Teaching Lawyers To Be Leaders: Our Experience With Business Style Case Studies

Teaching Lawyers To Be Leaders: Our Experience With Business Style Case Studies

At a recent Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) annual meeting, we were inspired to see more change in the legal profession and will summarize the highlights in a series of articles. The legal industry is in a stage of disruption. The major players are reshuffling, new technology is rising, and leadership roles are evolving. Although these changes may seem intimidating, the recent Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) annual meeting inspired us to face these exciting changes head-on. This series summarizes what you need to know to both embrace and shape this future.

The CLOC annual meeting was full of dynamic experiences that changed our view of the legal profession. One of the most impactful activities was the Leadership in Action workshop, led by Harvard Law School Professor Scott Westfahl, and Google head of legal operations Mary O’Carroll. The session featured a video-clip driven case-study to examine the leadership behaviors that matter most for engaging teams and departments. By watching two very different “leaders in action,” we reflected upon our own leadership behaviors, how to inspire and lead others, and how to build effective teams.  As the faculty director of Harvard Law School Executive Education (HLSEE), Professor Westfahl uses this case frequently in the innovative, week-long leadership programs that HLSEE runs for law firm partners and associates, as well as general counsel from all over the world.

Case One: The COO’s Day at a Startup in Trouble

The first video clip featured the COO of a startup company that was struggling to survive through the recession that followed the burst of the tech bubble in 2001. We watched her walking the halls, interacting with her employees and the CEO, and leading team meetings. After the video clip, we engaged in a lively debate about what the COO was doing well and where she could improve as a leader – and whether we would want to work for her!

The positives:

  • The COO tried to create energy and enthusiasm on her team. The small gesture of a handshake provided an unexpected and powerful reward to a junior team member.
  • Her open style made her come across as approachable, and she effectively asked others, “do you want my input?”
  • She set daily priorities for her team.
  • Her charisma was noticeable through her personable attitude and consistent eye contact.
  • She saw the big picture, and effectively managed at a high level without being lost in the details.
  • Some participants felt that she remained authentic by making her family a priority, even in the middle of a corporate crisis, which ensured that her employees felt free to do the same.
  • Other effective highlights included the COO maintaining personal space, modulating her energy to match those around her, efficiently providing context, staying positive, celebrating small wins, and consistently using the inclusive “we” instead of “I.”

Areas of growth:

  • She was, at times, frantic and disorganized, and occasionally lacked genuine engagement and focus.
  • She showed signs of stress and nervous energy.
  • She made occasional negative comments, periodically lacked listening skill, and spoke too fast.
  • At times, she was disrespectful to others, put people on the spot, dominated the conversation, multitasked, and artificially went through the motions of asking people about their families and hobbies.
  • Most importantly we realized and reflected upon the fact that a leader’s small, day-to-day behaviors are incredibly impactful on employee engagement.

Case Two: The CEO’s Day at the Same Startup

The second video clip featured the same company’s CEO, who has a very different leadership style than the COO, with whom he had started the company. The contrast in the leadership styles was stark, but we clearly noticed that the management team had balance and the contrasting management styles were quite complimentary.

The positives:

  • Unlike the COO, the CEO was calm, even-keeled and had a structured approach.
  • The CEO set goals for himself and his team every day.
  • The CEO was able to mitigate negativity from others and used humor to defuse tension.
  • He shared advice instead of direction.
  • He maintained transparency. We also noted the balance of the management team and how interestingly the COO and the CEO’s contrasting styles complemented each other.

Areas of growth:

  • The group noted all the instances where the CEO was disorganized, inconsiderate, ineffective, disconnected, and even odd.
  • We noticed his awkward social interactions along with his inability to celebrate people authentically.
  • He also failed to address the issues all employees cared about.

Throughout this exercise, we realized the importance of helping others feel secure and important. We learned how important it is for a leader to be self-aware of leadership behaviors, seek feedback, to lift people up in the moment, and to create a fair atmosphere where everyone has a chance to excel.

Wrapping Up: Key Lessons from the Case Studies

By looking at leadership through the lens of a leader’s day-to-day behaviors, we explored what motivates and demotivates people. Here are our key leadership takeaways:

  • Be conscious of our behavior in the moment.
  • Stop and observe how people feel in our presence.
  • Ask yourself whether you are helping people be themselves, or perhaps a better version of themselves.
  • Do employees feel that they can exceed their potential when they join your team?

Ultimately, our ability to help others feel positive about interactions with us will determine our success. Therefore, it’s worth considering our impact on the professionals we work with — both legal and non-legal.

Areas of growth for lawyers:

All of this left us wondering why lawyers rarely use business-style case studies! Why does legal education and training only include case law, with occasional basic drafting exercises? Why does our training completely miss leadership, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and numerous other basic business skills? On a wider scale, the legal profession as a whole will benefit if we learn from our colleagues in other disciplines. We rarely incorporate business principles in our legal practice, but expect our business clients to take our legal advice unchallenged. This needs to change and we are hopeful that Professor Westfahl and his colleagues at Harvard will continue their leadership in this area. They employ full-time case-writers and have started to bring their executive-focused leadership cases into the school’s J.D. curriculum to help law students be more prepared for the leadership roles they will no doubt play some day.

This article was originally published by Above the Law

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