Leaving the Leader

“People don’t leave jobs they leave leaders.”

This comment came at the end of a training session with leadership coach Troy King and it stuck with me. In all the discussions I have sat in on, overheard and read in the legal press about the retention of associates never have I heard this idea put forward with such blunt clarity.

I take everything Troy says with consideration. As a Master Certified Coach, and Canadian Coach of the Year in 2010 he is pretty much a Yoda of the coaching profession. I decided to call Troy up to learn more about just what he meant.

Troy explained that people leave jobs because one or more of a number of things is likely happening. In the words of the person leaving the job:

“They don’t get me.”

“They don’t give me any feedback except perhaps to point out errors.”

“They keep me in the dark. I can only guess at what they are planning.”

“I don’t get any opportunities.”

“I am not included in conversations about where things are going or really about anything at all.”

“I don’t see how what I do is connected to the bigger picture.”

This resonated with me. At many of the large law firms these days for associates the goal of equity partnership appears as distant as a tiny spec on the horizon. The average work day is consumed in long hours, and struggling to meet deadlines, billing-targets and other performance expectations. The opportunities for business development also can seem out-of-reach when the prospects are many years their senior and are c-suite executives and general counsel.

Law firm management efforts at retaining and developing associates focus on mentorship, training and recently coaching for associates as well as “paying more than everyone else” (as one partner recently said to me) to encourage the associates to stay.

These efforts aren’t working very well. Associate morale is down and for many what is keeping them at their current firm is simply the fear of not finding a job elsewhere. Training, mentorship and coaching are all elements of a solution but these efforts are all focused on just one side of the equation – the associates. To really have an impact on associate retention and other good things like innovation you need to get the other side involved – namely, the partners.

It’s really not very complicated. Partners and other firm management simply need to initiate conversations with associates about what is most important. Talk to them about the business and the firm direction and listen to their experiences and perspectives. Tap into the associate’s potential by giving them an opportunity to think about the business and how it could be done better. In the language of leadership development these kinds of conversations are called “engagement.”

Here are some sample questions to get the conversation started (lifted from Patrick McKenna’s article on Strategy Innovation):

I want to hear about your personal career aspirations. I want to hear where you see the greatest opportunities for your practice group and for the firm. And, I want your ideas on what you would like to see us try that is new, that would develop new service offerings, and provide new ways of reaching clients.

If we take a moment to consider who have been the great innovators of the past 100 years it quickly becomes apparent that they were not guys in their forties and fifties. Again to quote McKenna, this time from his article The Innovation Imperative:

It is surprisingly hard to find any disruptive ideas and creations originating from people older than 35. Some of the most original, icon-smashing and valuable ideas have and are being developed by individuals still in their twenties and early thirties.

Having the conversation is the first step. Next, get associates involved with planning and implementing the new initiatives.

In our discussion about leadership and engagement Troy told me about a recent success story from the oil sector. His team of coaches was working with a group of leaders in the company on developing their engagement with professional and blue collar staff. One leader spotted the potential in a grader operator. The leader started a conversation with the grader operator that went something like this:

Ask yourself, how could your area make a greater contribution to the success of the organization? Put together your ideas, rough out a plan, and we’ll decide together how to move it forward. Think of me as the banker investing in your plan.

The grader operator came up with a powerful plan and was given a budget for implementation. Now he is now running a multi-million dollar segment of the business. Now leadership engagement is not always this dramatic but it is always effective and impactful.

Law firm partners, the opportunity is for you to take your leadership skills up a notch. Engaging the associates can help stimulate a meaningful connection for them with the firm beyond the paycheck and far off partnership promise. It connects associates with the big picture and gives them a role to play. It can stimulate new ideas and innovation for the firm in ways that can boost productivity and profitability. You are already investing in associates through numerous professional development programs. Now, take the next step in investing in your own ability to lead your legal teams, practice groups and firm. You hold the leverage point for retention and sustainable success of the firm in your own leadership hands.


  1. Great article. Lawyers often assume they are natural leaders because they speak with such authority about a client’s issues. However, often the very qualities that make a person a great lawyer make them a poor leader. Leaders need to be optimistic, embrace risk and see the possibilities of making a situation work. Leadership can be learned. More lawyers need to embrace leadership training. I will enhance both their practice and the management of their firm.