Difficult partners are tough work. As a professional services firm leader or senior manager, at some stage you are going to be faced with the unenviable task of dealing with one or more. As I am sure you will confirm, they can be gnarly, hard nuts to handle.

‘Difficult’ comes in various shapes and forms. They can be brilliant, top fee earners who are loved by their clients but who create trouble for everyone else, or they may be disgruntled, serial under-performers.  These distinctions don’t really matter for the purposes of this article – we can probably all recognise ‘difficult’ when we see and experience it.  Invariably, as a leader you are going to come under some form of pressure in relation to them. So, it is important you know how to respond and that you actually tackle and not avoid the challenge.

Difficult partners can be hard, gnarly nuts to deal with. They come in all shapes and forms. It is important that you don't default to simply bowing to their pressure or avoiding them. Try to find the balance. Whatever you do keep the lines of communication open and a respectful relationship, no matter what. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is tempting, even sub-consciously, to distance yourself from such a partner. Or to go soft on them and bow to their pressure in the mistaken belief this will ‘get it out of the way’. This is mainly because most of us don’t relish conflict. These unfortunately are very common courses followed by even the best leaders. My advice, don’t follow either.

If you bow to difficult partners you are effectively giving in to the play-ground bully – the issue may subside for a while when he/she realises they have their way, but it will crop up again and bite you. Also, don’t try to get rid of it by simply ignoring it. You are then guilty yourself of passive-defensive behaviour which is a clear sign of insecurity.  Difficult partners have a keen nose for this insecurity and feed on it.  It will only be a matter of time before something else comes up. You will then be on the run with a track record of having ducked these challenging  issue.

There are some real costs involved in not addressing issues around difficult partners:

  • as leader, your own confidence will start to wane. Others may even start to lose respect for you;
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Strategies which have been developed by professional service firms for areas such as finance, people, marketing, brand or innovation must align with and support a firm’s overall strategy. This alignment is important for both internal (partner and staff) and external (client and other stakeholder) consumption.

Small firms might say this is only for the larger firms, who have separate marketing and HR departments and the like. I disagree. I think every firm should and can develop a strategy around each of these key areas of practice – in many cases it only needs to be a one- or two-pager. The trick then is to align them.

Ensuring that firm, people, marketing and brand strategy aligns and does not conflict is one of the biggest challenges of strategic planning. You must achieve fusion and make sure you don't end up with a strategy gap ((c) Sean Larkan image)

What do I mean by align? It is really just about ensuring:

  • other strategies and their key objectives support firm strategy and do not conflict with the main strategy – in fact they should actively support it;
  • reality must match the key objectives – are they realistic or pie-in-the-sky? (for instance it is not uncommon for firm strategies or vica versa, people strategies, to make promises in regard to people management which are clearly not supported by the other strategy);
  • it should be clear that both strategies are firmly based around the firm’s core values;
  • what you promise you will do or will deliver must be seen to happen in practice; (e.g. what you promise about people in your firm strategy must be supported by the people strategy);
  • that resources are committed to support each of the strategies;
  • as far as possible that all strategies are seen as part of the firm’s overall strategic intent, not as separate unconnected items; and
  • that leadership is committed to all strategies and has played a role, if not in formulating/settling each, at least in signing off and checking on the implementation of each.

This alignment is easier said than done:
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Last week in Part One of this series Think Write Grow author Grant Butler defined thought leadership, talked about making thought leadership happen in practice and confirmed that just about anyone can become a thought leader. In this Part Two interview we cover thought leadership and personal brand, building trust as a benefit of thought leadership, and finally, how to unearth your goldmine of thought leadership assets.

Thought Leadership can be an important component of personal brand, principally because it builds trust among those who determine the strength of your personal brand. However thought leadership assets often lie hidden in a firm – they need to be unearthed to realize their enormous benefit.

SL: What are the similarities and/or differences between thought leadership and building a personal brand?

