I’ve been following a discussion in recent days on LinkedIn about a blog posting by Jonathan Brown entitled Working late is no excuse. The title succinctly captures the core message in an e-mail sent by the Managing Partner at a law firm to address lateness by fee earners – that working late in the evening is no excuse for a late start in the morning. A reflection of our era, the e-mail clearly reached the desk of the author and went on (if Mr Brown is correct) to “go viral”.
It took me back to a time when I worked extensively with one of London’s “big five” law firms, back in the late 80s and early 90s. Many of my contemporaries (including some of my buddies in the London Symphony Chorus – how did they do it?) were young lawyers working their socks off in this and other firms. They knew they would get a partnership or a nice juicy job outside the firm and experienced the long hours as a fair exchange. As the recession bit, though, the “jam tomorrow” become a possibility rather than a certainty so that people began to reconsider their options. Notwithstanding the recession (threat of redundancy etc.) young lawyers started to think twice about putting in so many hours.
One commentator on the LinkedIn thread crisply summed up one point of view: “This is another example of lazy management – managing what’s easy (the number of hours people are in the building) as opposed to what’s important (what they achieve for the organisation). How many examples have we all witnessed over the years, of managers judging their staff by how long they are sitting at their desks as opposed to by what they actually accomplish while sitting there? It’s sad to think that even in a law firm top management can’t come up with a smarter way of evaluating its staff’s contribution”.
Sometimes, managing time in this way is indeed a proxy for more meaningful management of performance, as if time equals – in the long run – results. We all know it doesn’t, but what do we do differently if we want to manage performance pending the results? As it happens, I recently initiated another thread on LinkedIn about the use of a coaching style of leadership. As I write I think of some of the sales managers I have interviewed over the years – for developmental purposes, assessment or promotion – who have described sitting down with members of their team and asking them in considerable detail about how many calls or visits they are making per day or week and with what outcomes. This kind of on-the-job coaching gets under the skin of “hours per week” and can give a real boost to staff performance. In short, it’s possible that our Managing Partner just didn’t stop to think about what’s really important in the workplace and how to manage staff in ways that boost real performance.
It’s also possible that he committed an entirely different error (though, I confess, I doubt it) – the error of failing to explain adequately why an action or expectation is important. I recognise that this is something I have to remind myself to do – because at times something seems so obvious to me I think it doesn’t need saying. Often it does. Reading the Managing Partner’s e-mail it’s not clear how a few minutes’ lateness impacts on performance or why turning up on time really matters.
It certainly seems to be a general view that the tone of the e-mail – familiar to me, I confess, from dipping my toes from time to time into legal waters – is unlikely to raise levels of motivation and engagement across this particular firm. But this, perhaps, is a topic worth unpacking in another blog posting. I’ll leave it for another day.