Systematically Build a Positive Culture

You’ve got some of your systems documented.

You’ve followed the rules in our systems course. You’ve got the daily office opening process covered. The light switch goes on, the coffee heats up, and the copier starts to whirr.

At this point, many lawyers get inspired.

They keep running with systems. They document processes to greet office visitors, manage documents, handle callers and prospects, and work the computers. Court filings are handled with a well-established procedure.

Systems keep a business running while you’re at the courthouse, vacationing, or hanging out with me at a workshop in Las Vegas or New York (hint: next May – keep it on the down low).

Systems really paid off for me years ago when I checked into the hospital for surgery and then stayed home for nearly two months.

If you’re an advanced systems thinker, you’ve gone even further.

You’ve extended your systems into your legal work. You’ve created internal guides for witness preparation, client management, direct and cross-examination, and writing briefs, opening statements and closing arguments.

You’ve spent a long time learning all of these skills and you’ve documented your tips, techniques, and tactics for the rest of your team.

But wait – there’s more.

Yes, you can do more.

You can use systems to eliminate some of your biggest problems.

I break down when I don’t have a system to follow

My biggest problems have always been rooted in my team.

Well, that’s not the right way to put it.

My biggest problems have always been rooted in the way my team reacts to me.

When I get caught in the moment and fail to follow my systems, I do many things I later regret. I do what I do and it gets ugly and embarrassing.

  • I ignore team members after delegating and hope for the best.
  • I get overly involved and drive them crazy with micromanagement.
  • I resist their good ideas for change.
  • I feel compelled to prove to them how smart I am.
  • I think I’m “adding value” when I’m undermining their confidence.
  • I fail to acknowledge when they do something amazing.
  • I catch them when they screw up.
  • I don’t listen.
  • I don’t say thank you enough.
  • I hold a grudge, fail to apologize, and get distracted when I should focus on what they’re saying.

I’m the leader. I’m the troublemaker. I’m at the root of whatever happens in my organization. I wish I had someone to blame.

My breakdown destroys culture

When things go badly, they spiral downward in a vicious cycle.

It’s easy to be subtly destructive. When we’re under pressure and feel stressed, we tend to feed our team negativity.

They get the job done, but without engagement, energy, or effectiveness.

Systems can solve this problem.

Systems that deal with our people are more even more useful than the systems we use to manage our technology, finances, and marketing.

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People systems eliminate many of the mistakes managers like me make on daily basis. They create a positive culture and eliminate the friction that impedes our progress.

This is how we reverse that negative, vicious cycle of bad behavior.

Our people are important. When human resources aren’t managed effectively, we get poor results from the technology, finance, and marketing systems. The people systems support everything else.

I can easily see much of what we do as part of a system. I can easily connect the dots between turning on the lights in the morning, doing the legal work, and closing the file of a happy client.

But I find it much more difficult to see the connection between my hiring process, ongoing employee feedback, firm culture, and our financial results. Those dots are harder to connect.

People systems create culture

Hiring, training, supervising, giving feedback, working out people problems, providing leadership and guidance…

It’s hard to get excited about systems that requires us to do something time-consuming and exhausting every week.

On top of that, it never ends. Even when if we distance ourselves from the day-to-day by stepping back from the operation, we’ve still got to manage the managers.

It’s tough to see our culture as the result of a system, but that’s exactly how we create a law firm culture. We either do it proactively or inadvertently.

Everything that happens is the result of a system. Sometimes we’d prefer to blame something outside of our control. But we mostly get the results we should have expected.

Documenting the people systems we use to manage our team and build our culture pays off. When we document and track our input, we can measure the impact of our results.

A sub-optimal result means the system requires modification. A great result means we keep doing what we’re doing (or tweak to make it even better).

Acknowledging, documenting, and optimizing our systems gives us control over the outcomes. Systems put you in charge of your results.

Systems keep us on course.

Where to start?

The sooner you see your firm culture as the outcome of your systems, the sooner you’ll take charge of that outcome.

So where do you start?

Many systems will impact your culture. Ultimately, each deserves your attention.

Start where you’ll have the biggest impact. These are some suggestions to get you moving…

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1. Hiring

This is low-hanging fruit.

It’s easy to document most of the hiring process. Creating job descriptions, employment advertising, and an interview process are things many firms tackle early on when they start documenting systems.

But you can take it up a notch. Document the interview process down to the questions that’ll be asked and the answers you’ll seek.

Go beyond the what and work toward the who and the how.

It’s one thing to know what needs doing. It’s more sophisticated to know the way it needs to be done and the type of person who should do it. You may think identifying those folks is instinctive, but it’s actually the result of a system in the back of your brain.

Now is a good time to get it out of your brain and into your business.

2. Onboarding

Onboarding a new team member is like a first date, on steroids.

Filling out employment forms and setting up a computer (you know, the easy stuff) is simple to document.

But the first conversations between the employee and manager have ongoing impact and deserve systemization.

These initial interactions are an important follow-up to the interview process where company standards, values, and beliefs are communicated.

Who meets with the new employee first? Is it the managing attorney or the bookkeeper or the computer technician? These first moments transition the newbie from “them” to “us.”

Onboarding should be handled in a similar manner with each new hire. Document who the new employee meets, what to say, and how to allocate the employee’s time over the first few days.

New employees go home each night and answer the “What do I think of this place, these people, and this job?” question for themselves and their family. This new beginning has a huge impact on the new employee, the team, and ultimately the business.

3. Daily standup meeting

Your team fills an information vacuum. That’s the nature of humans. They do it all day, every day.