GB: Developing, publishing and promoting thought leadership can be a really important part of building a personal brand:

  • The key thing for professionals to consider is whether they want to be seen as someone who has innovative and market-leading ideas, and in turn whether that is going to be a key element of their personal brand profile.
  • If they do want to be known as a thought leader then they should actively share their ideas and also consider the terminology they use to describe themselves in the descriptions they use on websites, in conference flyers and elsewhere. Would they describe themselves as an ‘expert’, a ‘leading expert’, a ‘thought leader’, a ‘leading thinker’ on their topic and so on? Once their positioning is clear, they should reinforce it through their actions and their words.

SL:  In the case of building a personal brand Marty Neumeier, author of “The Brand Gap” would probably say that your personal brand is what others think, not what you think it is. Is the same true of someone being regarded as a true thought leader?
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With thanks to Patrick Hoesly (c)

In small law firms it is not uncommon to hear partners or leaders say things like ‘damn, we need a dedicated marketing person so we can get some marketing done and can get on with our work’ . In large firms they may say ‘why doesn’t marketing sort that out and free us up to do some legal work’. It seems that for law firm leaders and partners things might be about to get tougher before they get better!

In the July 2011 McKinsey Quarterly piece titled ‘We’re all marketers now authors French, LaBerge and Magill reason persuasively that engaging clients today requires commitment from an entire firm (not just the marketing folk) — and a different sort of approach and structure for marketing. Every partner and ideally every staff member has a role to play. This would obviously have implications for people management as well.

In essence the authors say:

  • Firms feel that by simply adding extra marketing bodies to address things like websites, social media and strategic communications this will do the trick – not so . . . . . .
  • Clients no longer separate marketing from the practice group or industry sector specialty services we offer – marketing and the way we deliver service is the service.
  • As a result everyone in every firm now needs to take responsibility for marketing – in some respects this parallels what has happened with HR (where everyone has a responsibility to ensure a firm’s employment practices and employment brand are supported, not just ‘HR’).
  • The buying practices of clients are now collaborative – more than ever based on word of mouth, website affirmation and objective advice about law firms that want to form relationships with them – it’s now a dialogue not a monologue.

What does this mean for law firm leaders? I think there is a message here – for both small and large law firms.

  • While the article is focused on clients I think there are also implications for law firms in their interaction with potential recruits and lateral hires.
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The report by Ben Lewis a few weeks ago in Asia Law that Singapore law firms are being forced to offer unique employment benefits to retain lawyers as demand outstrips supply in this booming region got me thinking and pondering whether there is possibly a better way . . . .

Do lawyers really dress and party like this? Sean Larkan Photo

At top Singapore law firm Rajah & Tann, lawyers can let off some steam in lounges equipped with Nintendo Wii game consoles, pool and foosball tables, and electric massage chairs. Around the corner at rival Drew & Napier, a “Ministry of Fun” coordinates a social calendar that, according to the firm’s Web site, includes trips to Thailand as well as “glamorous dinners and crazy parties where everyone from directors to trainees, boogie. . . . . “

Factors at play seem to be:

  • Scarcity of jobs & high attrition to other countries and outside law
  • Fewer law graduate recruits
  • A drop of nearly 50%  in 7-12 year experienced lawyers in the region

Blamed (by lawyers) are:

  • Unpredictable, long hours, especially compared to in-house counsel
  • Remuneration lower than near-neighbours Hong Kong (despite 20% increases in recent years)

Blamed (by firms) are:

  • Unrealistic expectations (regarding work hours for instance) on the part of young lawyers

My thoughts for law firm leaders on these developments:

  • The legal profession around the world has a habit of getting itself into such tangles – as firms we tend to follow one another like sheep – if one firm (especially a brand name firm), does something, like offer particular employment benefits, we feel we have to follow in an identical or similar way.
  • And of course young lawyers don’t miss a trick – they use these developments to negotiate their version of the ‘ministry of fun’. And so the spiral continues.
  • It is sometimes wiser to quietly take stock, bite the bullet and work out an effective people strategy for the long term, which will counter whatever the future market throws at it.
  • The problem of course is that this is challenging, it takes time, and it also invariably requires changed behaviours by partners.
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