With technology — and the business models it enables — evolving in unpredictable ways, leaders cannot simply set a future course and restructure accordingly.
They must stay abreast of the constant changes in their clients’ needs and in the marketplace, and adopt a flexible mindset about changing their course when necessary. A third critical skillset for leaders, therefore, is instilling a learning culture that allows the firm to detect changes and to react nimbly and decisively.
Learning processes, individual mindsets, and cultural norms are all critical underpinnings to a culture that promotes experimentation. Why? Because initial trials are inevitably replete with disappointments, and eventual success is not guaranteed. For example, many law firms are using technology to analyse pricing data, manage caseloads, forecast legal or transactional outcomes, and even decide whether or not to take on a new client. But getting real insights from such analytics is a learning process. The first attempts to build a system for scrutinising any of those decisions nearly always reveal problems with the way a firm’s data has been entered and coded. Rather than point fingers, add up costs, and turn to the next shiny idea, firms need the discipline to learn how to improve from their findings.
That’s why many of the firms that are most effectively adopting such technologies are also investing heavily in training their partners to be better coaches, facilitating the development, learning and performance of one another. In essence, they are using coaching as a tool for their transformation.
At Allen & Overy, the firm’s leaders had also observed that younger associates were demanding deeper and more meaningful support to help them develop professionally, as well as open conversations about development and the opportunity to explore career paths. Former Global Managing Partner David Morley put it like this:
“The average adult has around 10,000 conversations a year (do the math). As a senior leader, roughly 100 of those a year in your professional life will be particularly high value. High value in the sense they will change your life or the life of the person you’re talking to. We want to help you acquire the skills to maximise value from those 100 conversations, unlock previously hidden issues, uncover new options and reveal fresh insights. That resonated. When we introduced the coaching skills training to partners, almost all of them realised they struggled with those uncharted or ‘difficult’ conversations and could readily see they lacked skills.”
At another professional services firm, partners were pleasantly surprised to see that the coaching training the senior team embarked on had a significant bottom line impact on their relations with their clients. As one of the partners put it, people used to dread the inevitable moment when clients would ask for help on big messy problems totally outside their area of expertise:
“Before we really knew how to structure an open conversation, my heart would sink —– we’re experts, people hire us for our answers. But now that we’ve added an expertise on coaching, we have confidence that we can help on any topic they throw at us — because our task is to dig the answer out of them. So we say, ‘Pull up a chair’. So often these conversations, which we all used to dread, have led to us winning the most interesting kinds of new work.”
In one research study we conducted, a law firm reaped an incredible financial return on its investment in this kind of training. For several years in a row, the firm selected between 16 and 20 partners to undergo intensive training to learn how to change the nature of their dialogue by asking open-ended questions and developing ‘honest and informed curiosity’. We used an experimental design to analyse the impact of the training; in essence, we treated the participants as if they were subjects in an experiment, and statistically examined their outcomes relative to a matched set of partners who hadn’t been trained (i.e. the control group). In the few years following training, the subjects significantly and reliably outperformed their peers — often by very large margins. These pilots clearly showed the value of these coaching-style conversations in client settings, which we studied because the outcomes were clear and measurable. Beyond that, we have strong anecdotal evidence that partners trained in those coaching-style skills became far more effective leaders inside the firm. They were also more willing to take and tolerate risks — an essential element of a learning culture.
Here are some concrete steps that leaders can take to foster a learning culture in their law firm: