A pandemic is a strange time to be a leader. It’s both terrifying, because you, as much as everyone else, have no idea what’s going to happen, but you have to put on a brave face to instill confidence and it’s, in some ways, exciting, because you get to test your skill set in a way you never have (although, let me be absolutely clear – every leader I know would hand it back over in a heartbeat). I talked to a law firm leader recently who said she regularly presents a calm and collected front to her shareholders and then hangs up the phone to cry. We laughed about it, because that is EXACTLY how it is – like ducks, we are serene above water while paddling like maniacs below.
So what has the pandemic taught me about leadership? Much the same as my time with the ILN generally has, if I’m honest. Here are nine lessons that I have learned, which I hope will be helpful to all leaders – whether your title reflects a leadership role or not:
- You have a voice, and you should use it. I started my career really unsure that I had anything of value to add, so I did a lot of listening (this isn’t a bad thing, and I’ll get to that in a moment). But never doubt that your voice has value, and you have something to contribute. When things are uncertain and people are worried, they need to hear from you more than ever – whether it’s your clients, your colleagues, your subordinates, or your friends. Sometimes you may be faking it until you make it (just ask all of the law firm leaders who really were NOT sure if we were going to survive last year), but without being able to reassure everyone we worked with that we were, in fact, going to be okay, we may not have been able to rustle up the “we’re in this together” sentiment that was necessary to get through those early, scary months. Communication and open dialogue are essential.
- Don’t be the smartest person in the room. As that quote goes, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. That’s been so true for me. When I’m surrounded when intelligent, passionate people, I’m learning, the fire inside me is ignited, and my own ideas and passion are given wings. Whether that’s an ACTUAL room or just the “room” that you’re in online, always keep looking to engage with people both inside and outside of the industry who are on the cutting edge of the topics you want to know more about, and the topics you should know more about. This has helped all of us figure out best practices throughout the pandemic, before the pandemic, and will certainly continue after we’re back to “normal” or whatever that looks like.
- Do more listening than talking. If you’re a long-time follower, you already know I’m an introvert, so it can be natural for me to listen in unfamiliar situations (my better friends and clients may be confused by this because I can also be a talker). By doing more listening than talking, asking more questions than offering answers, you’ll learn more about the person that you’re talking to, and how you can help them. This can especially serve you well when you’re working with a client or potential client, because you may uncover something that’s a pain point for them the longer you let them speak and the more probing questions you ask. We know this works well in a pandemic because I don’t know anyone who didn’t become a part-time counselor over the last year (and HUGE kudos to all of those full-time therapists out there, because you did and do the real heavy lifting). Lawyers have always been business advisors for their clients, but never has the word “advisor” been more relevant than in the last year, when they had to identify and assuage the real fears and anxieties that their clients had – which may have been legal, business, and in some cases personal. I dealt with a lot of my own law firms’ fears and anxieties too. Listening and identifying the fears behind the questions made all the difference, and is one of the reasons we all made it through – I saw lawyer after lawyer (and legal professional too!) be successful at this.
- Always be open to change. Well, we learned this one the hard way, didn’t we? I guess when we resisted change by kicking and screaming, the world dragged us into it with a pandemic. But once again, let’s stop and give the legal industry a HUGE round of applause for somehow managing to transition to remote working in about two weeks’ time. That was amazing. What’s really cool about this is two-fold – firms (and almost all) lawyers see what’s possible through technology and where certain things can become more efficient and expedient with its application AND it allows us to potentially have a discussion around what else is possible. But what else have we learned?
- The next best thing may be right in front of you. In an exciting and changing world, we can sometimes want to throw everything away and start fresh. But it can be important to pause and look at what’s in front of you, to see what the value is. In the early days of the pandemic, when we were all remote working, although there were some hiccups, we also saw how easy remote working could be (for the most part – those of you with young children at home, we know that you’re saints and remote working WASN’T necessarily easy or convenient). Let’s also keep in mind that no one was “remote working” – you were attempting to work from home during a pandemic. Entirely different. But that being said, as things have dragged on, we have also learned that there is a value from being in the office that can’t be replaced with Zoom and Teams meetings. That’s not to say that a hybrid model isn’t possible for the future – only that as always, the essential thing to do is start with the problem you’re looking to solve, and identify the best way to solve it – process, technology, people, etc. Perhaps not all meetings in the future need to be done in person, and we’ll be saving on travel and in-person costs. But perhaps there is also value in understanding a client’s culture and the context for how they work, which can’t be replaced with technology – so a hybrid solution will be necessary.
- Sharing works. In an industry that has thrived on silos in the past, it’s tempting to put our noses to the grindstones and not pick them up for anything. Particularly if your firm rewards an eat-what-you-kill mentality, it feels like there’s no reason to share clients, share work, share referral sources with anyone. And while this was starting to change pre-pandemic in some firms, there has been a bit of a rush back to this during quarantine. But sharing works. Over and over again, I have seen this in my career – when I am generous with what I know, when I offer a forum for others to share what they know, when I connect people, all of those things eventually benefit me in some way. The ILN’s podcast has been a great example of this – the lawyers that I interview have all shared best practices for various things that they have done in their firms, from mental health initiatives to maintaining firm cultures to client retention and business development. Other members have been inspired by these ideas and adapted them to what will work for their own firms and practices – we’re not sharing proprietary information and there are no new ideas in the industry (for the most part), so the ability to adapt what has worked for others makes all of us stronger.
- Keep learning & stay engaged. I consider myself to be a lifelong learner, which has served me well both in my career and especially in the pandemic. I mentioned above the importance both of learning and not being the most important person in the room, and essential to both of those lessons is taking in the information from the people I’m engaging with and learning from them. Using every opportunity to broaden my knowledge, in general, helps to drive passion into my work and connects me with my clients – I don’t have to be sitting in a conference room or a zoom meeting for this, but it can happen in a conversation with a friend or colleague. Why does this matter even more at the moment? Not only are we on high alert globally because of the pandemic, but we are dealing with issues of racial justice (especially in the US, but it’s not unique to us), more attention on women’s rights and safety, and increasing political divides in many countries. As a leader, and particularly a white woman, it’s my responsibility to educate myself, to listen with empathy, and to be constantly building a bigger table.
- Draw from your audience. You know I love to draw it back to your audience whenever I can, and this matters whether you’re writing an article, or working with a client – what does the other person want or need most that you can provide for them? As long as the message or the work is always focused on that – rinse, and repeat – you will find ways to be successful. This has never been more true than this past year, and I don’t think you’d find anyone that would disagree. Even when lawyers spent hours of non-billable time on the phone with their clients, they were still giving them what they needed, and it eventually paid off in work.
- Take time to reflect. I’m a fan of progress, but I also like to look back to see where we’ve come from too. It’s hard to reflect on a year that has been so, so difficult for so many people – difficult for everyone, really, but absolutely devastating for some. Truthfully though, we’ve all learned a lot. I believe that it’s okay if all that anyone did last year was survive; that if you kept yourself somewhat together, and didn’t learn how to perfect a sourdough loaf or take up painting, you’re still a success. Whether you hated remote working or loved it, both of those things are fine too. We didn’t need to pick up any great skills or even learn these above leadership lessons – if all we did was put the days together, that’s okay too. And if you did more than that – that’s okay also. As Robert Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”
Here’s to brighter days ahead, more crossed fingers and holding hands together (although, still six feet apart). I know we’ve got this. I’ll let you guess whether I head off to cry now.