My wife and I bought a small farm three years ago. As the grazing was leased out to a beef farmer the quality of the boundary fencing was paramount. The lady we purchased from told me up-front (and has reminded me ever since!) – ‘now Sean, remember to walk your fence-lines‘.  She was essentially saying check them regularly for breaks, leaning or weak posts, or other issues, but also to see what was really going on around the farm – ‘you never know what you may pick up‘.

This advice reminded me of my days helping to run large law firms – I happened to enjoy walking around, at least weekly, talking to staff and partners in various sections of the firm – apart from being enjoyable, it was amazing how much one picked up and could convey in those informal interactions.

Remember to walk the fence-lines of your firm - talking to partners and staff - you will pick up on issues, identify achievements and be showing an interest in those who make the wheels go round (Sean Larkan image ©: Austral Eden region, NSW)

I did notice though as I got busy, or we had to deal with one or other crisis, this practice somehow seemed to slip into the background, priority-wise. Sometimes too, one may be tied up with a merger – ‘important stuff‘, and it always got priority. It always took time to get back to the walking around ritual, each time reminding myself – ‘can’t let that drift’.

I had this message brought home to me again last week when the editor from the publisher of my upcoming book on law firm branding arranged a new time-table for me. I had fallen behind my schedule – she said with my consent she would ‘walk my fence-line’ i.e. keep closer tabs on me. What a nice way to say ‘listen, I am keeping an eye on you – time to start delivering‘!

There are a number of benefits flowing from walking the fence-line:

  • keeping in touch with what is truly going on out there;
  • getting grounded;
  • getting to know your people and their names;
  • meeting someone who has recently arrived and not been introduced to you;
  • seeing people on other floors or buildings;
  • providing news of and support for important firm initiatives;
  • related to the previous point, explaining or re-iterating the firm’s guiding principles, vision and strategy – it is so much more powerful to do this in casual conversations;
  • reminding yourself and others that no matter how busy you are with strategic issues, nothing is more important than being in touch with your people;
  • getting yourself out of your ‘ivory tower’, physical or otherwise;
  • taking an interest in others and their issues;
  • hearing about achievements, the news of which you can then spread while on your rounds e.g. a lawyer who has recently had a good business building win;
  • picking up on issues which can then be quickly relayed to the appropriate person for attention e.g. telling the HR manager a young lawyer is unhappy or out of work, or telling a partner in resources that a planning and environment partner is keen to be cross-sold to some resources clients;
  • a time to re-affirm your faith in your managers and senior staff – hearing of something that needs attention and instead of trying to deal with it yourself, tell the staff member it will be referred to the manager and he or she will make sure it is addressed; and
  • it provides you with real-life stories for your next staff or partner talk.

Get someone else involved:  it is also not a bad thing to get someone else to ‘walk your fence-line’ for you from time to time, and provide you with independent feedback.

  • I do a lot of this for firms following organisational reviews.
  • My new tenant on my farm did the same for me recently – he toured the farm, including my ‘fence-lines’, and pointed out a couple of areas that needed attention – he even provided a neat written report – we are attending to them before he takes over!
  • LEXBLOG effectively did this for me recently in relation to this Legal Leaders blog – they made a number of excellent suggestions for improvement and initiated the changes in a very good time-frame – I hope you like it!

An essential thing – while walking around, if you undertake to do something (and there will always be something), make sure you do it, and follow-up/follow-through.

There are also some very good related points made in a Mind Tools post I read recently – it referred to MBWA i.e. management by walking around – essentially what I have been talking about here. It is worth a read.

all the best, Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International