Food for thought
What cuts the mustard when law firm management are looking to motivate staff?
“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.” Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1923).
Motivation drives us to achieve our goals. It enables partners and managers to achieve the commercial objectives of a firm through their workforce. Wherever it exists it derives from leadership, the setting of the objectives and tone of the firm. But it is developed, sustained or destroyed by management and culture.
Growth and business development are fuelled by motivation and long-term thinking. Let’s try to keep the tanks full and, while not ignoring the short term, see where we might go long term. I propose to examine all aspects of motivation in the next few editions of PCA. As ever, I welcome feedback and ideas from readers.
First, some perspective: I shall paint a bleak but familiar scenario in this edition, which many will have experienced. Then in later columns I will draw out what goes wrong when we are just trying to do right and consider how to get to where we want to go.
So, you are a partner in the ancient practice of Smallproud, Ratnage & Co. It does not matter what type of law firm it is. It may or may not have a strong private client emphasis, but let us assume it is part of the mix. In any event, you know that growth is better than stagnation and shrinkage and that it is achievable by adopting a go-getting attitude and by adding new or improved services.
You hold a buffet lunch for staff. You buy in mixed sandwich platters, load bowls with Kettle Chips, fill large glass jugs with orange juice and indulge your secret passion for mini pork pies and cocktail sausages. You present a glorious, PowerPoint-assisted vision of the firm’s commercial future with commensurate monetary rewards for all “if we just pull together and go for it...”.
You are gratified when all the staff, wiping residual chicken tikka from their lips, tell you enthusiastically that they also like the sound of it. And they do. That’s genuine. You sleep soundly that night dreaming of one day being able to retire.
But you become aware that only the people who always run with your ideas, namely young Joe Featherstonehaugh and the less young but ever-willing Marina Littlefair, are running with this one. As for the rest, especially Archie ‘my, my, time just passes me by’ Butterball, well – nothing doing there.
The apparent enthusiasm, so recently displayed, has not translated into new clients, a commitment to the new training or to bills delivered and paid. You are actually becoming a little angry at their attitude, especially when Butterball asks you when the next free buffet is coming up. He clearly likes that motivational foodstuff.
Billing is down and you also need to explain this apparent failure to your partners. They told you it was a waste of time and that the staff simply needed to knuckle down and work harder and longer. “Just filling in a timesheet properly is not hard.” And as for Butterball he needs “managing out”.
You can hear the snip, snip of scissors against ?white cardboard and scent a whiff of glue as someone prepares a dunce’s cap for you to wear at the next board meeting. You know your staff recognise that your colleagues have different ideas to you that involve a greater focus on working harder and longer and ?that worries them. You jolly them along while a ?heavy little alien seems to wiggle around and grow upset in your solar plexus.
You realise, while taking a shower one morning, that most of your staff don’t really ‘get’ the idea of working to benefit ‘the firm’ even though they are a participating part of it. They know your big idea is valid but it does not throw their motivational switch. They do not really want to ‘go get’ or change what they do. So they don’t. Their attitudes and their actions remain unchanged. You step out of the shower resolved to try again.
You introduce incentive schemes. They include bonuses, profit-related pay and a cool new cafeteria-style scheme where they pick their own reward from a ‘menu’. You think you have created more of an up-market bistro than a cafeteria judging by the cost. This fits in with the thinking of your partners. They believe it will work because money is ‘well known’ ?to be the main motivator. “Why else do they come ?to work anyway?” mutters old Bugle the senior partner (for life).
You ensure the board minutes represent the fullness of their praise for these tactics. It also means you can all ‘legitimately start cracking the whip’ ?on meeting higher financial targets – ‘... and time ?is finally up for Butterball’. This is, after all, what ?business development really means. Well, it’s what ?they mean anyhow. But at least you feel a little ?more secure again...
You have created an obvious link between go getting and getting trained up in the new stuff and getting more cash. A + B = C. Neat. But to be absolutely certain of success you do some overdue reorganisation, ensuring that the known talents are now all neatly lined up with the needs of the project. Featherstonehaugh is moved from the branch to the main office and Marina Littlefair is boosted in authority to junior senior assistant associate solicitor. You introduce new processes designed to generate and manage more work in a convenient fashion. You buy in specialist help for ‘the team’ and hire extra support. What more can you do now? You sit back and watch...
Very little happens. Featherstonehaugh and Littlefair, who always run with an idea do so again, excepting they now get extra money. This nibbles away at your bottom line. The rest don’t believe they can go get effectively. For all the training they still lack the confidence that would turn your ideas into a properly implemented plan. For the most part they don’t want to implement it: “I have more than enough to do already!” is the subliminal cry. And if they force themselves to do it, as you see some trying to do, they just feel bad that they are going through the motions.
Potential clients can tell they don’t really believe in what they are doing. So there is a no sale. ?The attitude of the staff is still ‘no can do’. There is no buy in. And that means no business development plan can succeed as it should, not this one, not any one. Your partners are mystified that the obvious link with the money motivator is not operating properly. You buy a large pack of mini ?pork pies just for yourself.
Unfortunately there is some extra money in the mix. So everyone thinks about it. People are getting upset with the go-getting Featherstonehaugh and Littlefair for go getting all the cash. They are getting upset because: (a) they are not a go-getter type so it is unfair on them; (b) they have little opportunity to enter the race for cash on account of their role in the business even if they are a go getter; (c) they have little chance to close a deal individually which triggers the payment of the extra cash. They also get upset with themselves for ‘not being up to the mark’. Only Butterball retains his calm and he now holds court as the timeless village sage. There is disunity, friction and dissatisfaction: “We have rubbish management.”
You sigh and abandon the incentives. This causes Featherstonehaugh and Littlefair to crash out in a fury. They tell you that they were only working so hard because of the extra money you are paying them. No extra money = no deal. You point out that this contradicts everything you have hitherto thought and known about them as self-motivators. They tell you precisely what they think of you and leave. You are now de-motivated and surrounded by a group of depressives who have an ‘I knew it would turn out like this’ look in their eyes. Old Bugle tells you he has a new idea that will sort everything out. It’s called ‘the carrot and stick approach’. You bludgeon him to death with your laptop. n