. He didn’t even acknowledge it? Oh, no, he lost it in his email.

And so on.

This observations leads to three suggestions.

First, don’t make it up. Just because you feel something might be happening doesn’t mean that it is. As poet Delmore Schwartz said, “Even paranoids have real enemies,” but that doesn’t mean they’re lurking under your desk.

Second, encourage your team to not make it up. One individual can rarely make it up as badly as a team collaborating to grind the rumor mill. The second best way to curb that behavior is to remind people about this issue. Self-awareness goes a long way toward mitigating the problem.

And third, the best way to avoid your team making it up is to share information. Facts will (usually) vanquish rumor. So instead of starting each project from the traditional lawyer perspective, I will share only that which I have to, take instead the project manager’s approach: I will share everything but that which I cannot.

Here’s the list so far:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.
  3. Don’t let reviews become either blamefests or mutual backscratching.
  4. Don’t “know” what you don’t know.
  5. Don’t make it up.

 (I don’t know my schedule for the remaining five items. I’ve got considerable client work this week, and in what other time I can find I’m reviewing the final proof copy of my new book.)

#4 of Ten Not-To-Dos

Continuing in our series of bad ideas….

“Know” what you don’t know.

In other words, you don’t always need to know the answer. When you don’t know, say, “I don’t know.” Or even better, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” (And of course, if you offer to find out, follow through and follow up.)

C’mon, trial lawyers in particular drool at the thought of nailing an opposing witness for something he said that wasn’t true. 

#4: Don’t know what you don’t know.

In science and medicine, the question is often asked: What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove? If you don’t at least know it (easily proven or not), say “Maybe” or “I think” or “I guess”… or even, “It depends.” (Nah, as a project manager, avoid the “it depends” stuff for the most part when you need to make a decision.)

So if someone asks you a question, don’t know what you don’t know. No one has all the answers, and it’s only the expectations we place on ourselves that mislead us here.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

Here’s our list of not-to-dos so far:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.
  3. Don’t let reviews become either blamefests or mutual backscratching.
  4. Don’t “know” what you don’t know.

Monday, the other side of this particular coin.

#3 of Ten Not-To-Dos

Here’s the third in a series of ten things legal professional might want to avoid. As always, I’m referring to the non-lawyering parts of the day.

I’ll introduce #3 with another (small) version of the daily Dilbert9:

Don’t turn project reviews into blame or oneupsmanship sessions.

Actually, this not-to-do applies to people reviews as well.

If you’re not familiar with “the 360,” it’s a corporate gem that’s been au courant for the past decade or so. Like most ideas, it started as a good thing to do. Then people began figuring out how to game the system (see the strip for one of many ways to distort the 360 process), and some managers began using them as fishing expeditions.

In a 360, the employee – generally at least a first-level manager – gets a detailed, guided review from her direct reports, her manager, her peers, and her business partners. For example, if Jill managed a small finance team, she’d receive reviews from those who worked for her, her manager, her manager’s other direct reports, and her main contact in each of the business units she or her team served. Her manager or HR would collect them, anonymize freeform information as needed,10 collate numerical scores, and then provide the results to the subject.

Of course, in an organization overloaded with office politics, how does this play out?

#3: Project reviews must stay focused on the project, not the people.

So here are a few suggestions – rules, even – for project reviews (whether during the project or afterwards):

  • Face to face, not email or anonymous. If there’s tension, bring in a coach/facilitator.
  • They are never about blame. Never. The moment shoulda-coulda-woulda raises its head, gently redirect the conversation.
  • Ask two questions, each with a follow-up question:
    • What are we doing well? How can we do more of it?
    • What are we doing not-so-well? How can we improve it or do less of it?
  • No one has all the answers.
  • Everyone gets a chance to talk.
  • Do not let strong personalities dominate the discussion. (Again, a coach/facilitator can help.)

One caveat – if the organization or the leaders are heavy into retribution and “evening the score,” you can really, really benefit from a facilitator who will speak privately, before the meeting, with each of the participants and who will then keep the meeting focused solely on “what” rather than “who.”

To summarize our list so far:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.
  3. Don’t let reviews become either blamefests or mutual backscratching.

 

#2 of Ten Not-to-Dos

This is the second of ten posts on nonconsecutive days about gains we can make when we stop doing certain things.

#2 is declining to help someone else in your practice.

I agree that we’re sometimes swamped by our own work. What I’m talking about, however, goes beyond that.

There are some people who believe that the best way to get ahead is to keep others back. Law in particular is often seen as a zero-sum game, where each event has a winner and a loser. If that’s true, of course, we’d all rather be among the winners.

However, how often is it true? Even most (civil) lawsuits that that reach a verdict entail partial victories, and lawsuits are the extreme case. It doesn’t make sense inside the office to model every interaction on the lawsuit.

Research shows (albeit not unanimously) that on average people rise in an organization faster if they are “givers” than if they are “takers.” That is, people who offer help to others, cheerfully, often unbidden, and without an obvious tit-for-tat agenda, are more likely to get ahead than those who play hardball.

Generous people outdo selfish people at work.

Seems counterintuitive, but take a look at the article, or, even better, at the research to which it refers. Clearly, there are exceptions. We all know people who are, to put it cruelly but colloquially, perennial doormats. However, non-assertive is not a synonym for generous. It is quite possible to support your peers openly without ceding your own ground.

#2: Don’t withdraw. Help your peers. Everyone benefits.

We can’t change our personalities, at least not easily. However, a few small steps can make a difference.

Next time you see someone struggling and you can spare a few minutes, help them out. Become known as someone open to answering questions and offering spot help. It will pay off in the long run.

Incidentally, I learned more from being a mentor to others than I did from my own mentoring – at least at the time.11 Helping someone else out contributed to the overall success of the organization, made me feel good about my day, and often led to my gaining new information and discovering lessons applicable to my own work.

So don’t decline when someone asks for help. If you can find the time, provide the help.

To summarize so far:

  1. Don’t multitask. Focus.
  2. Don’t avoid opportunities to help others.

  1. One of which has an editing error.

  2. Actually, I might personally care a little bit in a professional sense, since I was responsible for a good chunk of Microsoft.com for a year, but I’m simply stating that in the interest of full disclosure.

  3. Or even, to some extent, with your own management.

  4. I had to rejigger the list a bit but I wanted to address this issue

  5. I didn’t ask for one because I felt that moved a quantum of power from report to manager and I wanted these sessions to be as employee-empowering as possible.

  6. They were generally a series of one-week high-intensity programs rather than a single two-week session.

  7. And there will always be a few turkeys who just blow it off. Most of the time, their careers will not progress to where they can do even more damage.

  8. Edited Friday 9:20 PDT to make the wording of this item parallel the others in the list.

  9. Actually, this was number 7 on my original list, but I had to move it up when I saw today’s Scott Adams strip.

  10. Participants usually have the option of attaching their name to their feedback or remaining semi-anonymous.

  11. Some of my mentors’ best lessons took years to sink in.