Meet the New Boss…Strategies to Help Young Lawyers As New Managers
Kelli A. Burns, McGuireWoods, LLP
Learning how to navigate being a boss and managing people can be a difficult transition, but it is doable. Many young lawyers are thrown into the “boss” role for the very first time without much, if any, training or experience in managing people. It’s even more challenging when these new responsibilities require a young lawyer to manage individuals that may have been in their jobs longer, or have significantly more experience than they do. These situations can be challenging and often rather than cultivating a sense of pride and accomplishment, can cause even the most capable young lawyer to experience an increased amount of anxiety and stress. What’s important is to take the role in stride, communicate, and open yourself up to feedback.
Everyone make mistakes, everyone has bad days, and everyone has moments they just want to get up and walk out the door. Being a good manager is figuring out how to motivate people through those moments, help keep and improve morale, and most importantly making sure the people who report to you feel valued and appreciated while maintaining an appropriate level of productivity. There are some basic principles and ideas that can guide you through the initial struggles until you get your footing.
Take a minute to think about what it is that you need and crave from your supervisors. Chances are most of you thought about the same few overreaching ideas: (1) having a clear understanding of what is expected of you; (2) receiving feedback on your performance; and (3) getting recognition for your work. Now the trick is implementing those same desires into how you manage others.
Setting clear expectations is the foundation for effective management. Without clear expectations, you have set yourself and those under you up to fail. A prior supervisor of mine used to say “set yourself up for success” about ten times a week. It drove me crazy at the time – similar to when your parents used to say “if your friends jumped off bridge, would you?” But it is now a mantra that flows through my head regularly. Setting up for success includes knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the people you are managing – as individuals and as a whole. It may be that you sit down with each individual early on and ask them what they believe their attributes and interests are, while also observing from afar. Taking initiative to learn about your team will also allow them to develop a sense of your management style, while also building your credibility as a manager that strives to see your whole team succeed.
Another critical part of setting clear expectations is leading by example. Keeping a positive focus, avoiding venting or gossiping, and meeting your own expectations, will set the tone for your team and provides leadership. Solution based thinking, rather than the problem focused alternative, also fosters leadership qualities. Do not underestimate how your actions feed and nourish your team’s attitude.
People crave and need honest feedback on performance, whether good or bad. In providing feedback there are some golden rules to live by. Always praise in public and discuss issues with performance in private. The “sandwich” method of providing constructive criticism seems to be the most effective. Start with something positive, then provide the comments on what could be done better, and always end on a positive note. Face to face meetings are always better than an email or phone call. Who wants bad news via email? While email may be easier to say something difficult, words on a page have no emotion and there is no opportunity for mutual discussion. Instead, a face to face meeting not only shows you are truly interested in the person and their development, but it also allows for expressions and tone of voice to assist you in delivery of the feedback and minimize misinterpretations. Plan to go to their office or work area or meet in a neutral spot like a conference room – it provides a sense of ease for a person to be in their own environment (no one likes to be called to the principal’s office). The fastest way to undermine yourself and the sincerity of your attention is to look down at your phone or answer an email during a meeting, so don’t do it. Be present, it will be appreciated.
When providing any type of constructive criticism, be sincere, but specific about what behavior or actions you want to see altered. Provide potential solutions, specific ideas, or options on how to correct the course. That said, do not compare one team member to another. No one wants to hear how their older brother got straight A’s and your B’s just are not measuring up. Effective management understands and respects the individuality of the people who report to them and utilizes each person’s strengths to the betterment of the team while working on changing the weaknesses into assets.
Probably the most important thing in being an effective manager is knowing how, and when, to recognize the people you manage. Recognition is a basic need of all people. Recognition not only that they are trying to work hard and exceed expectations, but simply, that they exist. Recognition can come in many forms: praise, acknowledgment, awards, and money to name a few. As young attorneys, we do not have any real control over awards or raises, but we can give recognition by way of praise and acknowledgment. While getting to know your team, you should also understand how each member of your team would like to be recognized. Some people enjoy being praised in a public environment, some in private. Also, recognition should be consistent, just be sure it is deserved and does not become an entitlement. Contradictory, right? If people see unfairness in what prompts the recognition, it only serves to divide your team. However, if you always recognize people in the same way and on a consistent basis, it no longer becomes a special thing and becomes expected.
Recognition by saying “you did a good job” is a start, but it does not a provide powerful communication of praise. Instead, be specific about what it was that made you notice the team member – “thank you for taking the initiative to call the court and determine if our assigned judge would like a proposed order for the motion hearing.” The second statement reinforces that you appreciate the initiative as well as the action.
Recognition can also be simple. Walking around the floor, or showing your face for something other than delegating a task is recognition. Merely taking a moment to have a conversation while remembering names of children or a significant other, and details of interests of each of your team members, demonstrates that you care and understand they are human beings who desire to be noticed. Acknowledging life events, birthdays, employment anniversaries, marriage, birth of a child, etc., will also go a long way. Be sure these are noticed equally among all members.
Managing people effectively is challenging – we have all had bosses that were ineffective in one way or another – so approach it with intent and a plan. Consider what motivates you and the interaction that you desire from your superiors and apply them to your own management style.