(Editor’s note: This is the first column from our new contributor Jane Babb)
We had a running joke in my family: whenever anything upsetting, challenging, or new and exciting, but daunting happened, my mother would say in her best Yorkshire accent (I have no idea why the Yorkshire accent) “what we need is a nice cup o’ tea”. Of course the tea industry has always known that the way to sell tea is to sell the chats, the bonding, the problem-sharing and -halving that go with “put on the kettle there, love.”
Coaching Professional Development
I have a great luxury at work: every quarter I spend four or five days having hour long, 1 to 1 coaching sessions with each of up to 70 junior lawyers. The sessions are a means to provide an individually tailored development programme, rather than a one-size-fits-all curriculum. They are also an effective way to facilitate graduates to negotiate with confidence the transition from an education system in which they were invariably the best, to a high performance professional culture in which they are, probably for the first time, fairly ordinary. We ask all of our fee-earners all of the time to take full ownership of their work and of their career: the 1 to 1 sessions are the firm’s investment in facilitating junior lawyers to take that ownership. They are different from mentoring or directive management. They are not about giving advice or dispensing pearls of wisdom. The 1 to 1s provide space and a safe place for junior lawyers to hear their own voice and recognise their own capacity to develop goal-reaching behaviours and habits, and to make good decisions about how to develop their career and professional excellence, regardless of external constraints.
I recently finished a series of 1 to 1 sessions. They achieved what we hope that they will achieve. One of our bright young lawyers noted that the quantity of work was such that she was just getting through it with little, if any, enjoyment. She recognised that the key difference between the times when she was enjoying work and the times when she was struggling was whether she was asking questions and discussing the work. She noted that no matter how busy other lawyers were, they always welcome questions about their work and their approach. From our session she committed to asking questions no matter how busy she was. She was hired for her astute and questioning mind. She now knows that she is responsible for and capable of keeping that asset in good shape.
Another talented trainee recognised that waiting politely for an invitation to suggest next steps or solutions, while respectful on the face of it, was not as helpful to the team as volunteering his proposals. With a year to go before he qualifies, he is now on his way to being a project-leading associate rather than an excellent project-implementing associate.
Potential of Generational Diversity
While this recent round of 1 to 1s dealt with performance and skills development, personal development and enjoyment of work, in every session there was room for some banter. I got to know what was going on for each person, how their mountain running was going, how disappointed they were with The Counsellor, how they were enjoying House of Cards, how a sick parent was doing. I got some insight into what motivates and frustrates our Gen-Yers. The individual meetings also meant that I could comment on some of the things that get on our nerves about the way Gen Yers think and operate without it sounding like a lecture. The reaction was rarely defensive, it was mostly surprised: no way!; that is ridiculous; or, I never thought about it or saw it like that – which is pretty much exactly the reaction I get from my peers when I talk to them about how the Gen-Yers react to us.
In law firms, conversation is typically about the work or is trivial, albeit friendly, small talk. There just isn’t time for deeper conversation. Whatever chance we have of knowing our peers well, it is unusual that we have open, honest chats with colleagues ten years our senior or ten years our junior. And because we do not regularly have such conversations with our colleagues, we are not inclined to. So, we know our colleagues at one level only. We are not so loyal as we might be: a job is just a job; a team is just a project team. Worse, instead of speaking to each other, we speak about each other. “They” is more frequently used than “we”.
It is always challenging for producer-managers and producer-owners to invest time in their people when there is pressure on hours. It is not likely that many lawyers will have the luxury I have to chat to their colleagues for four working days every quarter! But the relationship building chats only take a few minutes – the time it takes to get a taxi back from court together, the time it takes to walk to the coffee shop together, the time it takes to grumble to our peers that “they” just don’t get it.
Our 1 to 1s are coaching sessions, but at one level they are not very far removed from the crisis chats we had at home over the nice cup o’ tea. It may seem uber-sweet, but they do achieve what the tea commercials promised: they make problems shrink and relationships grow.