Lessons From the Oil Patch

Michelle is a colleague of mine – an executive coach working in the oil patch. Michelle’s workdays start early. By 7 am she is in the cab of a pick up truck with a client at the wheel. Instead of business suits she wears jeans, work boots and a parka. The coaching sessions don’t take place in boardrooms but rather as her clients drive to and from the various work sites. Most days this winter it was minus thirty degrees and the trucks never warm up because of the frequent road side stops to roll down the window and conduct business.

Her oil patch clients never made it past secondary school. Some have never travelled out of the province. For most, their entire working lives have been spent working in the oil fields: The work pays well; you can make a good life for yourself. Her clients worked their way up from simple labourers to team leaders over the course of their many years of hard work.

Michelle’s job is to help support her clients to become better leaders. The results are extraordinary. The team leaders learn to employ coaching practices to bring out the best in their crews. Her oil patch clients start as highly sceptical and resistant and, as they begin to put these new ideas and approaches into practice with their teams, and see the results, they become strong advocates. Leadership coaching teaches the team leaders to bring out the best in their crews, to increase morale, and as end result to increase productivity.

Oil companies hire leadership coaching organizations to help the company align strategy with action. Coaching provides the link between what the company says it wants to do, and the actual action being taken on the ground.

The oil companies operating in Alberta know that they need to invest in their people in order to ensure continued growth and profitability. Conditions are harsh in the oil patch and the hours are long.

Law firms would do well to take a lesson from the oil patch and invest in leadership coaching. Our law firms are lagging far behind our corporate clients in the leadership methodologies we employ to train, support and simply, bring out the best in our highly intelligent and hard working legal staff.

As a coach I am at times deeply saddened by the way law firm leadership treat their legal talent. Here’s the ugly truth. Many law firms are operating with leadership outmoded practices that are a killer for morale and that in fact reduce performance. I have seen examples of what I call the Neanderthal approach to leadership – hit them on the head with harsh criticism until they smarten up or leave. Or in many cases – smarten up AND leave!

Or there is the drill sergeant approach. Once the drill sergeant partner has decided you need fixing he holds regular meetings with you to read you the riot act, review your many weaknesses and demand you get a plan together to improve – fast.

All the lawyers I know are dedicated to their work. Some are perfectionists who already internally beat up on themselves for their self-perceived failings. When the leadership approach at our law firms is to dish negative feedback on performance to our already highly self-critical legal staff the results are low morale, a negative work-environment, higher levels of attrition, reduced productivity, higher stress levels and decreased levels of performance.

What I suggest is that law firms realise that what has been good for the corporate sector might just be good for us. Namely, bringing in leadership training and coaching to teach lawyers at all level of the organization in the approaches that support professional growth and development and foster a work environment that supports high levels of performance and satisfaction.

I want to recognize the efforts of the many associate recruitment and development professionals in law firms across the country who are taking steps to implement associate review and mentorship programs that support professional development and that contribute to better feedback processes and learning opportunities. They are making great strides and advances.

The next step is for law firms to invest in coaching programs that support partners, members of the firm executive team and senior associates in learning how to team build, create collaborative work environments and lead in a manner which brings out the best in the lawyers and staff they employ. The result will be improved work environments, higher law firm morale, greater retention rates and yes, greater profitability!

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