Leading through brilliant basics
The start of 2024 gives leaders a chance to reinforce elementary strategies that will help their teams to better engage, deliver on key metrics and avoid burnout, writes Keegan Luiters.
In its 2023 Australia: State of the Legal Market Report, the Thomson Reuters Institute highlights that an emerging trend with Australian lawyers is their relatively high levels of discontentment compared with global benchmarks.
Interestingly, greater compensation was not listed as a top reason for lawyers seeking to change firms. This is a double-edged sword for law firms – with less wages pressure being a positive, but non-financial factors for lawyer retention often requiring more systemic approaches.
This provides context for firms focusing on leadership performance in 2024. Being able to establish conditions that attract, retain and develop talented lawyers will continue to be important for firms that are looking to perform well.
The role of leadership includes supporting those conditions, which inevitably are less related to one-off activities and are an accumulation of the consistent behaviours demonstrated by leaders. For that reason, identifying and implementing key leadership behaviours is a worthwhile exercise in which firms should engage.
New year, new motivations
The start of any new calendar (or financial) year often coincides with leaders seeking to establish or improve their ways of working. This is a version of the well-established ‘fresh start effect’.
Researchers have noted an increase in the likelihood of individuals engaging in goal-directed behaviours when they think they are embarking on a new chapter in their life (or calendar). When applied well, leveraging the fresh start effect can act as a catalyst for sustainable changes in performance behaviours, which can lead to better outcomes for leaders, their teams and their firms. Of course, there is an equal risk that a poorly applied fresh-start effect can lead to minimal long-term shifts in behaviours and outcomes.
To increase the chances of behavioural changes becoming ingrained for leaders at your firm, I recommend a simple (but not necessarily easy to implement) approach. The recommended approach is for leaders to be brilliant at the basics.
The beauty of being brilliant at the basics is that it can provide clarity and focus to the activities to which leaders commit. The emphasis on basics highlights that, most often, we do not need to reinvent or radically alter our approach to leadership. It emphasises that most leaders are aware of actions that they can take that will lead to better outcomes.
While this article provides some suggestions, the actions are highly context specific for each leader and their firm.
The emphasis on brilliance reminds leaders that it is not simply a matter of going through the motions and ticking boxes. It is about executing on the fundamental activities at a high level – with care, attention and commitment.
The juxtaposition of brilliance and basics is a powerful reminder and touchstone for leaders. Getting this right within your firm can liberate leaders – who often feel overwhelmed by the possibilities of what they could be doing – by focusing on the basics. It can also inspire leaders to remain focused on turning up at their best in their interactions with the value given to brilliance, not mediocrity.
Defining the ‘basics’
A good question to consider is that of the ‘basics’. What are the behavioural cornerstones of leadership within your firm? These are the actions that, if every leader consistently performed them, would lead to better outcomes for themselves, their teams and the firm.
Further, it is worth encouraging leaders to consider this question for themselves. What are the actions that they need to consistently take in the year ahead to avoid burnout, engage their teams and deliver on key metrics? Given that each leader in your firm will have unique experiences and circumstances, there may be a broad range of basics that your leaders identify – from physical health, to inbox management, to a regular cadence of reflection.
There is no definitive list of basics that can act as a prescription for your firm’s leaders. However, below are some areas to consider:
- Conversations and communication – the foundation of any leader’s engagement with their team is their communication. The types of conversations that leaders have – and how they have them – is central to a leader’s impact.
- Wellbeing – across industries, including the legal profession, there is mounting evidence of the negative impact of depleted leadership. Leaders being able to maintain and support the wellbeing of themselves and others is often a valuable basic on which to focus.
- Workload management – leaders in law firms need to divide their energy, attention and time across demands including business development, client work, managerial and administrative tasks, and relationships (within and beyond the firm). Having strategies and structures that support leaders to be able to deliver in all of these domains is a basic worth mastering.
The additional bonus of leaders focusing on brilliant basics is that it demonstrates another key pillar of great leadership. That is, to role model the behaviours which are valued and valuable.
Leading through brilliant basics supports others to focus on the brilliant basics within their role. Defining and delivering on brilliant basics is a worthy pursuit for leaders in law firms at the start of 2024 – or any fresh start.
Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who applies evidence-based approaches in his work with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. His first two books are Team Up and Teamership. They explore how and why to improve collective performance across teams. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information, or connect with him on LinkedIn.
Byrne, A., Dionisi, A.M., Barling, J., Akers, A., Robertson, J., Lys, R., Wylie, J. and Dupré, K., 2014. The depleted leader: The influence of leaders' diminished psychological resources on leadership behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(2), pp.344-357.
Dai, H., Milkman, K.L. and Riis, J., 2014. The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), pp.2563-2582.
Thomson Reuters Institute, 2023 Australia: State of the Legal Market Report: Prosperity in the shadow of Damocles.