Personal Effectiveness

Performance Reviews should have as their main purpose to assist the person concerned to reach their full potential and succeed. Unfortunately both terminology and practice don’t always serve to achieve this. This does not have to be so.

It seems a momentum is developing in the corporate world for organisations to move away from performance reviews, certainly the once a year, formal jobs. It is only a matter of time before this trend gets some traction within the professional services market. I would caution against this. The rationale about moving away from performance reviews seems to be:

  • once a year is not enough and is far too long a gap between ‘discussions’;
  • they are not popular;
  • they are not done well;
  • they are often disguised as something else (e.g. a retrenching tool);
  • they don’t achieve what they should.

While all of these points may be true in many cases it is not necessarily a good reason to not have them. It has always been a concern for me what they are termed and how performance reviews are conducted and perceived in both the corporate and professional services worlds. As a result they certainly don’t do what they are meant to and are most often even resented.


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Stick figure in thought small
Challenging circumstances often cause leaders to revert to their default leadership styles. instead, matching, switching or combining styles can be much more effective.

A senior leader of a corporate client recently expressed frustration  at one of her senior manager’s continued dogmatic, almost autocratic style of leadership, which was beginning to irk a number of people in and around his team. In his defence he was only trying to get everyone else to respond to emergency situations as assertively as he did, but it nevertheless seemed to be heading for real issues, and possibly even a disastrous situation for the manager and organisation.

It seemed that due to his background (para-military) and personality, he was defaulting to using his usual or trained style of leadership in all circumstances.  He was not consciously aware of adapting this style to match the demands of the situation or people he was dealing with.

It reminded me of an article I read some time ago by Daniel Goleman which provided a handy summary of some of these leadership styles and when they could and should be used. He includes a handy table in the article which I have shared with many clients.


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In talking about client relations lawyers like to talk about the importance of using simple English, killing clients with kindness and generally keeping things simple for clients. It seems years of training and our natural lawyerly DNA inhibits this. So, instead, we are killing clients with complexity and bloody mindedness. Clients use this as yet another reason (did they need another?) to try to get their ‘legal’ work done elsewhere (i.e. outside the legal profession), sometimes at all costs.

Yes, that complicated mess is the array of plugs and wires for an office building! Something like the complex layers of mush some lawyers seem to be making of clients’ favourite projects! (Photo Credit: Bitterjug via Compfight cc)

This was brought home to me twice in the last month in conversations with clients, both interestingly enough experienced lawyers themselves.

The first client, let’s call her Sue, heads up a very sizable charity and has recently been involved in some very large commercial transactions worth millions of dollars. As most will know many charities have been forced to fend for themselves nowadays and so engage actively in supportive commercial activities. Inevitably Sue had to engage lawyers. Her legal bill with her main firm amounted to millions of dollars per annum.


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Pollinate Energy a small social enterprise start-up and brainchild of a group of young Gen-Y Aussies has found a way to get inexpensive light into tens of thousands of Indian homes. Visit www.pollinateenergy.org.

Remembering back to when I helped run large law firms I recall how impressed we often were with the energy, enthusiasm and good ideas that came out of our young people, especially when it related to helping others. We’d heard all the stories and media reports of the so-called ‘me’ or ‘my’ generations but in practice found the opposite was generally true.

On this theme, some months back I posted an article about the things we learn from young people (involving my son and his best mate, and the funds they had raised cycling and mountain biking for a charity) – well, it turns out the story had an even happier ending, as they went on to do a third ride and managed to reach their target of $100 000 for Youth Focus, a charitable enterprise in West Australia which supports young people at risk of suicide.


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Sometimes leaders  need to be tough on some of the little things. These can have significant ramifications which are not always immediately obvious. However, because the benefits are not obvious, or seem unimportant at the time, many leaders don’t address them, also possibly feeling that they don’t want to be ‘petty’.

However, as we saw in New York between 1993 and 2001 when Mayor Giuliani tackled the horrific serious crime rates in that metropolis – he surprised everyone when he focused first on petty crime. The result was that big crime was reduced by over 50% to the point where it became relatively safe for womenfolk to walk down the streets. The same can apply here.

