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Leadership by Shoe Leather

"footprints" by kimba is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I was recently invited by Josh Camson to join him on Interrogatories, his podcast capturing all things legal to talk a little bit about my background, my legal career, and about the coaching I do with BKG Leadership Coaching. The interview will be released soon, but one question he asked got me thinking about my leadership role models and the things I've learned that have become a foundational part of how I lead. There are two pieces of advice I've shared with many people over the years, but it's time I gave them the wider audience they deserve. The first is this: you've got to be willing to exercise leadership by shoe leather.

What the hell does this mean and is it still relevant in our disconnected, hybrid environments? It means you need to get out from behind your desk, out of your office, up out of your chair and go get to know the people you're responsible for. (A fundamental premise on which this is ground is that as a leader you have responsibility to and for others, even more than you authority to give instructions and make decisions. We'll talk about this more later.) Getting to know your people doesn't work by summoning them to you or by conducting a rigid interview.

What did you say your kids' names are again? Uh-huh.

How old are they? Uh-huh.

Do they like school? Uh-huh.

Where did you go on your last vacation ....?

That's not going to do it. So, how does it work? It starts with taking a real interest in them. For many - especially those in high-pressure practices - it can be tough to move beyond the idea of 'staff as commodity.' You don't feel like you have the time to get to know more than whether or not your junior counsel or paralegals are sufficiently proficient with their technical skills. "Small talk doesn't bill and it doesn't move the matter." It may not bill, but it absolutely moves the matter. Begin by recognizing that any hesitancy to trust each other on a trial team might mean hesitancy to question a weak argument, suggest a more effective negotiation strategy, or flag an oversight in discovery. Minimizing those risks by increasing trust will be dividends manyfold. Start with remembering how much value each member of your team brings with them, and - if nothing else - let that value be your guide. Get to know what motivates, inspires, exhausts, or excites them. You don't have to spend all day in these conversations; you can do this one small step, one question at a time. But in that moment, you have to mean it. We all have an innate bullshit sensor, so don't bullshit them!

Go to them. Stop by. If you're uncomfortable stopping to talk with no other purpose than to get to know someone, start including a personal detour with them when you talk about work assignments. But do so on 'their turf.' Your willingness to sacrifice a little control of the environment in which you interact with others is a subtle sign of both your confidence and your vulnerability. Let them work together in your favor.

This is, of course, easiest when you're in the same space/building with your team. In a remote or hybrid environment, however, you can still do this by breaking out your digital shoe leather and connecting online. Or you can make a bigger investment of your time by arranging to be in the place - whether meeting in an office on days you might not otherwise be together, taking a trip to their offices in another city/state/country, or arranging an off-site meeting or conference. Like other investments, committing your time, energy, and attention to getting to know your team will give returns on that investment, and what you get back - in terms of team efficiency and creativity, stronger organizational culture, reduced turnover, and new ideas for growth might surprise you.

Interested in leveling up your leadership or giving junior leaders in your firm the opportunity to grow, schedule a consult and let's make a plan to unlock the leadership confidence that will grow and strengthen your firm.



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