How to Handle HiPPOs

hippopotamus-40150_1280Never underestimate a hippopotamus. According to Wikipedia, hippos are the third-largest land mammal and close relatives of whales and porpoises. Adult hippos average 3100 pounds and are capable of running at 19 mph. In short, the hippopotamus “is a highly aggressive and unpredictable animal and is ranked among the most dangerous animals in Africa.”

What about the hippos in your law firm? Are they aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous? Obviously, we’re not concerned that there may be hoofed animals practicing law down the hall from you. We are concerned about the corrosive effect the “highest paid person’s opinion” (HiPPO) can have on your KM project, intranet design, proposal for a new product or service, etc.

What’s so dangerous about the highest paid person?

  • They are senior in rank and often do not have (or will not tolerate) subordinates who question or otherwise push back on them.
  • They are busy and may not have the time to think through all the details before making a decision.
  • They believe that their judgment and seniority equip them to make quick decisions that are sound.
  • They may rely on gut feeling, instinct or personal experience, without checking to see if their experience is the norm or an outlier.

If you find yourself facing HiPPOs in your law firm, here are some strategies that can help you move beyond HiPPOs to better decisions:

  • Data, data, data.  To paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you may be entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. So if you want to redirect an ill-advised HiPPO, arm yourself with verifiable data. Better yet, use top-notch data visualization to ensure that their Seeing is Understanding.
  • Clients, clients, clients.  When you are facing a HiPPO, do not rely simply on your own opposing opinion — even if it is well-considered.  Buttress it with information direct from your clients.  No matter how fond a HiPPO may be fond of his own opinion, he will have to face reality if his opinion runs counter to that of one or, preferably, more clients.
  • Educate. Keep your HiPPO informed.  When you leave to the last minute your interaction with your HiPPO, you increase the likelihood that your HiPPO will feel compelled to make a quick decision based on incomplete information.  By contrast, when you educate your HiPPO through-out your process, you help your HiPPO reach a better-informed decision.
  • KYH. Just like each law firm implements “know your client” (KYC) procedures, you need to implement procedures to ensure you know your HiPPO (KYH). Learn your HiPPO’s biases and blindspots. Find ways to augment your HiPPOs understanding of the facts and issues.  Develop the ability to steer your HiPPO towards better decisions.  It all starts with knowing your HiPPO.

Now that you know how to handle HiPPOs, here are some final questions to consider. Are you a HiPPO or are you in danger of becoming one? If so, make sure the rest of your team reads this post! 


Making Better Choices

scales-36417_1280What do Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven and you have in common besides talent and intellect? The 24-hour day. Each day we make choices about how we will spend our time. And those choices determine our output and impact.

Here is the underlying truth. We all operate within constraints — whether it is the 24-hour day or the limitations of a budget. So the challenge is how to make better choices that yield better results.

This issue of making better choices is critical in law firm knowledge management (“KM”). I have yet to meet a KM professional in any industry who says that they have all the resources necessary to cope with the demand for their work and attention. So if we all are struggling with demand that outstrips resources, what is the sanest way of responding? Make sure you are allocating your time and resources to the projects that deliver the greatest good for the firm.

To be clear, this is not merely philosophical advice. It highly pragmatic and admittedly tough. We don’t always understand what will yield the greatest good for the firm. Because of this, we sometimes let our work priorities get skewed by the person who is most senior, most influential or, sometimes, most annoyingly persistent.

It was to address this challenge that I earlier asked law firm KM professionals whether they themselves were force multipliers and whether the work of their teams had a force multiplier effect on their firms. In the same vein, I am now asking law firm KM professionals if they are allocating their resources to the most impactful projects. The definition of what constitutes an impactful project varies with each firm and its strategy. Nonetheless, regardless of the strategy, each KM department must align its resource allocation and effort to that strategy.