The daily standup is a perfect opportunity to fill the vacuum with a positive message that keeps everyone in alignment and moving toward the law firm objectives.

But daily standups aren’t about gossip and coffee. Every successful organization – from Amazon to Zendesk – uses standups to keep their teams on track.

Document your daily standup process. When is it? Where is it? Who leads it? What role does each person play? How long does it last? How does it end?

Each piece of the daily meeting should follow the plan and the plan should be changed if the outcome isn’t what you seek.

4. Weekly one-to-one meetings

Sitting down privately with each employee for 30 or 60 minutes moves the business forward. It’s only in these one-to-one interactions that we learn what’s being heard and understood. It’s also where we connect the employee’s priorities with the priorities of the law firm.

These meetings are critical, but they aren’t easy. Documenting a system makes it easier.

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Establishing a format, scripting language, allocating responsibility for agenda preparation, scheduling, note-taking, etc., gives you a structure for moving forward through what is sometimes awkward.

Over time you’ll learn that certain issues come up over and over. Develop a systematic approach to your response. Figure out how you’ll deal with child-care issues, remote work, elder-care concerns, divorce, payroll advances, educational opportunity funding, extended leaves, etc.

These human concerns will arise over and over.

5. Weekly team meetings

You need a systemic approach to communication to keep the entire team moving in the same direction.

There are many ways to coordinate groups of employees. Some businesses do it online. Some do it in person. Your approach will drive your culture. You’ll make choices (think: systems) that drive outcomes.

  • Should you hold weekly all-hands meetings or meetings of each smaller team?
  • When and where will these meetings be held?
  • Will devices be permitted?
  • What’s the agenda?
  • Who runs the meetings?
  • Is there an educational component? Are there rituals? What’s the purpose of the meeting?
  • Will attendees leave with action items?

Weekly team meetings are a significant investment in a law firm. They’re expensive in an environment where every minute represents a cost.

But they’re also an important driver of the culture. They are where the group comes together to work things out, make things happen, and get focused on what’s next.

This only works if the process is articulated, understood and improved over time.

6. Feedback

Giving feedback is hard. I struggle with delivering both positive and negative feedback (although negative comes far more easily). I’m an awkward human being much of the time.

But feedback is a core part of a law firm culture. It’s the only way we, and our people, get better.

I’m a big fan of the Manager Tools approach to feedback. They detail the words to say so delivering feedback is easy for anyone.

As you listen to their instruction, think about how you can incorporate their approach into your system. You’ll see how something as intangible as delivering feedback can be turned into a documented system that can be delegated, handed off, and made consistent among your team members.

7. Delegation and accountability

Most of us stink at delegation and accountability. We either interfere after we’ve given the work to someone else, or do the opposite and fail to track the outcomes we requested.

We let people off the hook when they fail to deliver until we reach a breaking point and boil over.

Delegation and accountability deserve systemization. What we delegate, how we delegate, how we track, follow up, and provide feedback all warrant careful consideration, documentation, and optimization.

Holding others accountable is hard, but we have to learn how to do it effectively.

We spend vast amounts of energy contemplating task management applications.

But we spend little energy thinking about the tasks we assign to others and how they’ll be managed. This space provides a huge opportunity for driving our culture.

Create a system for yourself. Refer to it constantly. Look at what works and what doesn’t.

Tweak what you say, when you say it, how you say it, and how often you engage. Tweak, tweak, tweak and watch your results.

You can hold your team accountable in your own way and it’ll define a major piece of your culture.

Like everything, accountability is a system.

8. Celebration

Most of us are great at taking note of our losses. But we’re not good at celebrating our wins. So it’s important to build a system for celebrations.

Which events should trigger a celebration? Should we celebrate the outcome of a big case? Securing a big fee? Completing a big project? Achieving certain goals?

How should we celebrate? Do we bring in pastries? Go out for a team lunch? Hold a special team event? Pass out envelopes of cash? Invite employees to a party?

Did the celebration work? Are we getting more positive outcomes? Are we building the culture we seek to build? Or do we need to tweak the celebration system?

9. Termination

Removing a team member is complicated and unpleasant. Too many of us have had to deal with this process often. Ultimately, it reflects a failure of the systems mentioned above.

But until you get everything else right, you’ll have to remove people from time to time.

Removing someone, without damaging the culture, damaging the departing employee, or creating legal issues, is an important way to maximize the value of your system’s documentation.

This is one of those processes you ought to think through now, long before it’s necessary, when you aren’t burdened by the heat of the moment. These documents will guide you when your judgment may be clouded.

10. Rejuvenation

Every team has its unique approach to restoring energy.

Some take a group cruise. Some hold a retreat. Some have a party. Some rotate sabbaticals.

Your team needs a way to recharge after a long period of success. New energy is required to create new ideas, new approaches, and to continue to conquer the world.

But how do you know when it’s time to recharge your culture? What are the signs? Are there objective, numerical indicators? And what’s the best approach when it’s time to hit the reset button? That’s what ought to be detailed in your system documentation.

Like everything else, rejuvenation is predictable. It can be anticipated. So turn it into a documented system.

Keep optimizing your people systems

These people systems are the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the beginning of the systems that will impact your culture.

A systematic approach keeps you on track, gives you guidance, avoids allegations of favoritism and, most importantly, puts you in control of the culture.

People systems are harder to document, but they’re ultimately more valuable and important. Optimize them like you would your technology or financial systems. Examine your culture frequently and trace the successes and failures back to your systems.

Remember: Your culture is your creation.

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