Small wins, big results

Our 8 year old has recently bought home an idea following tea at another friends house (the “cool” family, the one that he wishes we were more like) and has made it mandatory for our meals. As it’s his idea he also gets to set the rules.

It’s a conversation starter: “what has been the best and worst thing about your day?” He will then go on to frame the question by telling us the answer has to be about home or work/school.

Invariably our 3 year old will say the worst thing about her day has been “getting told off”, an answer that’s not only used by the children of the family!

When I listen to the answers we’re often celebrating a small act of work or school progress. Whether it is getting 10/10 on a spelling test, learning to write the letter ‘b’, a DNA hit on a small piece of evidence or successfully implementing a small change into process. It’s just the same when the subject is ‘home'; doing something amazing on Minecraft (which I do not understand), finishing a Princess puzzle, adding on another 10 to the gazillion press ups that hubby already does or me surviving more than 30 minutes of sustained exercise.

These small wins in the workplace or tiny little acts of achievement are not going to change the world but they’re what can turn a moderate day into a good day or shine a bit of light on what might feel like a hopeless situation (the DNA hit being a classic example for my hubby). At home we tell the kids that they’re small steps on a longer walk. The same can be said for work.

There’s a book on the subject which you can read, although I would say that if you already know that small wins make you happy it’s not going to teach you something new but, it might help contextualise and explain how you can use those small wins to even greater effect in the workplace. The book is called ‘The Progress Principle’ written by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. It’s published by Harvard Business Review Press. One of the exercises it promotes is a Daily Progress Checklist which examines catalysts for progress (what went well and events that you want to try to repeat) with ‘nourishers’ such as respect, encouragement and support and offsets those with inhibitors (the barriers to progress) and their associated ‘toxins’ such as disrespect, neglect and lack of encouragement. The outcomes are wrapped up into the concept of the ‘inner work life’. It all ends with an action plan.

Like most management books I read there are bits that I take and bits that I disregard. I’m certainly not writing out an action plan at the end of the day but I know I’m taking the small wins and working out how they can be repeated. The book suggests “using small wins to ignite joy, engagement and creativity at work”. I’d (in typical lawyer fashion) worry about igniting anything in the workplace but I get the sentiment.

Writing this blog is a small win for me. Happy days.

Law With A Bit on the Side

As a result of movement of roles and responsibilities within the business it is, after 8 years, time for me to hand back the keys to the HR cupboard.

Even for an in-houser it’s still a bit unusual for a lawyer to be involved in HR at the coal-face but there are many reasons why it’s good to take on an area that stretches personal boundaries and allows the role of ‘legal’ to become more embedded across the company.

The request to take over the reins of HR within a company staffed above a 250 headcount didn’t arise as a result of somebody identifying my ‘natural HR flair’. It came about because a vacancy arose and I had strong opinions on the role that HR can play in shaping and developing a business. I put my hand up and volunteered because I wanted a challenge and genuinely believed I could make a difference. I also laboured under the notion that I really rather liked people.

Working for a business which included a call centre and had an average employee age in the low 20’s operating in the personal injury ‘market’ I knew my sector but human resources? My experience of HR came from being an employee and a qualification in employment law. Really what else could one need?! I look back now and think my employers must have had a great deal of faith in me.

So much of what I did as an in-house lawyer naturally blended into the HR role but there was an awful lot that did not. The natural areas that my ‘lawyerly’ experience enabled were:

Corporate Governance – drafting policies and procedures becomes a different skill when you’re also having to work out effective implementation and delivery and incorporation into staff handbooks and training delivery. The work doesn’t stop at the crossing of the t’s and dotting of the i’s. Its about understanding your audience and the varying ways people comprehend and absorb information. I get teased about my use of diagrams and flow charts but this has been a true evolution: taking my lawyerly words and sculpting them into succinct relevant messages.

Compliance – A variation on the governance theme but taking the ‘rules’ and embedding them into working practice through the most efficient and effective means. In short creating solutions to help the work force and the business remain compliant and doing it without creating a book of rules.

Employment Rights and Responsibilities – the law creates the framework for employer/employee relationships. If an employment tribunal is the worst outcome for an employer and employee working backwards what did we have to achieve in our day to day management to make sure we avoided this outcome? This is probably the reverse approach to many HR professionals but I’ve always been quick to point out that I’m not one of those! One of the biggest steps in this area was the practical workings of the disciplinary process. Lawyers and risk are not always easy bed-fellows. I have a tendency to think towards the worst outcome. Let’s call it catastrophic thinking! However, it is a very useful training and development tool to use when thinking about the implications of management and the way that people conduct themselves in the work environment. It helps frame risk and to understand the attitude of individuals and the business to it.

