The legal industry is moving at an unprecedented pace, requiring change management and negotiation skills at higher and higher levels. I finally see the business of law as a hiring objective for leaders and for choosing management and executive committee members. I am hopeful firms of all sizes are waking up to the necessity for leadership skills in their decision makers and have the desire to direct their own futures rather than continue to ride the current of the industry.

How do you stay in front of the industry? How can you possibly keep up with the trends and shifts that are happening? I’m sure you are reading the latest articles and news, following along your favorite sources (maybe this one), and putting things together and in place as much as you can. What if you were to get ahead of this responsiveness?

Reactive leaders are easy to find and are certainly important to the future of any organization. Proactive leaders stand apart as we watch them navigate problems without having to be “right” or solve them on their own. Many of us think that we can accomplish a task faster on our own than delegating it, which is true if the task must be a 100% match to our specifications. And, really, how often is this true?

I am training a group of leaders in a large organization (1200 employees) to consider how much of their “busy” is really required of them, as opposed to delegating. The push back is consistent – “if I don’t do it, it won’t be right” or “it takes longer to teach it”.  Yes, and yes. This is a mindset, which is yours to consider and I can’t change you. But, what if you looked more proactively at the solution as something that provides your more time in the next budget cycle or the next performance evaluation process?

Proactive leaders are those that are already expecting change, talking about the future (perhaps annoyingly so) and encouraging others to be part of the team that is moving forward. I facilitated a retreat where there was a transition in the Managing Partner role happening mid-retreat. The new Managing Partner is focused on the development of the future firm, where team members (i.e. Practice Group leaders who are part of the management committee) are part of the strategic planning, and have bought into the vision because it is compelling everyone forward.

The previous Managing Partner was a terrific reactive leader. He had clear expectations and pushed for results, so his team was listening for their next direction and putting it in place. He was focused on finding the problems and fixing them, which he did quite well. The trouble with a reactive leader shows up in the latter part of the term when the near-term accomplishments have short-sighted performance outcomes for the 3 and 5-year range.

The real challenge is to recognize where you are reactive, where you are proactive, and look for the opportunities to bridge this gap. I certainly want a reactive leader in a crisis.  Think about how Tylenol and Jack in the Box handled their product crises in the 80’s. Those reactive leaders were critical to saving their businesses. Now think about Kodak and Blockbuster – where are they now? I suspect they not only had poor reactive leadership, but also had no proactive leaders to anticipate the vast shift in the landscape brought about technology.

Proactive leaders are more interested in progress than being busy. And, stopping things from falling backward isn’t progress, but it sure is busy! Here are three things to watch for in yourself, and the leaders around you:

  • Are you continually looking to communicate and connect the vision of your organization with the people who deliver it? This alignment happens at all levels and the more you look for collaboration the more effective your whole firm will be.
  • A+. Are your values congruent with your actions, including showing courage and commitment when the situation dictates it? Learning and challenging yourself to practice and play with new skills is a sign of proactive leadership.
  • Who is the next top talent you’ll be developing? When you are watching the strengths of others it is easier to create the environment that will facilitate their growth, which is ultimately the growth of your business.

Our industry, and the world, is looking for more leaders. Proactive leaders are going to drive us forward and your challenge is to decide what role you want to play.  Remember – asking someone else to grow while you stand still is not alignment. In fact, it’s hypocrisy. Step up, step out, practice and play.

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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.
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