Meetings are just one of the examples of where addressing a few little things can have a big impact elsewhere. Allowing partners to consistently be late for meetings, fiddle with mobile devices or take calls, even if done quietly, is tantamount to what is depicted here; chaos, rudeness and ultimately will cause a break-down of communication and respect. Leaders need to nip this in the bud and set the example in doing so as it can have all manner of (positive) impacts around a firm. (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What are some little things which at first blush don’t seem to warrant making a fuss over? Let’s take meetings as an example – for instance, allowing:

  1. people to be consistently late for meetings;
  2. people to get away with simply not turning up and not notifying anyone in time or giving a reason;
  3. the checking of emails or searching the net on PDAs;
  4. people to keep their phones switched on, take calls or walk out to do so;
Just one example, but it is surprising how common this is in many firms.

What message are being sent by the transgressors?
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The life of a leader of a modern day law firm is full of variation, challenges and finding time to do everything. One of the toughest things for leaders to keep up with is attending to the small items – tracking and following up on actionable emails and other electronic or computer-generated items – those important, single emails you know you have to respond to or follow-up in some way but which are not attached to a particular project. Or it may be an important article you must track or send to someone else.  Leave these for only a day or two, or a weekend, and it quickly becomes very difficult to remember them.

One needs a simple system to track these elusive, important items.

Leaders need to develop a system to manage following up on the dozens of important, single items that crop up and need attention – via email, a web article, a tweet or a LinkedIn enquiry (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

Over time, all of us have probably worked up some or other system to try to do this – if they are anything like the ones I have tried, they are probably a bit hit and miss and sometimes more trouble than they are worth – this in turn creates its own pressure as you are always worrying that you may have overlooked an important item.

When I used to help run large law firms one of the things I used to say to new lawyer recruits on the subject of  ‘what it takes to succeed in a  law firm?’ is that I had seldom come across a successful practitioner who was not accessible, responsive and reliable (‘ARR’). I think this applies equally to leaders – that is why leaders need a simple system for following up emails and other electronic items that cross their desks.
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In a recent post I highlighted the importance of leader accessibility, responsiveness and reliability, effectively saying nothing beats these for importance. A reader suggested I follow up with a note on how a leader can achieve accessibility – here goes with my thoughts.

Accessibility is not simply a question of saying you adopt an open door policy – it is about your partners and staff feeling and believing you are accessible. It is what they think and not what you believe you are or are not doing that matters. If you are not sure, you should seek feedback. Chances are they will have a different perception on this to you. For a start don't just open the door, walk out the door to connect with others.

I remember when I was in a managing partner role I thought I did a pretty decent job of being accessible and getting around to see people – I am willing to bet though that plenty of the staff and partners didn’t think so. The reason is I have since realised its not what I thought about this that mattered, but what they experienced and felt. Too often we look at these things from our perspective and although we may feel we ‘get it’, we often don’t. It is all about the perception of others. Everyone amongst those others is different. Everyone thinks differently. So, I don’t think I gave it quite enough thought at the time and should have. I suspect many leaders don’t. They should. It is that important.

You will quite often hear law firm leaders say things like ‘I have an open door policy’ and so on. This is a good start, if it is true and if that results in people actually feeling they can come through that door, or approach the leader in the passage or canteen and discuss what it is they want to discuss or better still, offer up some innovative or strategic ideas for the firm. Too often that door can stay open all day but people will simply not cross the threshold as they don’t feel comfortable.

Rather than simply having an open door policy the key is to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable communicating and sharing their thoughts.  It seems to me to be more about stepping outside the door and being accessible outside rather than sitting in your office with the door open and assuming others will regard you as accessible based on that assumption and gesture.
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Despite the attractive laid-back hippy, flower power and surfing cultures which were around when I was young, our fairly conservative coastal-rural upbringing meant we thought more or less everything there was to learn would come through our parents. As one ‘matured’ one was tempted to think the youth of today had it easier and was not as committed or hard working as we were and so on. Then there was all the grumbling about ‘Gen X’, ‘Y’ and more recently, ‘Z’ and how each group supposedly expected different kinds of special treatment. Fortunately this talk seems to have died down.

