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What got you here, won’t get you there.

25 May 2018

What got you here, won’t get you there. 

How our biases are holding us back.

One of the greatest paradoxes we encounter in our careers is that our greatest strength often becomes our greatest weakness.  One of my colleague’s calls it ‘a strength overdone’.

Our biases develop in the formative years of our careers.  They are often optimised for a different level, in a different organisation, and a different era.  They creep up on us until one day we encounter a career stall, or other disappointment and can’t understand why we ‘can’t get ahead’.  

The reason is simple:  What got us here, won’t get us there.

Most lawyers approach to work is formed by traditional law firms. These environments can teach technical mastery, a strong work ethic, incredible attention to detail.   Yet many are at odds with modern methods of working. The culture of these firms still incentivises ‘hours billed’, over-serving clients and avoiding risk. In isolation, these are great skills for making partner yet – when ‘overplayed’ – they translate poorly in-house, where clients value effectiveness, a balanced approach to accepting risks, and ‘getting stuff done’ over almost anything else.

Contributing to the problem ‘biases’ such as perfectionism, technology, and risk aversion combine to lawyers being labeled ‘uncommercial’ by the business.  

Perhaps more damaging – research has shown, the practice of law can program the mind to believe negative scenarios are more prevalent than their peers – contributing to ‘The Law’ having the highest level of depression in any industry.

On the flip side lawyers’ extremely strong work ethic and desire to serve the customer can create what we call the ‘client service paradox’.  The more work you take on, the more clients will abdicate responsibility for risk management and outsource low-level work to the function.

These ‘biases’ are echoed by a study of current and future competencies GC’s are seeking to build (by The General Counsel Roundtable).  It shows that many lawyers are currently overinvesting in ‘law firms capabilities’ such as contract drafting and compliance, whilst the capabilities most valued: preventive lawyering, increasing productivity and talent development.  

We all have biases.  Identifying and correcting them is incredibly hard.  One of the practices that is gaining popularity in talent circles is replacing ‘feedback’ with ‘feedforward’.  The idea is relatively simple.  Instead of waiting for the performance cycle to ‘critique’ you, get in the habit of proactively requesting, from a range of stakeholders, how you could improve.

Sadly the behaviors we establish over many years are difficult to change.  Those who fail to adapt will struggle to make the leap required by Legal Transformation.   As one of Australia’s top GCs said to us ‘sometimes I struggle so hard to change my people that I realise I may have to change my people’.