You have to tackle the task of prioritizing and then re-prioritizing regularly. Situations change, expectations change, and then suddenly you have new pressing priorities. It is for this reason that I use the concept of a portfolio of KM projects that, like an investment portfolio, should be rebalanced from time to time to reflect changes in priorities and circumstances.

The key to any successful portfolio is to make sure that you have the right mix of investments and that you are not over-invested in a category that does not yield the desired results. To achieve this, you must understand your strategic goals, the range of available investments, and how particular investments serve those strategic goals. You also need to be disciplined to cut back on investments that demand too much of your resources or do not deliver as planned. This is how we rebalance our personal investment portfolios and it is the same principle that applies to your KM investment portfolio.

The white paper, Rebalancing your knowledge management portfolio,  takes a closer look at what a properly balanced KM portfolio might look like. It also discusses the real challenge of managing a big project, like an intranet project, which can demand a disproportionate amount of your resources if you lose sight of your strategic goals and fail to put the project in its proper place. No matter what your intranet choices are, the key is to make sure that those choices support your efforts to reach your strategic goals with the resources at hand.

Whether you are working within the constraints of a 24-hour day or over-stretched resources, the key is to keep making better choices.

[Photo Credit: Nemo]


Middle-Earth Communications, Part 2

The Hobbit SecondEdIn my previous post on Middle-Earth Communication Methods, I wrote about the importance of varying the way we communicate. And, I gave some examples from Delta Airlines and Air New Zealand (official airlines of middle-earth) that illustrate how a little imagination and humor allowed them to communicate their crucial safety messages more effectively.

Michael Foster, writing on, takes the importance of variety in communications even further. In his view, when communications are predictable, their intended audience simply tunes them out:

Safe equals predictable

Human beings process information every second of every day. What we do with this data varies, but in many cases we use it to make tiny, subconscious predictions about what will happen next. At its simplest, this can be illustrated by watching the flight of a thrown ball. Our brain automatically estimates the ball’s future trajectory based on its path up to that point, thus allowing us to catch it (or try to).

This process works in exactly the same way when we listen to someone speaking, with our brain constantly making and revising predictions on where the sentence, point or speech is leading. An engaging presentation tells us something we don’t know in a way in which the outcome becomes unpredictable. The result is that this forces us to pay attention. However when we hear a familiar presenter, speaking in a way we recognize about a message we have heard before, our brain quickly tells us we already know the outcome and maintaining focus becomes much harder. Most of the time this happens subconsciously, but it is a vital process for … communicators to be aware of. [emphasis added]

Predictable equals shortchanged KM

In her comment to my previous post, Vishal Agnihotri (CKO of Akerman LLP) reminded me that effective communications are a critical part of effective change management. Further, effective change management is a requirement of effective knowledge management. So if you stick to predictable messages, you will have a hard time engaging your audience sufficiently to convince them to embrace the changes embodied by your KM initiatives. At that point, it’s game over.

There is, however, an alternative path if you are willing to employ some middle-earth methods. Introduce a little humor and imagination into your communications. Feed the curiosity of your audience so that they stayed tuned to your messages.

When you find yourself stuck in a communications rut, befriend your colleagues in the marketing department of your firm. Ask them to provide some strategic and tactical advice on your own department’s communications. By this I mean more than simply asking them to design a pretty logo or slick internal newsletter. Rather, give them free rein over your text and images too. Ask them what they would recommend you do to incorporate into your communications those vital elements of surprise and delight that capture the attention of your audience. In fact, if you’re serious about sharpening up your department’s communications, see if you can bring a marketing/communications person onto each KM project team from the beginning. By involving them early, you can bake an effective communications strategy into your project plan. In this way, you give yourself a fighting chance of actually getting your message across.

And in those moments when the appeal of dull but safe corporate communications seems most enticing, gather up your courage and then  summon your inner hobbit. As Gandalf the Grey observed:

“Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you.”

May you always find good ways to surprise your colleagues.


