12 Common Mistakes NEW Firm Leaders Often Make

Posted on November 14, 2016

Having worked with new leaders for the past ten years and through our First 100 Days program (www.first100daysmasterclass.com) my colleague Brian Burke and I have witnessed a number of common mistakes that we see inexperienced leaders making – even those who have served on the firm’s elected Board or as an office head for some years. These mistakes can serious impact ones effectiveness and even peer acceptance as the firm’s leader.  Here are a few of the more common ones we’ve observed:

1.        Immediately engaging in formal strategic planning

Nobody would rise to a firm leadership role without being driven to succeed, but many new leaders think that their very first initiative should be to develop a new strategic plan for their firms in some effort to define a future direction and make their mark. The only problem with that approach is that to engage in any meaningful strategic planning process requires a disciplined investment of at least six months of significant time devoted to research and meetings – all of which dramatically decreases the new leader’s visibility and ease of access, critically important to your colleagues in your first weeks of office – not the best way to enhance relationships.

2.        Not adequately debriefing with your predecessor

It is critical for the two of you as firm leaders to arrange a closed-door, one-on-one meeting for you to interview and learn everything you can from your predecessor and work through some of the important transition decisions together. In our work with leadership transitions we have identified no less than 23 different questions that you need to ask to ensure an adequate orientation and you cannot expect your predecessor to remember to brief you on everything you might need to know.  One of the many questions that we are always amazed is rarely asked, but frequently will come back to bite you later, is – “Were there any promises made to anyone that I should be aware of?”

3.        Speaking when you should be listening

There is an old adage that a new leader should hit the ground running . . . and nothing could be further from the truth! It’s tempting to want to make yourself heard during your first days and weeks in your new position, but smart leaders listen before they speak.  They know that their first priority should be to conduct a ‘listening tour’ throughout their firm to gauge the pulse of the partnership and ask a lot of “why” questions. Not only will listening raise your credibility with your colleagues, it will help you identify those issues that should comprise your personal strategic agenda going forward during your first year.

4.        Making any promises – trying to please everyone

It’s tempting to try to win favor with your colleagues right away by promising to make certain changes, especially in wanting to be responsive to some concern you have been informed about while conducting your ‘listening tour.’ Telling your colleagues that all of their many issues will be addressed now that you’re in charge, is guaranteed to set you up for inevitable failure; especially after you have obtained further information on the particular issue in question. Then when you can’t deliver on your promises, you’ll look foolish and lose credibility.

5.        Choosing the quick-fix over the more sustainable solution

If you identify an area that needs addressing simply inform your colleague that you will be arranging to conduct some research before promising any quick-fix solutions.  Almost every problem has a short-term answer (if you look hard enough) but the quickest fix isn’t necessarily the best. A good leader understands that the fix, that may take longer to achieve, can also reap more benefits.

6.        Not assembling the right team 

It may not be fair, but you will be judged by the competencies of your professional support team – from your COO to your CMO. Good leaders recognize that instead of ignoring any skill or behavior gaps, avoiding the reality that some members don’t belong, or waiting till the situation worsens, you need to make some hard decisions. You had better make sure and determine quickly whether you have the right support team working with you.

7.        Initiating TOO many priorities

The best leaders know that it’s a rookie mistake to outline numerous goals that they want to immediately achieve. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can spread yourself across multiple priorities or that if you have numerous projects than perhaps some will ultimately be successful. Instead, outline only a few of your highest priorities and don’t be seen to be vague or frequently changing your priorities.  Remember, ineffective leaders often lack the good sense to say no, instead giving in to requests from their partners that draw them away from their strategic priorities in an effort to try to be all things to all people.

8.        Thinking you should have all the answers and not asking for help.

The worst leaders usually turn out to be the ones who think they already have all the answers, believe they’re better than everyone else—and they don’t bother to hide it.  Leaders who forgo conferring with other firm leaders, an experienced external coach or a more experienced internal peer, risk not being in leadership for a long tenure.  Asking for needed help isn’t a sign of weakness in a leader, it’s a must.

9.        Failing to Delegate – letting the urgent crowd out the important

This one is a classic and indicative of how the urgent will crowd out the important every time! One of the self-confessed shortcomings we always hear from new firm leaders after they have been in their position for a few months is how they were tempted to shoulder the workload themselves, working under the assumption that every request needed their attention. And of course, then there is the micro-managing new boss who is overly absorbed in small details and too controlling to allow any of his or her team members take the reigns.  Avoid this pitfall by delegating work smartly.  Give your COO and other support professionals assignments according to their interest and expertise—or, even try letting them volunteer for tasks themselves.

10.      Not Making Time to Strategize

We often ask new leaders what percentage of their week is spent solving problems versus exploring opportunities. Even when you delegate most tasks, it’s easy to spend all day putting out fires, answering questions, meeting with your team or dealing with the endless onslaught of email and requests from your colleagues.  You’ve efforts will suffer, your stated priorities will go unrealized, if you’re not taking time to strategize. Book this time out on your schedule and make it sacrosanct.  Business conditions seem to change at the speed of light today, so you can’t afford to be reactive—you must be proactive.

11.      Thinking it’s a waste of time to work on your leadership skills

So what was the last leadership book you read and when was the last leadership course you took? In many firms it is typical for those who end up in firm leadership positions to be chosen based on their perceived technical expertise, their intelligence, and past client origination performance.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that because you have the skill-set to feed people you are properly skilled to lead people. And even though you may have had some experience as a practice group or office head, we continue to hear from those who take on firm leadership responsibilities, how you need to invest some time in leadership development during your critical first few months as you attempt to get a good handle on the magnitude of what this job of being a firm leader really entails.

12.      Believing that everyone wants you to succeed

Finally, learning to lead takes courage, tenacity and dedication.  After all, if it were easy, everyone would be a Firm Leader. Real leaders have to be willing to be disliked as they lead.  They also have to avoid seeking the pretense of harmony, pushing for “one happy family” while ignoring the fact that not everyone is in agreement.  Some professionals who take the reins believe that all of their colleagues actually want to see them succeed . . . only later to unfortunately discover that some, for whatever self-serving reasons, may not! (See my article: Firm Leadership is NOT for Wimps!)

We all make mistakes.  And those with the biggest responsibilities can be prone to making their share of missteps.  It comes with the territory.  I hope reviewing this list helps you to recognize those mistakes that probably could easily be avoided.


By Patrick J. McKenna

Internationally Recognized Author, Lecturer, Strategist and Seasoned Advisor to the Leaders of Premier Law Firms

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