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The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs – for legal leaders – PART TWO

Posted in Leadership, Legal Profession, Management, Vision

Last week I posted PART ONE of a short four-part series on the real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs, based in part on an HBR article (subscription required) of a similar title by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs autobiography. We continue the theme today!

A number  (but not all) of these provide great leadership and management pointers for legal leaders. I hope to persuade you to take some of these on board but of course they should not be slavishly followed – maybe emulate some, adapt others for your needs, your leadership style and firm needs, or simply think deeply about them.

It is not often in one’s life-time that one gets to experience, read about and learn from a unique character and leader of the ilk and achievements of Jobs. In his life-time he made no bones about pinching ideas and inspiration from others – I don’t think it is an opportunity any of us mere mortals should miss!  I wrote an article on related points in our Edge International Communiqué (PDF) which may also be of interest.

Of reading things not yet on a page, reality distortion fields, avoiding bozo explosions, making products feel friendly and casual and staying hungry and foolish - some of the many lessons from the business genius that was Steve Jobs, and what it can mean for law firm leaders (image compilation by Sean Larkan with thanks to the folk at Google Images)


6   ‘As leaders we need to read things that are not yet on the page

Jobs felt very strongly about understanding deeply about what clients want. However he regarded this as completely different to asking them what they want – simply because he didn’t feel they knew until they were told! He felt one needed to exercise and use one’s intuition and ascertain and nurture the desires of clients. As he said “our task is to read things that are not yet on this page“. He developed his intuition when studying Buddhism in India and felt it was a lot more important than intellect. Eknath Easwaran, mentioned in my last post, would have said the same.

There are lessons here for law firms as most like to follow what others are doing and not necessarily take the lead.  This is due to the prevalent fixed mind-set and passive-defensive styles of avoidance, oppositional and conventional behaviours, thinking and interaction that prevails, governed in many cases by an innate fear of failure. There have however been some wonderful examples in recent years, particularly in Australasia and Africa, of law firms doing some very innovative stuff!

7   You don’t have to be the first cab off the rank, but when you do go, you better offer something unique.

Jobs was often not the first cab off the rank – for instance there were many portable music players around when he brought out the iPod. But when he did take off, it was in a unique way, with a unique product, uniquely packaged.

Some law firms do this in relation to new service offerings, but in my experience, very few. Most simply go about offering very similar, (read ‘identical’) non-differentiated services that cannot be distinguished from dozens of other competing offerings. As a profession we can do a lot better!

8   ‘Reality distortion fields’

Jobs was (in)famous for getting those who worked for him or supplied his companies to ‘do the impossible‘ – called by those he worked with his reality distortion field – some felt it was founded in bullying and lying, others not – that ‘you did the impossible as you didn’t realise it was impossible’. (e.g. he saw a $300 three-button-mouse at Xerox – he demanded a one-button model for $30, and got it!) I suspect Jobs pulled this off due to his strong personality, track record and X factor in his leadership style.

I am not sure how well this would work in a law firm – I suspect that realistically one needs to find a balance – push partners  and staff but also engage them and persuade them through respect and loyalty rather than bullying and ‘bending reality‘.

9  People form opinions on services and organisations based on packaging and presentation

In Jobs’ view ‘people did judge a book by its cover‘. He made unpacking an Apple product a ritual, a special experience that set the tone for how one would experience the product. This was always a key doctrine of his.

I think there is a lot for law firms to think about and learn from this approach. There is tremendous scope for differentiation here, without going overboard. In my recent travels to attend the LEX AFRICA annual summit in Maputo, Mozambique, I saw a great example of this from the local member firm, CGA.

10  ‘The true craftsman uses good wood even for the back of a cabinet’

This is what Jobs’ Dad said to him when as a young boy he queried the need to put as much care into the back of a fence as on the front – he had said ‘nobody will ever know‘ but his Dad replied ‘but you will know‘. He developed a fetish (another) for this – even though many Apple products are sealed everything inside had to be a work of technical and aesthetic art.

The message for law firms is simply to make sure that true quality flows through every facet of the firm. Once staff and partners realise this requirement, they will adjust accordingly. It all starts at the top – if there is the requisite passion and care about innate quality in all its forms, it will flow down. Jobs wanted things ‘to be as beautiful as possible, even if they were inside the box‘.

11  He realised he and Apple didn’t always get it right first time. It is what they did next that was important.

The difference with Jobs was that he didn’t shovel a sub-standard or mediocre product, technically or aesthetically, out to the market. He was always prepared to stop, pause, reflect and re-consider, and sometimes start again from scratch. His simple test – one needed to love something before it was ready to go out to clients. This caused him to pause before sending out the first iPad because it ‘didn’t seem friendly and casual enough‘.

The message here for law firm leaders is obvious.

12   Tolerate only A players

This is an important one for law firm leaders. Jobs felt that so many managers were so polite that mediocre people felt comfortable sticking around. This had the risk of causing what he termed the bozo explosion.

I do see this all the time in law firms. Leaders tend to default to avoiding rather than addressing sub-standard performance issues, especially in people close to them – read ‘partners and managers‘. Once this happens the rot can quickly set in – people are very canny and quickly realise this weakness and everyone can subtly slip into a comfort zone which is nice for those concerned but very bad for the firm. While it should never be necessary to go to the extreme of toughness, as Jobs apparently did from time to time, a firm hand in this area is critical in my view if one wishes to seriously bump up the level of technical expertise and human calibre holding important leadership roles, like partners and managers. Nothing more definitely holds back a firm, or helps it succeed, than the way this issue is managed by leaders.

In the next part to this series we look at the importance of face to face meetings, focusing on the big picture, yes, but also on the important detail, and finally, staying hungry and foolish – the last one sound right for a law firm? I will let you decide that one.

all the best, Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International