[Photo credit: Wikipedia]



Middle-Earth Communication Methods

Hobbit booksWhen you are sharing your knowledge management or technology insights, do your colleagues listen attentively and then do exactly as instructed? No, I didn’t think so. Why is this? They may be suffering from information overload and you are just one more unwanted input. Or, they may be multitasking and simply can’t focus on you. Or they may be absorbed in something and cannot spare the bandwidth necessary to process what you’re saying. In fairness, our bodies are complicit in this. Our brains sort through all the incoming stimuli to identify those that are most critical to survival in the moment. Chances are your message about law firm knowledge management or technology just doesn’t make the cut when it comes to survival.

Don’t feel bad. Often even messages that are critical to survival get screened out. A prime example are those safety announcements that are made at the beginning of every flight. If you take a look around you, you’ll see that other passengers are involved in matters that apparently are more pressing to them in the moment: listening to music, flipping through the scintillating inflight magazine, napping. Priorities, people?

Madison Avenue’s approach to capturing attention

Madison Avenue faces its own version of being ignored. In fact, advertising experts have been working for over 100 years to increase the chances that we will hear and act on their messages. Back in 1885, Thomas Smith wrote Successful Advertising in which he provided a formula for how many times a consumer would need to hear a message before that message had the desired impact. In his view, the magic number was … 20!

The first time people look at any given ad, they don’t even see it.
The second time, they don’t notice it.
The third time, they are aware that it is there.
The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they’ve seen it somewhere before.
The fifth time, they actually read the ad.
The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.
The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.
The eighth time, they start to think, “Here’s that confounded ad again.”
The ninth time, they start to wonder if they’re missing out on something.
The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they’ve tried it.
The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.
The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.
The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can’t afford to buy it.
The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.
The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.
The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.
The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what is offering.

Smith’s formula is one response to the challenge of effective frequency: “the number of times a person must be exposed to an advertising message before a response is made and before exposure is considered wasteful.”  Others have settled on the less extreme number of seven. In other words, they believe that you have to repeat a message seven times if you want it to penetrate the noise and have the desired impact.

The airlines’ approach to capturing attention

Does this mean that every piece of KM or technology guidance you offer must be broadcast seven or (heaven forbid) 20 times? I sure hope not. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if you simply repeat the message, your audience will tune you out from sheer boredom. But don’t be dismayed. There may be a path out of the darkness. Going back to those boring airline safety announcements, have you noticed what’s been happening lately? I saw it first on a Delta Airlines flight. Their safety warnings sounded exactly as they had for years. However, their video was suddenly peppered with visual jokes designed to catch the passengers’ attention. And, to avoid boredom, those visual jokes change periodically so that there is always something new to tickle your funny bone. Smart!

Going even further (physically and metaphorically), I draw your attention to Air New Zealand.  I wrote earlier of their clever transparency campaign in which they claimed they had nothing to hide. They have now added to their collection a wonderful safety announcement presented by characters from Middle-earth. Once again, the audio is nearly conventional. However, the video is a feast for the eye. It’s filled with visual jokes and sure to please a Tolkien fan.

Middle-earth method

Taking a leaf out of the Air New Zealand book, think about how you might present your message so that it captures the imagination as much as it captures attention. Can you use color? Can you use humor? Can you use metaphor? Our standard forms of corporate communication are excessively constrained. Worse still, too many within our organizations are expert at screening out those communications. So if you want to break through, you’ll have to break out of those constraints. Using this middle-earth approach, you’ll still have to repeat your message, but you’ll do so in a manner that avoids rather than encourages boredom.

If you need some encouragement, take a look at the Delta Airlines video below. It’s almost corporate — but with a twist. And, if you’re ready for a bolder approach, look at the Air New Zealand video below. As the official airline of Middle-earth, they have a method of communicating that would enliven any law firm!





[Hat tip to Claudia Batten for pointing me to the Air New Zealand video.]

