Careers: Group support

The Managing Partners’ Forum (MPF) has launched a ‘new to management’ campaign, which encourages firms to create peer groups. This, it argues, leads to better teamwork, more efficient performance of the business and the retention of talent – all leading indicators of superior profitability.

People join law firms because they are intrinsically interested in the subject matter they are going to practise. Yet there comes a time when such expertise is no longer sufficient to guarantee progression, and the challenge starts to be around non-technical areas – particularly managing others, developing relationships and exercising leadership. As people express their anger at the prospect, it is common to hear: “If I’d wanted to be a general manager, I’d have joined a general management graduate scheme”; “My firm is wasting my talents putting me in this role”; or, “If I wanted to sell, I would have trained as a salesperson.”

A culture where knowledge and expertise are highly valued also means that asking for help is seldom the done thing. Some professionals even worry about asking ‘open’ questions to clients as it might suggest that they do not know the answer. This is further exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in technical areas, there is often no right answer to management and leadership issues.

All of this leads to individuals feeling out of their depth and frustrated about the apparent huge barriers that have been placed in their way towards advancement. Some struggle over the hurdle, while others simply give up and move on.

Numerous studies have shown that the skills that make an outstanding client-handler are readily transferable into people management and leadership. The fundamental problem is that people think that they do not have the ability.

In our experience, helping others is the missing link. Once this link has been established clearly in people’s minds, the results can be quite startling.

Try to establish:
l How many of your people have left because of an unwillingness to consider being involved in ‘management’. l How many of your partners see people retention as critical to their role.

l The additional profits that your firm would make if all your partners were effective managers and all your junior people welcomed the opportunity to become managers.

A combination of training, coaching and peer groups usually works best.

Traditional management development training can be extremely valuable, particularly in thinking about how existing skills may be transferable into a new role. However, this route seldom changes beliefs and values.

What is needed is a ‘safe’ environment to discuss the challenges of a fundamental change in job expectations, moving away from the expertise that many have grown up with into the more nebulous world of general management.

Ernst & Young and other firms have set up internal peer group schemes to encourage those at similar stages in their careers to confide in each other about the challenges facing them as their careers take them into management. Peer groups can make an enormous difference in changing the way people feel about a situation. Some are informal get-togethers, others are self-directed/action-learning groups working on specific tasks. The realisation that people are not on their own can be very liberating. Equally, hearing how others address a situation, perhaps leading to the problem being ‘reframed’, can be very helpful.

So what is required to sustain a peer group? Successful peer groups require a number of elements. The same four to six people meet for a couple of hours monthly in the firm’s time at a neutral location for one to two years. At the outset, each participant must clarify in writing and share the benefits that they are seeking from being in the group with fellow group members.

Participants must be honest in describing the challenges they face and be willing to ask each other for help. Some people, particularly high flyers, will resist sharing their problems with those they see as competitors for internal promotion. Such people may prefer external groups.

Firms must ensure that anyone who does not show up for meetings is suitably reprimanded.

An external facilitator should be appointed to each group to kick-start meetings, build group dynamics, and spot those who are most uncomfortable. This should prevent too much time being spent on discussing ‘what’s wrong’ with a firm. As groups develop, the facilitator may only need to attend occasional meetings to provide the necessary external stimulus.

Facilitators should organise individual meetings with each participant on a regular basis to assess progress and confirm that benefits are still being derived. The notes of such meetings should be shared with the firm only if this is approved by all participants. And firms should not attempt to find out what takes place at peer group meetings unless the facilitator advises that action is required to resolve a problem.

While most firms will start by forming internal groups, experienced firms are now looking to sign up some of their people for external groups, which offer several benefits.

The learning experience is much broader and deeper in an external group. Those that have worked for only one firm are usually amazed at how differently other firms do things. This is a common feature of mergers. But although people may say that their firm is unique, they quickly find that other firms have similar expectations.

As professional firms broadly serve clients in the same way, a group consisting of professionals from law, accountancy, surveying, investment banking and management consultancy, for example, results in enormous value. Recognising that firms are understandably nervous when their people are exposed to those from other firms (Will they move? Will they respect confidentiality? etc), those from competing firms are almost always placed in different peer groups.

The MPF sees peer groups as an excellent way for those new to management to build self-confidence in their practice management skills.

Peter Matthews is a partner at Ernst & Young and DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary managing partner Nigel Knowles is chair of the managing partners’ forum