It should come as no surprise that my most sought after post for this year is one about leadership excellence – in a time when many of us are trying to find our way in uncharted waters, seeking advice from someone with a tried and true philosophy can feel comforting and stabilizing.
While it’s no secret that Disney has had their ups and downs this year too (how could they not, being in the tourism industry during such a unique period?), their translatable philosophy still holds a lot of wisdom for the rest of us. I wanted to share some of the highlights with you again, in the context of the current environment. This advice comes from a presentation that Jeff Williford from the Disney Institute gave several years ago, but still holds true today.
It’s About People
At Disney, it all starts with leadership excellence – Disney believes that if their leaders take care of their people, they will, in turn, take care of their guests. This is always relevant, of course, but it strikes me as particularly important in the time of COVID, when we essentially set the members of our firms adrift into remote working and somehow had to ensure that they remained part of the firm and the team. If done well and effectively, we strengthened the bonds that they had with the firm, and ensured that they would be excellent stewards of the firm for clients.
Disney knows that their strongest marketing is all of their customers, and that inspires them – an “intent to return is an intent to recommend.” Marketing supports the experience, and the experience is what brings you back. It’s easy to draw the parallels for lawyers and law firms here – the best “marketing” that you do is through word of mouth. Satisfied clients will return to you, AND will share their experience with others who may need your assistance. While it may seem like a reach that you’re going to inspire the same kind of joy in your clients that Disney inspires in their customers, you can certainly imagine that helping your clients through a difficult situation successfully, giving them sound advice, winning a tough litigation for them, etc. will bring them the comfort and security that makes them want to continue to retain you as their lawyer. Consider the clients that you may have helped to navigate the last six to eight months, not only as their lawyer, but as their business partner and perhaps even friend. These months have been anxiety-filled for everyone, and knowing that they could come to you as their calming force who could make the best of the situation they were in, whether the result was exactly what they’d hoped for or not, helps to create those strong bonds with your clients.
And while law firms aren’t typically designed around leadership excellence, the changing needs of clients are requiring more and more strong leadership at firms today and we’re seeing that the more successful firms really do start with that leadership excellence. This has never been clearer than over the last several months, when firms have had to navigate relationships among their lawyers and staff in new and different ways, and have done so creatively and effectively in many cases. I’ve spoken to plenty of firms who have found they are closer than ever with their colleagues, and understand how to work better together than ever before. While we all know that we’ll return to working in the office, these months at home have taught us all essential lessons.
Let’s Get Creative
Woven through everything Disney does is creativity. Walt Disney once said “Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination” and as you get older it goes away. Just like a muscle, the imagination grows flabby if not exercised. Jeff challenged his audience to color outside the lines – find out what makes us excited and inspired. He also dared us to take notes in crayons at our meetings, saying “We all need to be pulled back to a time when we were imaginative.” This might sound a little bit extreme, but there’s a reason that we feel more inspired at work when we come back from an amazing vacation, or when we start taking a class that’s outside of our comfort zones, or even switch up our routines a bit. When you stretch your imagination in new ways, it impacts you in all areas of your life, including your work, and can re-instill the passion you have for what you do.
Before the pandemic, I suspect most of us would have scoffed at this. But I remain incredibly impressed that this entire industry, full of people who are slow to change, picked up and moved to remote working within one to two weeks. When we consider that, truly anything is possible. I know that this will scare some lawyers, because now your staff knows that you CAN change and be adaptable, and so you may be forced to in other ways. But it may also comfort you to know that some things did get better when we were forced to pivot – firms had to test and in some cases, improve, their cybesecurity; working across offices and practice groups became a bit more seamless, we learned the beauty of “seeing” each other on Zoom instead of jumping on a plane for short meetings or missing out on verbal cues in voice calls. So perhaps there IS room for creativity in the legal industry after all.
Disney has two fundamental beliefs – that everyone is creative and that your ideas are separate from your identity. Jeff suggested that we think inside the box, and then expand it. Disney has four sides to their “box:”
- Vision: What to be
- Mission: What to do
- Customer: Who
- Essence: What to feel
Feelings, nothing more than Feelings
Disney tries to meet their guests at their emotional level – their staff will be excited at park entrances, but more mellow at exits. They estimate that they have 60 chances a day to make an impression on you – making the right one helps to build relationships. Each one of those impressions is important because even one bad one will outweigh 59 good ones. How are you meeting your clients at their emotional level?