[Photo credit: Tim Sackton]


When Dysfunction Leads to Disaster

Archduke Franz Ferdinand If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

The project team had been warned that there could be massive problems if they proceeded with their plan, yet the boss insisted on going ahead with the project. Later, when some members of the team wisely decided that a change of course would be advisable and then told the other members of the team, their decision was ignored. Why? Because the people who were supposed to act on the new information spoke a different language and did not understand the newly issued instructions.

This dysfunctional behavior undoubtedly happens more frequently than we would like to admit — especially when working in a rigidly hierarchical organization or across geographies, languages and local cultures.

In the case I have in mind, the head of the team was Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and the project was a state visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Just before his visit, the rumors of an assassination plot were so prevalent that he was asked to call off the visit. He refused. Then when a bomb thrown at his motorcade exploded under a car behind his and injured his aide, he still refused to cancel the visit. When some members of his team finally agreed to take a route that differed from the previously published route, the driver of his car was oblivious. Why? Because the conversation regarding the new route occurred in German and the Czech driver did not understand German. It was one dysfunctional moment compounded by another.

If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

Ironically, when the Archduke’s entourage finally managed to persuade the driver to turn around, the driver stopped the car right in front of a general store — just as assassin Gavrilo Princip came out of the shop with the sandwich he had bought there. Princip seized the moment, raised his gun and took two shots. Both were lethally successful.

What lessons can the wise manager learn from this pivotal moment in history?

  • Keeping a steady course is admirable. However, persistence in the face of credible threats is foolhardy at best and positively dangerous at worst. Unlike Franz Ferdinand who was bullheaded in following his outdated plan, a wise manager will pause to evaluate threats before committing more resources.
  • If you decide to proceed even in the face of credible threats, make sure you have reasonable protection. Franz Ferdinand owned a bulletproof silk vest that he apparently forgot to wear on that fateful day. According to recent tests, that silk vest might have saved his life.
  • Be aware of the extent to which a leader’s personal character and temperament has an impact on that leader’s team. Franz Ferdinand was said to have an ” impatient, suspicious, almost hysterical temperament.” This is not conducive to a calm, reasoned discussion of threats, opportunities and alternatives. Team members generally will refrain from providing their best advice if the team leader does not consistently demonstrate a willingness to listen to and follow reasonable advice.
  • Failure to communicate happens far too frequently. A team must work hard to address any gaps in understanding that might arise because of cultural or language differences.  Merely issuing a directive is insufficient.  A wise manager will ascertain early whether the message was received and understood as intended.

Exactly one month after Franz Ferdinand’s disastrous state visit, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By August 4, 1914, the Great Powers were engaged in the First World War.

This clearly was a case in which dysfunction led to disaster. Don’t let that be the epitaph of any of your projects.

[This account is taken in part from a wonderful retelling of Franz Ferdinand’s misbegotten trip, as reported in Robert Siegel’s interview of Christopher Clark (author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914).]

[Photo Credit:]


What ever happened to?

optimizing book cover.main_image Every so often magazines will run a feature that begins with the words, “What ever happened to…?” Sometimes, the question they ask is “Where are they now?” Often their curiosity is focused on child stars who once seemed ubiquitous but now have all but disappeared. There are even websites devoted to these critical questions.

For those of you who have been loyal readers of this blog over the years, you might be justified in wondering what ever happened to Above and Beyond KM. After all, the activity on this site has declined quite noticeably in recent months. The reason behind this is quite simple. Over the course of the last year I was immersed in two substantial projects: (1) building a business and (2) researching and writing a book. I’m delighted to report that things are going well on the business front. As for the book, it has just been published.

The book is entitled Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions and it studies all the parts of a law firm that are not populated by fee earners. In some firms there are as many (or more) folks working in support functions as there are practising lawyers. These departments ran the gamut from Accounting and Administration to IT and Knowledge Management. But what does firm management really know about how to optimize the work of support departments? In fact, what does an optimized support function look like?

