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

Posted in Culture, Leadership, Legal Profession, Management, Strategy, Vision

As highlighted in PART ONE and PART TWO of this series, there are real leadership lessons for legal leaders from the career, achievements and life of the late Steve Jobs – who in just two stints of 9 and 14 years, founded and then transformed Apple Computer into the world’s most valuable company. These were the lessons highlighted by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography, in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required).

In this post we include a final batch of important lessons, again with liberal editing and interpretation for legal leaders.

Jobs liked engaging face to face but was tough on people, was a strategic guru but totally focused on detail, strongly believed in the confluence of the humanities and sciences and in staying hungry and foolish - so many contradictions, such a genius, and so much, with the right attitude, we can learn from him. (Image composite by Sean Larkan courtesy of Google Images - photographers unknown)

 13    Engaging face to face and death(?) to PowerPoint

Jobs felt that creativity came from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions and was a great believer in face-to-face meetings: “. . . you run into someone, you ask what they are doing, you say “wow”, and soon you are cooking up all sorts of ideas“. He designed his buildings to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations. He felt that if you did not encourage that you would lose a lot of innovation in the magic that is sparked by serendipity.

This is an interesting one for law firms. More often than not the concern is that people should not meet (for instance around the coffee urn or the cooler) to chat as it is automatically assumed to mean wasted time and fewer billable hours. My belief is that if a firm “gets the right people on the bus” i.e. disciplined people who don’t need micro-managing, it is immaterial whether there are facilities for them to collaborate and meet or otherwise. I would always default to providing such facilities as innovation and interpersonal communication is too often in short supply in law firms.

He also had a view about slide presentations, feeling they sometimes replaced thinking. He rather wanted people to engage, to hash things out – he went as far saying that people who knew what they were talking about didn’t  need PowerPoint.

I don’t quite agree in regard to the use of PowerPoint. I think the real issue is not the use of the software as such but how it is used, and what is included in the slides. After all, Jobs himself used slides, but in a very creative, innovative way. He turned a presentation into an experience for the audience.

14   Know the big picture but also focus on the details

Some leaders are great at vision and feel that is where their focus should be, while others are effectively managers who “know that God is in the details“. As Isaacson points out, Jobs was both: he had the ability to focus on overarching strategy but equally focus on the minutest but important aspects of design.

I do think law firm leaders should in some respects follow this lead. It is important to be visionary, set a clear strategy and direction, but it is also equally important in a law firm to ensure focus on some of the critical details. Law is, after all, a profession focused on details and parts of the business of law are similar. This is why I believe a legal leader needs to at least understand the key aspects of many parts (some of them support services) of the organisation. Otherwise, these too often fail to get the attention they deserve. Even more important, sometimes these can be the source of real differentiation for a firm.

For instance, I have a client which has made an art form of process systematisation and both the chairman and managing partner are passionate about this. Without their push and support, their unique differentiation which has led to the development of new and expanded practice areas, would never have happened. In my early days as a managing partner I focused on the development of linkages between bank mainframes and our property department’s networked computer systems – at the time it was revolutionary, saved a bag of time – good for us and good for clients –  without the passion and focus it might never have happened.

15   Combine the human side with the technical

Jobs managed to connect the humanities to the sciences, creativity to technology and arts to engineering. In the words of Isaacson he had a unique ability to “firewire together poetry and processes in a way that jolted innovation” and he did it with an intuitive feel for business strategy.

I think there’s a lot in this, particularly as many legal leaders now come from former practitioner ranks, with a tendency towards technical excellence and possibly a dominating left-brain, detail, focus. It is critical in my view that leaders develop the human and innovative side to their leadership style and if they can’t do it, to ensure practice group leaders or support service leaders are appointed who can. It is all about recognising the need for different styles of leadership, recruiting or developing them, and achieving a balance amongst the leadership team.

16   Stay hungry, stay foolish

Steve Jobs lived through a number of interesting social movements and followed a couple of paths to personal enlightenment – amongst others, Zen and Hinduism, meditation and yoga. This was an influence throughout his life. Right from the beginning he was a fan of the concept that technology could be our friend. He managed to ‘stay hungry and foolish’ throughout, making sure that the business and engineering aspect of his personality was complemented by a fun, nonconformist side. This led to the famous “Think Different” campaign which became a core purpose at Apple. He felt that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Legal leaders tend to operate in a very conservative, conformist environment. However, I have come across a number of leaders and firms who are anything but. They have achieved wonderful business and professional success while having a lot of fun and building superb technical legal teams and outstanding support service teams. The two can go together.

In the final post of this series I will consider what of the lessons of Steve Jobs we should not be following. There are not many, but they are important – stay tuned!

all the best, Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International