Again, this has become hugely important during the times of pandemic. Lawyers were all business counselors before, but I haven’t talked to a single lawyer over the last six months who hasn’t also become part therapist for their clients (and me too!). So while it’s outside the typical lawyer personality to engage with emotions, these lines have again become blurred as our personal and professional lives tend to blend and very real fears and anxieties have popped up into our businesses. Not every client has needed an ear to listen, but some have, and lawyers have shown up again and again reflecting that they ARE meeting clients at their emotional level. Important to note here that while this is key, lawyers (and professional staff!) must also be sensitive to their own emotional needs, and seeking to care for themselves too, whether this is through therapy, meditation, exercise, or a combination. The pandemic has created a perfect storm of low-grade anxiety that is continuing, and asking for and getting help is incredibly heroic.
Jeff mentioned that Disney never used to do weddings – but because people wanted to get married there, they would have “stealth” weddings. The wedding party would hide what they were wearing, go into the Magic Kingdom with the officiant and guests, and try to get their wedding finished before security would stop them. (Ah, remember the days when we could just easily go places, and do things?)
This taught Disney an important lesson – you have to listen to your clients because they will usually tell you what they want – did the guests really want to get married at the castle, or did they really want a fairytale wedding? That’s how Disney ended up offering fairytale weddings.
This speaks to Disney’s overall philosophy of the continuous improvement process – listen and learn, measure, act, re-measure, recognize & celebrate, and share. This cycle is always happening and Disney is always asking themselves what they can add that their guests want. Disney isn’t the only one who can benefit from the continuous improvement process – so can the legal industry. Clients have been saying for years that no one is talking to them and asking for their input. While there must be *some* firms that are doing it, it’s obviously not widespread enough to be making an impact on the clients. That’s a huge opportunity to seek more feedback from your clients, from your team, from your peers, to measure that feedback, act on it, measure again, celebrate the wins and share them. And to continue that process repeatedly, so that you can always ensure that you’re providing your clients and your firm with the service and environment that inspires everyone.
COVID taught all of us about continuous improvement in a very real way too – as time wore on, many of us re-evaluated how we were working from home, and whether that would work long-term if we continued to work remotely for an extended period. Firms and lawyers looked at the initiatives they had in place to stay connected, what was working, and what wasn’t, re-evaluated, improved, etc. Where we might have continued to do something in the past, because things are more in flux at the moment, it seems easier to play with the ideas and processes that we have in place than it was before. That weekly zoom call with your colleagues isn’t working? Let’s ditch it, and try something else instead. We were only going to focus on existing clients for business development? Oh, the lockdown is dragging on longer than expected, so let’s work on some business development planning that will be achievable virtually. Rinse, and repeat.
This happens within the firm too – Jeff pointed out that your role as a leader is to listen to your cast, your employees. If people are complaining that it’s a hassle to do business with you, there’s a problem with your process. Listening and encouraging to your employees really pays off for you in figuring this out. That extends past your team to your clients – are they finding your billing systems difficult? Do they use a different email process than you do? Are you trying to get them to mold to your systems, rather than the other way around? Much of this has come to the forefront in the pandemic as we realize that things that were fine to deal with in the office are suddenly not sustainable anymore, or firms were pushed to adopt systems that they were slowly integrating pre-pandemic.
Jeff also said that sometimes “helping” your employees isn’t really helping – ask them what’s needed before you jump in. He recommended involving your people in decision-making and giving them flexibility – for example, empower them to make decisions. It obviously works – there are a little over 300 cast members there who are celebrating 40 years along with Disney.
What’s Your Vision?
Think about what your vision is for those things you can control – your team looks to you for that. An effectively communicated vision creates a shared purpose, inspires passion, sets direction and conveys value. Walt Disney always pushed his people to move forward, to keep doing the next thing. How do you inspire your team to do something they’ve never done before? It’s your job as a leader to inspire the “cast” to get excited about what you’re doing.
It can be hard to develop a solid vision when you, yourself, aren’t sure about what the future holds. But there’s no more important time to communicate clearly and effectively to your team than during a pandemic (I don’t say that because I have experience with pandemics – this is new to me too, of course, but because we’ve all had crisis experience of some kind, and in a crisis, people want and need strong leaders). As Jeff says, it’s up to the leader to inspire the cast, and when we’re all dealing with anxiety about what’s next, how do you inspire your colleagues, and equally importantly, your clients, to get excited about what you’re doing as a firm to pull together and succeed?
So in addition to designing our own organizational structures for success by implementing effective processes for getting work done, we’re encouraged to explore everything so that we know what’s going on in our own organizations – how? Walt Disney used to go out into the parks and talk to everyone as well as listen. That’s how he would find his next idea. You can do this too.