To answer these questions, I conducted over 50 interviews with senior law firm managers, as well as some managing partners, executive directors, consultants and clients. Through these conversations, I was given a behind-the-scenes look at 33 firms in Australia, Canada, England and the United States. While there are admittedly many support departments that are struggling to meet basic requirements in the face of reduced staff and budgets, my research turned up several departments that were able to achieve much more than merely getting by. In fact, their performance was so good that they were well on the way to optimization, if they had not already achieved it.

What is optimization? To optimize is to make something as good or as effective as possible. Optimization means operating at peak performance. For the purposes of the book, I looked for the outliers: the support departments that seemed to be achieving more than their cohort on a consistent basis. They are not flash-in-the-pan successes, but have developed a way of working that yields steady and growing progress.  Through careful hiring and training, as well as wise management and thoughtful internal processes, these support departments routinely produce results that impress. In short, they have transformed themselves from mere cost centers into strategic partners for their respective firms.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more here about what I learned while researching this book. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this link to the book’s executive summary. For those of you who are interested in reading more, please contact the Ark Group for purchase details.


Teamwork is Hard Work

french-riviera-133592Most blog posts I publish here are written from my home office in New York City.  This one is an outlier — I’m writing from the balcony of my hotel room, which overlooks the Mediterranean. What brings me to the French Riviera? Believe it or not, work. (It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!) I’m here as a consultant to a wonderful company that is undertaking some impressive and daring projects to keep it at the leading edge of its industry.  We’ll be covering a number of topics this week, but the key topic for today is teamwork.

The company has grown rapidly through acquisition, snapping up smaller companies around the world that are outstanding in their areas of expertise. They each bring their own approach to excellence. In a manner that is not dissimilar to that of law firm partners, they are willing to work together, but are just as happy to be left alone to do the excellent work they do. This leads to a very interesting question: if you want to realize the promised synergies of a global organization, how do you set up and operate teams that work effectively across geographies, languages, cultures and business unit silos?

There are bodies of research and literature on this topic, but I’d like to draw your attention today to the work of Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. By monitoring how people work in teams, they have generated fascinating insights into what makes a group of people become a high-performing team. It turns out that there are two key factors that separate high-performing teams from low-performing teams: the communication patterns within the team (e.g., body language and the flow of ideas, who you talk to and where you talk to them) and the team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. In The New Science of Building Great Teams (subscription required), Pentland reports that the patterns of communication within the team account more for team success than the substance of their discussions and the combined impact of team members’ intelligence, personality and talent. A team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings “explained one-third of the variations in dollar productivity” among similar teams.

Applying these insights to call center productivity (which is measured by the average handling time (AHT) of customer calls), Pentland and his colleagues suggested some changes at one call center that would enhance the energy and engagement of teams. The results were impressive:

[W]e advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Though the suggestion flew in the face of standard efficiency practices, the manager was baffled and desperate, so he tried it. And it worked: AHT fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall at the call center. Now the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 of the bank’s call centers (which employ a total of 25,000 people) and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. He has also seen employee satisfaction at call centers rise, sometimes by more than 10%.

Before you say that while this may be useful in a call center environment, it does not apply to a global company or a law firm, consider the following: Pentland asserts that the complex data of an organization is more likely to be handled in face-to-face meetings or conference calls, rather than via emails or written documents.  In Pentland’s view, these meetings and conference calls require a certain level of teamwork in order to ensure that the complex data is handled correctly. And success depends heavily on the patterns of communication, as well as the energy and engagement of the team members involved.

The next time you’re in a meeting or working as part of a team, take a few minutes to assess the patterns of communication, the flow of ideas, the level of engagement and energy. Are you seeing good things? Is your team operating optimally? If not, be warned that these are early indicators of a low-performing team. The good news is that none of this is fatal, provided you and your colleagues take corrective action.

Later today, I’ll be doing exactly this type of observation with respect to the teams we’ve set up for the company’s project. And, we’ll be intervening as often as necessary to ensure that every one of these teams is a high-performing team. Admittedly, we’ll be doing this from the comfort of a beautiful hotel on a gorgeous coastline. It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!

