People Management and Team Leadership

Managers and “stupivisors” are generous founts of comedy and derision in our popular culture. Michael Scott. Mr. Burns. TPS Reports. Chances are pretty good that none of these names conjure up a particularly flattering view of management or leadership. And I think this is quite a shame considering how much of our professional lives we spend, or will spend, under the management of another.

To further complicate matters, the vast majority of managers find themselves managing in multiple directions: down to their direct reports; across to their cross-functional contemporaries; and up to their own boss(es). Given the multidimensional quality of people management, it’s no wonder we managers (yes, I’m one) manage to strike out as often as we do — we take a lot of at bats. So it is worth considering a common grammar and framework to improve our impact as managers.

Let’s start with managing down to a team of direct reports.

First thing’s first: management is not the same as leadership. To be clear, this is not an original idea of mine. And yet it is easy to trivialize. Management elicits compliance either through fear of some punishment or hope of some gain. Leadership, by contrast, means inspiring a voluntary choice to follow.

Here’s the difference.

One can lead through fear of deprivation. “Do this or else you won’t get a bonus.” “Complete this by Friday or else I’ll give the next assignment to someone else.” Or simply, “Do this because your job is on the line.” To be sure, these are hard nosed tactics and may not always fly in certain settings where policy or decorum dictates otherwise. But I’d venture to guess that this is the framework — the proverbial stick — most people have in mind when they think of “management.”

Of course, one may also manage through reward and incentive. This is also a form of manipulation, albeit more benign. What does this look like? This is the proverbial carrot: “Accomplish this and you’ll get a bonus.”

Now, candidly, either approach can work a short while because we’re all somewhat conditioned to respond to them. And, honestly, should be part of a leader’s arsenal. But the mistake many people manager’s make is that they fail to diversify their leadership toolkit.

In an ideal world, people would follow you, not because they fear recrimination, and not because they’re compelled by personal financial gain. But because your vision of a path and destination a naturally aligns with where they want to go as part of their own personal or professional development.

How do you do this?

First, start by making your path and destination explicitly known. Your team cannot willingly follow you if they don’t first know where you plan to go: Want to build lean team of legal generalists? Say so. Or do you want to build a bench of seasoned subject-matter experts? Tell them so they’re not surprised. Do you envision building a vertically integrated legal team or more of a matrix style? Whatever the course, tell your team, first and foremost.

Next, expressly invite your team for the ride and make clear that the ride is optional. We all know from experience that employees do not always buy into the strategic vision or direction of a company, yet they suppress voicing opposition for fear of recrimination. This is a destructive paradigm, in my view. It is also completely fine to acknowledge differences of opinion.

Finally, and critically, ask your team to hold you — the leader — accountable to the direction you have set. Give them a mechanism to provide feedback like a regularly scheduled check-in or survey. Now, this is hard to do because feedback always invites criticism. But, as a leader, you need the wherewithal to consider feedback of all sort, and to turn it into action for the benefit of your team.

Interviewing Tips

I was fifteen years old when I had my very first, honest-to-Buddha job interview. It was with the City of Oxnard’s Parks and Recreation Department, which needed more scorekeepers for its adult slow pitch softball league. The interview was in a large conference room in the main city office building. I wore chinos and a green polo, the same chinos and green polo I wore to church or parties. (My wardrobe otherwise consisted of frayed jeans and tee shirts.)

My interviewers — there were two — sat next to each other on the opposite end of the table from me, holding copies of my three-page application, which included a one-page high-school caliber resume. They took turns asking me random questions off of my resume before moving on to a more impromptu portion of the interview.

“Have you ever worked before?”

Obviously not.

“Why do you want to be a scorekeeper?”

Does anybody really?

“What’s your favorite subject in school?”

Finally, a real question I could honestly answer with a lie: “Geometry.” It was actually English, but I figured Geometry would somehow make me seem more capable of keeping score at a softball game.

Why do you want the job?

This is perhaps the most fundamental question that you’ll need to answer at some point during each interview. Even if you’re not asked the question directly, rest assured that your interviewer will want to know your motivation for seeking employment with them, so do everyone a favor and leave nothing unstated. Volunteer your motivation, if you must: “Let me just say how much I appreciate the opportunity to interview for this position because I’m very interested in your corporate immigration practice,” or what have you. Do not let the interviewer assume that you are simply looking for any job.

Side note on interviewing with regional or national law firms: law students often wonder, “how do I evaluate full-service law firms when they all look so similar? The honest truth is that I’m just trying to land a gig with ANY law firm.” It’s worth acknowledging the validity of this assessment, particularly with respect to full-service nations firms. After all, much of their business model and compensation structure are meant to look like those of “peer” firms. It’s also true that few law students or junior lawyers know enough inside baseball to credibly weigh law firm reputations. Besides, the hyper-competitive nature of law firm recruiting usually means the firms enjoy much more optionality than candidates. All that said, candidates CAN and SHOULD develop a baseline understanding of how an employer wishes to be viewed by the world. Study the website and understand recent cases or developments in which an employer has been involved.

Why should I trust you to do the job?

This may sound tautological, but it is worth stating in black and white: a hiring manager’s most important decision is who to hire. That decision will forever bear on a hiring manager’s reputation and credibility because the hiring manager’s performance will be measured by the performance of their team. So there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that a hiring manager will go out on a limb for you, as a candidate, if you cannot convince the hiring manager that you have exercised sound judgment and execution skills in the past, and are capable of doing so in the future. The interview is your opportunity to sell a hiring manager on that notion. And since interviews are timebounded, you’ll want to practice ahead of time.

Some candidates may approach an interview with more of an ad hoc approach, where their primary task is to answer questions without flubbing. You should certainly seek to anwer an interviewer’s questions with poise and clarity. But it would be a mistake to stop there. Hone your pitch ahead of time by answering for yourself, “why should I be trusted to do this job?”

Why should I want to hire you?

Lawyers, especially those early on in their career, spend an outsized number of waking hours working, usually with colleagues. You’ll pull all-nighters, share meals, imbibe, laugh, cry, gossip, sometimes even share lodging. (True, funny story: I once had to share a small Springfield Suites-room with a partner who failed to book a separate room. That night, I learned that he snores and wears flannel boxers.)

Given the literal and figurative close quarters that await you, you had better believe that an interviewer will be assessing whether they can work shoulder-to-shoulder with you for 12 hours straight. At the end of the day, an employer has to like you to hire you.