Nearing the final day of a gruelling 1300km charity cycle ride for the two young men, James Larkan and Steve Richards – in two rides in two years they raised A$80 000 for Youth Focus, a charity dedicated to helping young people struggling with depression and potential suicide in Western Australia

I found this thinking changing for me as my own three children grew into young adulthood and as I took on managing partner roles in law firms and witnessed the talented, hard-working, articulate, confident young kids coming through our interview processes. More and more I found myself thinking the opposite was true – we had as much if not more to learn and admire from ‘them’ as they ever did from ‘us’. In fact, since then, I have never stopped learning from observing them.

30km headwinds on the penultimate day, after 7 days in the saddle, proved tough-going!

A recent example, very close to home, brought this firmly back to me. My son James, busy with final year university in Perth, West Australia and a full-day part-time job running a warehouse, joined his best mate Steve Richards in tackling a 1300 km cycle ride from Exmouth to Perth over 8 days to raise funds for the Youth Focus charity which counsels and support kids struggling with depression and potential suicide. This backed up on their 600km mountain bike ride along the famous Munda Biddi mountain bike trail the year before from the south western corner of West Australia to Perth, also over about 8 days. They raised $80000 doing these two rides. Tragically Steve lost his brother Mark to suicide 3 years ago and the rides were dedicated to Mark.  A nice touch was that James’ two sisters, Kerry and Jess, also quietly weighed in and supported the boys, organising a very successful raffle and contributing and arranging some fantastic prizes for it.

Steve’s Mum, Anne, former Australian squash representative, who with her amazing Mum, Pat, and partner Dave, remarkable people all, spent every minute of every day with the boys, said it best when the boys arrived in Perth:

I’m not going to say too much today, most of you have read the couple of updates I sent so I think you can visualise a little of the picture of this amazing journey. There have been so many stories within stories during this trip, just too many to talk about today and nearly all these stories are touching or emotional in some way.
The boys passed through some amazing countryside – the Pinnacles desert-scapes near Cervantes

It is a huge relief for me to have Steve and James here safely today!

I think I need to keep it simple. This all began because Mark died. He was living in incredible pain and took his own life, exactly three years ago today at about 7.30 tonight. It is a day to celebrate but to me, to Steve, our family and everyone who knew Mark it is terribly sad, we lost someone special.
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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:
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You can be the brightest spark in the office but if people can never get hold of you, or after they do you take ages to respond or are simply unreliable, no-one is ever sure you will do the job, professionally you are going to do yourself in.

Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the workshop, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image - Old Dairy Gerringong - ©2012)
Nothing beats being accessible, responsive and reliable. You can be the sharpest tool in the shed, but if you can't be found, don't respond well when used or don't do the job you are called on to do, people will eventually tire of using you. The same applies to professionals. (Sean Larkan image – Old Dairy Gerringong – ©2012)

I know of one professional who is highly sought after due to his niche practice and ability. As a consequence he is very busy and time-poor. So busy in fact that he has an automated message responding to his emails, always, saying ‘sorry tied up doing x, y or z. Your enquiry is important, I will revert etc’ – unfortunately, you usually don’t get a response from him, not even later. You soon get the message, his work is more important than your enquiry or message. He has made himself inaccessible, is unresponsive and in your mind will probably not be reliable to deal with. In fact he also appears to be discourteous.

On the other hand we all know professionals who are busier than most, but who still manage to be remarkably accessible, courteous, responsive and reliable – some come to mind for me – Michael Katz, chairman of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, Rob Otty, Managing Director of Norton Rose RSA, Jordan Furlong my partner in Edge International, Giam Swiegers, National CEO of Deloitte, Australia, John Poulsen managing partner of Squire Sanders (formerly Minter Ellison, Perth), Roger Collins Chairman of Grant Thornton Australia and Derek Colenbrander CEO of CareFlight Australia.

One of the most enjoyable responsibilities I had as a former managing partner of large firms was to do a short introductory talk to new recently-joined lawyers. The discussion, which we tried to make interactive, commenced by asking what they felt they would need to do or be to succeed in a large firm environment. As one would expect coming from the brightest law school graduates, the responses were varied and fascinating. However, not many picked up on these seemingly obvious attributes: accessibility, responsiveness and reliability. It was possible to emphasise these, providing examples, without names, of lawyers who did not have the best university pass or who were not regarded as the best technical lawyers in their practice area, but who rose to greatness and built substantial practices, at least in part due to these characteristics. I also emphasised that a big part of their early success would depend on their courtesy to staff, mainly support staff.

Your personal brand:
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