[Photo Credit:]


Mark the Occasion

4699612078_9b6048bede_m It’s graduation season again. Families all over the country will travel to academic institutions near and far to celebrate the completion by their loved ones of a course of study. Part and parcel of the process are the obligatory speeches*: the largely forgettable speeches filled with unwanted advice rendered in solemn tones by local worthies; the largely inane speeches filled with low humor and insider references to class jokes delivered by representatives of the graduating class. We sit through these events time and time again because we know it is important to mark the occasion.

A senior manager of a law firm knowledge management department recently told me that one of the challenges KM staff members face is that a fair measure of their time is spent on routine maintenance tasks. Given this reality, one day slips into another, without much sense of meaningful accomplishment. Granted, everyone notices when a maintenance failure results in a crisis, but rarely do we ever celebrate a crisis-free day. His advice was to ensure that in our periodic reporting efforts we take time to note when these routine maintenance chores are executed well or when conscientious effort expended on these tasks results in a crisis-free day.

If our KM systems rely on the faithful execution of maintenance work, it only makes sense to support these efforts. Rather than using sticks, consider using carrots. Just like we help celebrate academic achievement periodically, we should celebrate the less glamorous side of our professional responsibilities as knowledge management personnel. For the sake of our KM systems and our own professional satisfaction, we should remember to mark the occasion. After all, no ones really wants to deal with the crisis that results when we ignore the value of routine maintenance.

* For a welcome alternative, see National Public Radio’s collection of The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.

[Photo Credit: US Army Africa]


If Southwest Airlines Ran Your Law Firm

Southwest Airlines - June 10, 2001 Earlier this year I wrote a post entitled, If Dominos Ran Your Law Firm. That post focused on the window on its operations that Dominos Pizza provides to its customers via the Dominos Tracker. Of course, I was drawing a pointed contrast with the lack of transparency that most law firms offer to their clients.

In that spirit of pointed contrasts, let’s take a look at Southwest Airlines. Since its beginning, Southwest Airlines has followed a distinctive path. The company has made some choices that other companies find difficult, if not impossible, to make. As a result, Southwest has developed a unique company culture that is known as “Living the Southwest Way.” According to the post, Southwest Airlines “Gets It” With Our Culture, their culture has three components:

  • Warrior Spirit:  work hard, desire to be the best, be courageous, display a sense of urgency, persevere, and innovate.
  • Servant’s Heart:  follow The Golden Rule, put others first, demonstrate proactive Customer Service (that includes both Internal–SWA Employees–and External Customers), and embrace the SWA Family.
  • Fun-LUVing* Attitude:  don’t take yourself too seriously, maintain perspective (balance), celebrate successes, enjoy your work, and be a passionate Teamplayer. [*LUV is Southwest’s ticker symbol.]

Perhaps the most significant way in which Southwest is not like most other companies flows from Southwest’s priorities. Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest, explains what he sees as the false choice regarding corporate priorities:

When I started out, business school professors liked to pose a conundrum: Which do you put first, your employees, your customers, or your shareholders? As if that were an unanswerable question. My answer was very easy: You put your employees first. If you truly treat your employees that way, they will treat your customers well, your customers will come back, and that’s what makes your shareholders happy. So there is no constituency at war with any other constituency. Ultimately, it’s shareholder value that you’re producing.

Putting Employees First

Can you give me the name of a law firm that puts its employees first? If you ask most law firms, they’ll tell you that they “put the client first.” (As a practical matter, many actually put their shareholders (i.e., the partners) first.) At Southwest, the approach is quite different. In fact they express it with the following “magic formula“:

Happy Employees = Happy Customers = Increased Business/Profits = Happy Shareholders! 

They also express it quite explicitly as part of the mission statement posted on their website:

The Mission of Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

To Our Employees

We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.

Imagine that? Treating employees as you expect them to treat your clients. Encouraging creativity and innovation rather than conformity and rigid adherence to tradition. Supporting employees as they find new ways to build the business and keep customers happy. The cynic in you might say that words are cheap. In fact you might question whether it is possible to run a financially viable operation in this manner. According to Southwest’s most recent “One Report,” 2011 marked the 39th consecutive year of profitability for the company. Can you name a major law firm that can match these results?

