Law firms have always relied on technically brilliant lawyers to help build their reputation. In the future this may well not be sufficient.

Firms need to understand how to grow leaders, provide direction and alignment with its values and DNA, and inspire commitment from disparate geographies and practices. Those that prepare their finest partners for being part of an effective executive committees (ExCo) will enjoy a crucial sustainable advantage in an industry that is certain to keep changing.

The typical structure of most law firms is a partnership where at the top is an elected executive committee (ExCo/board). The ExCo members are more often than not elected by their peers to formal positions of leadership and deposed if they fail to retain the support of their fellow partners. The members of these committees are in the position to understand and make decisions with the overall benefit for the firm in mind and tasked with the preservation and nurturing of their firm´s vision, values and culture.

Members of these committees are constantly challenged to persuade highly educated, relatively autonomous and somewhat quirky knowledge workers to collaborate with each other to service the needs of the firm. It is an herculean leadership challenge and one for which lawyers are often ill prepared.

What is more, partners who choses to accept the honour can face losing power in their firm as those that are often acknowledged in the rewards systems are those with distinct specialist expertise and lucrative client relationships. Taking on leadership almost certainly means that he/she can take on less fee-earning work. They will struggle to keep their professional expertise cutting edge, and may face a cut in their overall compensation or be undermined by powerful fee-generating practice heads.

As there is so much at stake for the partners who accept leadership positions on ExCos and their firms it is crucial to learn from good practise that is emerging in other industries. In fact, one can argue that they have to, as there is a severe paucity of research in this area and systematic evidence-based development programmes are, at this stage, rare on the ground.

In the following we highlight the emerging key leverage points a partner in an executive committee can make use of in order to be effective and create value for the partnership and the firm.

1 Understand and leverage the uniqueness of the composition of the ExCo

This is probably the area that has received most attention to date, especially with discussions in the media about diversity and quotas for women within the partnership and in leadership positions. But gender diversity is all but a small part of the overall puzzle.

What is crucial here for any ExCo to be effective is the understanding of the preferences of a role in a group and knowledge areas beyond the immediate technical subject matter expertise that one has and each colleague brings. It is about an in-depth understanding of how these can be leveraged, how they complement and fit with each other. To date very few firms look systematically for these criteria when deciding on the candidates for the ExCo. What is more, when the ExCo is working they do not leverage what their members really have to offer. The sum is in most cases less, far less than the individual parts.

Action point for law firms: Ask your selection committee to design an interview and selection process that specifically tests and identifies these criteria. This can be done through the combination of tried and tested interview techniques and validated psychometric tests. When the ExCo is elected members can be offered regular reviews that help them to understand and leverage what each member has to offer.

2 The ability of the board to leverage the distinctive strengths of its members

The awareness of board members of their own strengths and how they can use them best varies enormously. Some are highly aware but others are not. The vast majority of ExCo members use their distinctive individual strengths more by accident than by conscious decision.

This lack of understanding becomes even more acute when they are questioned about the strengths of other ExCo members. They are seldom able to describe them in more than general terms. Sadly, this means that one of the most powerful ways to increase the effectiveness of an ExCo remains underused. Seasoned ExCo members are often unwilling to learn but the new generation of lawyers has a different attitude. Encouragingly, they are highly interested in learning about themselves and how they can become more effective – provided that narcissism is not a too pronounced on an individual or collective level.

Action point: Encourage the identification of personal strengths. Here ExCo members can for example use validated instruments like for example, the VIA Signature strengths test or the Gallup strength finder.

3 Clarity about roles and responsibilities

Roles and responsibilities are not as clearly defined as one may wish, particularly not in professional service firms. Some “grow” over time or are the result of a specific initiative of an ExCo member and tailored around his former practise area, special agenda, skills and needs.

We have seen substantial “grey areas” of responsibility on many ExCos. The existence of these areas leads to situations where unpleasant or uncomfortable tasks and decisions remain unaddressed or delayed. This can cause conflict on a daily basis and waste or even destroy invaluable resources and trust that could be used to create value for the firm.

Action Point: Capture the roles, responsibilities and tasks of individual ExCo members and create a map of roles and responsibilities that need to be in place in order to develop and implement the firm’s strategy. This exercise will highlight roles and responsibilities that are not clearly assigned. Both detection and discussion will require tact and a high level of diplomacy.

4 Development of a common vision

This sounds so simple and obvious, but in practice it proves to be a real and at times insurmountable challenge. Developing a shared vision and gaining the approval and commitment of all partners and stakeholders is a laborious process. The communication of a shared vision is essential: nothing is more damaging to a firm than the revelation that there are disagreements on the ExCo about vision, strategy and subsequent action to be taken.

Action point: Encourage and design a process for establishing a common vision on the ExCo and within the partnership. The most successful firms design a development process for defining and communicating the vision first within the ExCo, than influential heads of major businesses and business services, key influencers and then the rest of the partnership and firm, but it all starts at the ExCo.

5 The ability to resolve conflicts between the ExCo, the partnership and the professionals

Now more than ever it is the challenge of an ExCo to lead highly educated professionals with great potential who are sensitive, observant and understand what the ExCo is saying and not saying, doing and not doing.

Firms tend to be led by consensus and the act of building consensus involves skilled negotiation, trade-offs and politically expedient compromises. However, harmony is rare when a firm wants to leverage and realise its full potential.

Lawyers one or two levels below the ExCo have mostly been to first-class universities and have their own ideas about the firm and its direction. This can lead to covert or even open conflict and a drain of talent. ExCo members are more than ever challenged to convince these lawyers with the quality of their argument and personality, to analyse areas of conflicts and solve them in a constructive and respectful manner. The size of this challenge should not be underestimated. A coalition or alliance between the ExCo and influential lawyers in the firm will be crucial for success.

The ExCo in any firm can serve as a role model for the development of a culture where conflicts are resolved constructively and will be decisive for the overall culture of the organisation.

Action point: Encourage the investment into personal development and conflict resolution skills right from the start when graduates are joining the firm.

6 The structure and organisation of the ExCo’s work

ExCo members have told us in on-boarding coaching programmes that they were “completely lost” on joining the ExCo and had to learn how to operate at that level the hard way, over time. The work of many ExCos is poorly structured and new members have to “settle” into a system that works for those in the know, but is not necessarily logical and intuitive for those observing or joining it.

This is a factor that deserves more attention; much can be done to improve the organisation of the ExCo’s work, often at little cost but with a highly positive effect on the firm. Again, what happens at ExCo level will be mirrored at lower levels in the firm.

Action point: Encourage the design of special on-boarding programmes for new ExCo members and start to collect information and documentation about what has worked well in the past or what works well in other firms and organisations. Firms may also think about using mobile application and a web-based management portal to improve the productivity and security of their meetings.

7 Regular reviews and reflection about the ExCo´s work

Regular shared time out, where ExCo members have the opportunity to connect with each other and reflect on their work, is appreciated by many practitioners and highlighted around the world as a crucial component of any best practice process. In fact, in the academic literature this is the one point on which there is overwhelming consensus. In our own practise we observed that firms lack here far behind many counterparts in industry.

Action point for lawyers: Encourage the time out of the ExCo. In fact, sponsor guided reflections about the ExCos work. Considering the above will help ExCo members to judge and evaluate their performance and to take first steps for improvement.

Sabine Dembkowski, managing partner, Better Boards