Complaint Handling (Grievances) – this did have a natural fit because as a lawyer I’m used to dealing in complaint making but I’ll write more about this under the un-natural heading!

And now to some of those things that I found challenging with my existing skill-set and perhaps to demonstrate that taking on a role such as this has really been a massive self-development exercise!

Complaint Handling – Also known as dispute resolution or the grievance procedure. I recognise that I am a fixer. Give me a problem and I will find a solution and implement it. It’s a skill but its not necessarily the only one needed when 2 (or more) people have differing views or when a line has been crossed and needs to be addressed. Luckily the people in the HR Team are natural mediators. I sent myself back to school to learn mediation skills. To ‘un-lawyer’ as the ACAS trainer politely put it. My tendency to adopt a quasi-judicial position may well lend itself to a future career but was not necessarily the right approach for harmonious dispute resolution (“here’s the solution now off you go”). Self development point number 1 (of many).

People – You’ll recall when I started I said it was because I liked people. What I should have said was that I thought I understood people. I thought that I ‘got’ people. What quickly transpired is that I ‘got’ the lawyer mentality, the framework, the progression pathways and the drivers within the legal environment. Take me out of that environment and make me responsible for HR which includes only a handful of people from a similar environment and suddenly I’m saying: they did/said/thought that? Why on earth would they do/say/think that?

In 8 years I have learnt more about people and what drives and motivates that I ever imagined I would. At times I have revised my position on my statement that ‘I like people’. At times I have put my head in my hands. I’ve had my patience and my temper tested to its limits but I’ve also had the chance to work with some amazing people and in some challenging circumstances. My experience is enriched from the opportunity and I know that it’s allowed me to get closer to the business. I also hope, in a small way, that I’ve been able to share a bit of knowledge and have helped educate those I’ve worked with. If I have been able to demonstrate that the law can enable as well as control I’ll be happy with that.

With a few caveats I’d wholly recommend the experience to in-housers who want to expand and challenge themselves. I could have stuck to my in-house legal role but taking on another dimension whilst also holding the reins of complimentary areas has really widened my view of the interaction between law, business and the people that fuel and drive what we do.

Of a certain age…

This week a gal at work had a birthday. It’s not unusual but as a special treat her colleagues decided to decorate her area with the standard balloons, glitter and not so typical pictures of Cliff Richard. Why you ask? Well because she hates him. It’s therefore very funny.

After I’d broken into a few lines of “congratulations” to groans all round I started to recount a story of life with my mother a die-hard Cliff Richard fan. How she would subject me to “treats” such as the Cliff Richard tour where he reunited with the Shadows. I got to travel on a bus all the way from Suffolk to Birmingham with at least 45 women of a certain age who all loved Cliff. Really loved Cliff. When the coach got to the stadium they decamped en masse to the souvenir stand. My mum got me a brochure. I was 12 and mortified.

As my colleagues laughed I shuddered from the memory turning to leave the room I stopped. Women of a certain age? A mother embarrassing her child? My mother would have been about 40.

As I dropped my son that morning local radio had played ‘Run DMC‘ and I’d sung along with the window down while he stared at me and sunk into his seat as we pulled into the school car park…..

Brief Chats

Towards the end of 2012 (together with my wonderful friends Felicity Gerry and Kim Evans) I started a series of podcasts through the University of Law’s Future Lawyers Network. The concept (thought up by Kim) was simple. Take the chats we had with our lawyer friends in the pub and reproduce in a more controlled alcohol free environment to let aspiring lawyers have a peek into the working lives of lawyers who’ve made it. Between the three of us we are really lucky to have access to a great ‘black book’ of potential guests. As the podcasts were limited to 5 or 6 we tried to get a flavour from as wide a scope as possible. Not easy given the places and roles that lawyers end up nowadays.

For posterity I thought I would add the podcasts to my blog posts. Maybe you will click on the links and have a listen..in fact I hope you will because the guests have been fabulous and the UOL’s production team have done a wonderful job dealing with a collective first for all of us: presenting a podcast.

First up we had Tom Kilroy, GC of Misys. Tom talked all about journey from science student to temporary stewardship of the CEO role at Misys via a work trip to the Star Wars ranch. Tom gives great advice on compiling your CV and covering letter that is relevant to us all! If you want to listen click here!