Southwest’s website features the following quotation from Gary Kelly, their CEO:

Our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring longterm competitive advantage.

I suspect senior management of your firm has said that from time to time, but how have they demonstrated it? Aside from moving from the jargon of  “professional development” to that of “talent management,” has anything materially improved for the employees of your firm? Is there a sense of teamwork and shared mission regardless of whether or not the members of the team have law degrees? Is there a commitment to mutual learning and growth? Is there explicit encouragement of creativity and innovation, not only in the practice of law but in the business of law?

Herb Kelleher once observed that competitors can buy your tangible assets, but they cannot buy the competitive advantage your company culture gives you. Has your law firm invested in a company culture that keeps your best employees engaged and encourages every employee to become one of the best? As the economic environment becomes more challenging, your people will truly be your greatest strength. Now would be a good time to start thinking like Herb Kelleher if you’re serious about being in this game for the long haul.


Just for fun, here’s an example of a Southwest Airlines employee at work:

[Photo Credit: Jim Ellwanger]


Don’t Leave Talent on the Table

Dandelion Have you ever made the mistake of leaving talent on the table when hiring or staffing? If so, you should consider what Robert Austin has to say in the video below about the Danish software testing company, Specialisterne. This company recruits and retains a workforce that is uniquely suited to the rigors of software testing. What’s so special about their staff?  Most have been diagnosed with some form of autism. It’s important to note is that this company’s business model is not based primarily on grudging accommodation of people outside the norm. Rather it’s built on “using the characteristics of people with autism as a competitive advantage.” Here’s the company’s extraordinary story in its own words:

At Specialisterne, people with autism work in an environment where they are presented with the best possible opportunities to reach their potential. They don’t have to learn to adapt to the usual working-environment norms, such as being a good team player, being empathetic, handling stress well and showing flexibility. These are not the usual characteristics for people with autism; a fact that usual[ly] results in their being excluded long-term from the labour market. Instead, Specialisterne welcomes the very differences and character traits that are so often seen as a stigma.

Putting it simply; at Specialisterne, not fitting in is a good thing. The traits that usually exclude people with autism from the labour market are the very traits that make them valuable employees at Specialisterne, such as attention to detail, zero tolerance for errors and a persistence to get the job done. We don’t see them as people with an autism diagnosis; rather, we see them as true specialists, which is why we refer to them as “specialist people”. Imagine a world where someone who was once defined by their diagnosis, would instead be defined as a “specialist person” ?

As Austin notes in the video, companies that pass over idiosyncratic talent in favor of more well-rounded or complete talent end up “leaving talent on the table.” They may settle for uncomplicated and reasonably good over slightly more challenging but brilliant.  According to Austin, one way to ensure that you don’t leave talent on the table is to check yourself every time you find yourself sacrificing talent for ease within your context when hiring and staffing.  To explain the importance of context he paraphrases Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, who uses the metaphor of a dandelion:

The dandelion is generally considered to be a weed. However, dandelions can be valuable: they have medicinal properties and can be used to make a salad, a coffee substitute and wine, among other things. Therefore, the dandelion’s essential characteristics are not what makes us view the plant as a weed, but rather the context in which we find it. A dandelion in a lawn is unwelcome, while a dandelion in an herb garden is likely to be nurtured. Similarly, companies may consider people with autism to be unemployable because those companies have been forcing these people into inappropriate and unsupportive contexts. Change the context and then you realize the benefits.

In these days of shrinking budgets, do you want a minimally competent but unremarkable team, or should you be thinking about the competitive advantage you gain by hiring idiosyncratic talent? While idiosyncratic talent may require gifted managers, Specialisterne demonstrates the benefits of this unconventional approach.

They don’t leave talent on the table.

[Photo Credit: Code Poet]