I often hear law firm administrators talk about “putting out fires” in the context of what they do in their day to day roles. I wonder how much of your time is fire fighting, and how much is fire building.  In other words, how much of your energy is spent reacting to problems and challenges (fire fighting) versus championing goals and communicating anticipated events (fire preventing).

Understanding your mindset – whether you are a reactive or proactive leader – is the first step toward furthering your skills, growing your influence, and contributing to your firm’s future.  Reactive leaders are focused on themselves – needing to know everything, directing everyone, pushing for results, and responding to change.  Reactive leaders operate with the urgency of a fire fighter on a regular basis.

Proactive leaders value communication and team participation, models the values they want to see in a shared vision, and foresee change on the horizon.  These leaders have goals and believe their outcomes are best achieved through the teams and groups around them.  They schedule space to consider the direction of their firm, and what changes are on the horizon.

I recently spoke in the Business of Law Conferences, having conversations in four cities over two months on the wide variety of roles and responsibilities currently challenging you in your firms. These conversations reminded me how subtle and yet distinct the difference is between proactive and reactive leadership.  The more your leadership style is proactive, the more the firm benefits – in relationships, engagement, and profitability.  Let’s look at an example:

For this article I’ve created a composite Administrator, who I’m calling Al B. Lit.  Al was lamenting his recent round of fire control, this time an employee who had her Cheetos stuck in a vending machine and had sent an email to Al plus the Executive Committee, with the dreaded exclamation point that deemed it urgent.  This employee, Agnes T. Jue, demanded a refund of her 45 cents or a bag of Cheetos, and she wanted resolution NOW.

Al and I discussed the frustration of handling such fires, and how the meaningful work to be done is trapped behind these type events in Al’s firm.  We also discussed how the management committee frowned upon Ms. Jue and her poor recognition that this wasn’t a catastrophic fire, and would be put out one way or another.  And, of course, Al would hear from one member of the management committee who would jump in and champion this cause, to the detriment of both Al and the other employees.

Is Al B. Lit fighting a fire?  Are you a fire fighter?  Are you in the position where you are responding to occurrences more than you are investing in the direction of the firm?  When you look at a typical day, how much of your time is dedicated to reacting and solving problems?  How much is invested in building relationships in the firm with honest communications? How often are you prioritizing, planning, and focused on the legal marketplace that will challenge your firm will face in the coming months and years?

Al has been a legal administrator for many years.  He’s invested in the success of his firm, and attends continuing education events to stay current on what is happening in the industry, in addition to growing his skill set for running the firm. He knows his firm benefits from his insights and strategic thinking, although there hasn’t been a specific meeting or retreat focused on this subject for many years now.  He believes it is his job to solve these daily “crises” and is frustrated that there isn’t more time in the day.  Any of this sound familiar?

What are Al’s options?  Reactive leadership will continue to fight the daily fires, putting out the blazes and hot spots all over the firm.  There is a frantic and frenetic state of constant delivery which is often exhausting.  And, best (or actually, worst) of all is that everyone in the firm knows Al is a great fire fighter.  Heck, if the toast is starting to brown (aka my computer isn’t booting up as fast as it “should”), I’ll call Al and get him to put out this ember.

It’s time for Al to consider another way.  A more proactive approach to fire in general, one where he is preventing the fire! First Al must instill accountability in his staff, including Agnes T. Jue.  What process can be created to solve the vending machine puzzle?  Perhaps a refund policy that clearly shows a path to recovery of either the Cheetos or the money is the right choice for Al.  Perhaps a chain of command which includes Al’s assistant, Awn D. Fire, who becomes the point person for all things vending machine, removing Al from the day to day fire of snacks.  Firm size plays an important role in the path set in place; the important part is that there is more focus on the solution than there is on the problem.

What is your “vending machine”?  In other words, what is the daily problem that interferes with your productivity?  Once you identify that, what process can be created and shared to provide accountability and eliminate the need for you to always be a fire fighter?

Is it easier to walk in your office and complain than it is to find a solution?  That’s another sign of fire fighting, aka reactive leadership.  In Al’s story he could challenge Agnes to propose a solution when she announces the problem (“thank you for reporting this, what solution do you suggest for long term management of this issue?”) regardless if this is in person or via email.  This may be a shift in how you currently operate, and also a shift in the culture of your firm.  We each teach people how to treat us – are you a fire fighter or a fire preventer?

A third aspect of reactive leadership is more subtle.  I’m talking with Al at the Business of Law Conference, and he is dealing with Agnes and the Management Committee instead of networking with his peers.  How often is this your challenge – – are you “always available”?  Do you drop everything when someone walks into your office?  How many times do you suggest a later time to visit with this “pressing issue”?  When you are in the middle of month end reporting you can practice proactive leadership.  Agnes walks in to report a problem, and you let her know you can discuss this at X time later today (and you will be available for her at that point, an important component of proactive leadership –  you are authentic and filled with integrity).

What happens when you walk in Monday morning?  Are you blaring a siren and carrying a water hose?  Remember that once you are known as the fire fighter it doesn’t matter if it’s a Category 5 blaze or a bag of burnt popcorn in the microwave, you will get the call.  Now is the time to establish yourself as both a fighter and a preventer in the fiery world of your firm.  Take the first 15 – 20 minutes of your Monday to review what is coming up this week, and this day. Do this again at the end of each day and each week.  This simple shift will feel different inside you, and start to contrast your management and leadership skills.

As we enter into this year, I leave with you these guideposts:

  1. What is one thing I can create a process for that would provide me time (to practice being a fire preventer)?
  2. Where can I hold people accountable to solutions?
  3. What are my leadership goals for this year?

Al B. Lit suddenly becomes Al. B. Moore, and Agnes T. Jue finds her way to Agnes T. Noneya.  Leadership and management that is proactive and forward focused puts organizations out in front. Ahead of the “best practices”, ahead of the opportunities for new clients and services, and ahead of the firms who rely on reactive leadership.  It’s a new year, a fresh slate, what do you want?

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About the Author

Judy Hissong
Judy Hissong, CLM, is the President of Nesso Strategies. Nesso is the Italian word for connection, and her company is built on the passion of human potential and bottom line improvement. She writes, speaks, trains, and coaches on leadership, wellness, workplace engagement, and communication and conflict skills. Find her on twitter @judyhissong; email judy@nessostrategies.com; phone 619.546.7885; and join her LinkedIn Group “Engaging Legal Leaders” for more conversation about leadership in law firms.