Next up was Francis Fitzgibbon QC of Doughty Street Chambers a podcast that covers a huge range of topics from how Francis fell into the law, his human rights work, working life within a chambers and whether there is a place in the courtroom for theatrics. If you want to listen click here.

After an inhouser and a barrister it was time for a Solicitor so where better to go than straight to Solicitor of the Year 2012, David Enright? David is a fabulous narrator and his route to the accolade has plenty of twists and turns from the man who started out his working life carrying bricks on a building site to the human rights issues surrounding ‘Bigger, Fatter, Gypsier’. If you want to listen click here.

First amongst equals, President of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, Nick Hanning was the next guest. It was recorded the night before a Council meeting that he and I were attending. Nick speaks brilliantly about the role of the Chartered Legal Executive and his job as President whilst holding down a day job running a law firm. Nick also answers gives a forceful answer to my question “are Chartered Legal Executives second class legal/lawyer citizens?” If you want to liste click here.

All 4 podcasts published so far have one consistent theme that we didn’t realise when we started. All 4 interviewees did not start out intending to enter the law.

We’re waiting the final edit of the final podcast which I hope is going to finish the series brilliantly. It’s the turn of the ladies…

Speaking Truth To Power

Here’s a blog I wrote for Legal Futures (published November 2012) which can be found here:

I regularly sit down with people from teams across the business to talk about the performance of law firms on our panel and firms that have made enquiries about membership. One of the agenda subjects is ‘quality’. It’s a hard thing to define but generally we are asking ourselves ‘does what we have learnt since the last meeting that may change our view of any of our panel firms, past or present?’. We talk about many things but pay a lot of attention to customer feedback, good and bad.

The customer and employee led feedback often raises small isolated issues but sometimes it’s possible to see patterns start to emerge. From time to time we see patterns developing that are difficult to categorise but are enough to form a general concern that attention to customers does not appear as high on a law firm’s agenda as we think that it should be.

So, I always take the stance that it’s appropriate to asked firms for their thoughts. Are there any patterns or particular circumstances that may inform our views? Many firms are happy to oblige but, from time to time, we will receive a response that, rather than allay our concerns, does more to confirm them. Reduced to soundbites, they can follow the ‘attack is the best form of defence’ methodology, including comments such as: it’s not them, it’s the clients, they (the client) have behaved unreasonably, the clients have misunderstood, the work they do is of high quality or our perception is incorrect because we have called at the wrong time or spoken to the wrong person.

When I receive this type of response I wonder whether I should break it down, explain it to them but I sometimes get the feeling that the firm or the individuals will not be listening – it’s a stance I’ve seen before and I suspect I will see again. There is nothing customer focused about this type of response, no desire to take a look at behaviour or to use the experience as a learning curve.

In approaching the firms I’m not looking for some ‘cap in hand’ response but an insight into whether the behaviours that we are seeing are part of a bigger pattern or had perhaps been simply an unhappy but unusual set of circumstances.

If it is the case that a request triggers some element of ‘the truth’ about the firm’s behaviour, where do they go from January 2013? That is the point at which the COLP and COFA roles become effective. Maybe this firm’s COLP (compliance officer for legal practice) nominee will be the person who responds to my request or maybe someone else is elected (!) to hold that responsibility. The COLP may act as guardian of compliance but cannot act alone or be the firm’s ‘moral compass’. To be effective and to thrive under outcomes-focused regulation (OFR), the business needs to develop the ability to look at its behaviour critically, to question practices and to seize the opportunity to use the not-so-pleasant experiences as a chance to develop.

OFR doesn’t mean accepting the blame when no wrong has been committed and it doesn’t mean conducting your work in an un-commercial fashion. But, for the customer-focused outcomes, it does mean being alive to the consequences of your actions. To use one of the responses given above, if your client is confused and doesn’t understand, then the explanation is not pitched at the right level. Take a moment, consider the information that has been given and ask whether it could be delivered differently.

I doubt the customer suspects the legal work is poor. It’s the method of delivery that has befuddled them. If you have a number of similar complaints, then you should be looking to influence change. It could be one person, a training style or a standard letter that needs a makeover but sometimes it goes deeper than that.

The challenge for any COLP is possessing the ability (and nerve) to speak truth to power. That power can come in many forms ranging from the senior partner to the fiery young paralegal to the family owned firm staffed by relatives. When I ask for feedback from firms, it is because I generally have negative views from customers or employees, although I recognise that the feedback may come from a small percentage of cases run by a firm and it’s possible that everybody can have an ‘off’ day that isn’t indicative of their general behaviour.

You don’t have to look far outside of the law for examples of the powerful not listening; Lance Armstrong is alleged to have had so much power within ‘Team Armstrong’ that he was able to influence the careers of fellow athletes. Reports suggest that if you weren’t onboard with what went on, you were overboard; a culture of fear influenced and drove unacceptable behaviours.

Then there is the BBC, an organisation filled with reporting lines and hierarchies that was virtually swimming in information. But despite the bottom-to-top reporting lines, information was not shared between divisions and it appears that sufficient weight was not placed on the information that they had; the culture of personality produced powerful individuals who appear to have been able to act without consequence or censure.

A culture of fear, the presence of strong and powerful individuals and of individuals or businesses ignoring or listening but not hearing – headline-grabbing and horrific stories but if you boil away the content and listen to the themes, there are lessons for the legal environment.

When I give feedback to law firms (those that I work with, instruct and those that I encounter on the way), the information is given not with the intention of damaging an individual’s career or attacking the virtues of a law firm. It’s given because it is information about the service the law firm is providing. I don’t know a single legal business that yet represents the ‘finished product’. We all continue to learn, to develop and to evolve and we do that through the receipt and assessment of information.

In 2013 the responsibility to act on information becomes that of the COLP and they, along with their law firms, must ensure they control the information and learn from it.

If they don’t, the COLP may possess the ability to speak, to hold to account and to challenge. But if the power is not listening, what then?

Hunger Games

Indulge me… 

It’s future and the anniversary of the apocalypse that crushed the revolution and wiped out District 13.  It’s time for the annual reaping of Tributes to be sent to the Capitol to participate in the annual Hunger Games.  As the Capitol languishes at the heart of the 12 Districts, its inhabitants molly coddled and overfed, anticipation rises for the games that are designed to produce one victor who will reap the spoils for their District for the coming year and establish a comfortable future for them and their family.  Income and activity in the Capitol has risen around the games as sponsors, designers, stylists and betting facilities compete for the right to be involved.  The fight to the death has spawned an industry.

Reading the Hunger Games I couldn’t help but think of the legal services market.  That thought was quickly followed by another one….maybe I need a hobby?

If you haven’t read the Hunger Games (book 1) (or watched the movie) here’s a bit of a plot spoiler.  If you don’t want to know look away now, I’ll tell you when it’s safe to come back:

  • There was a revolution
  • The revolutionaries were overthrown by the Capitol, their land destroyed
  • North America is now a Capitol surrounded by 12 Districts
  • Each year to remind districts of its power the Capitol holds the ‘Hunger Games’
  • The Districts hold a lottery to produce 1 male and 1 female ‘Tribute’ from their young
  • Tributes head to the Capitol are made over and appeal to the public through interviews for support; sponsors will go with the people’s vote
  • Tributes compete for sponsors; more sponsors equals greater chance of support during the games
  • The Games create an artificial environment which can be controlled by the game makers to serve their own ends
  • 24 enter, 1 leaves.
  • The Games are filmed Big Brother style, edited and viewing is mandatory for the citizens

Whilst this may not automatically make you think of legal services market I’ll leave you to pick through the bullet points and wonder.  What really pricked my attention were the strategies employed by the tributes once they entered the ring.

The games start and people die almost immediately.  Some because apathy takes them over; death is inevitable so they walk towards it and welcome it.  A few engage in brutal combat inevitably sustaining life threatening injuries which mean that they take out the competition but with fatal consequences for themselves.  Some of the stronger ‘career’ tributes who have been in training group together recognising shared qualities and strengths but these collaborations are flawed; at the end there can be only one and it’s not long before they start to destroy one another.  Some resourceful individuals identify a single piece of equipment that they need.  Something that is essential to their survival and retreat for a moment to form their own strategies in their own time and under their own control; they know their strengths and understand the territory that they suit.  These resourceful individuals fare well but in spite of this (or rather to spite them) the gamemakers meddle with the environment creating additional dangers and forcing tributes together for the delight of the Big Brotheresque audience.  These resourceful tributes may not have had years of training but they are agile and have lived a life where the ability to adapt is a deeply ingrained survival instinct.  Even within this resourceful group there are injuries and one tribute fails to evade an attack and is severely wounded.  Vulnerable, exposed and at significant risk he lies down and covers himself with a camouflage of mud and leaves.  Too weak to fight he waits things out in the hope that nobody steps on him. 

If you were looking away you can look back now; plot spoiler done.  I have no conclusions only observations but if you want to read something a little deeper on the subject of the Legal Services Act 2007 implementation one year on I’d direct you to the blog by Professor Stephen Mayson.