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How A Law Firm Wins By Aligning Its Disruptors (Part 2 of the Conversation with Bryan Schwartz)

People who rock the boat in your environment aren’t as bad as you think. In fact, they may be just what your business needs to approach challenges from a whole new perspective you wouldn’t have considered. Bryan Schwartz, Co-Founder of Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC., is a Leader With Courage who embraced this line of thinking during his tenure heading his law firm. We recently talked about the value of alignment and why you don’t need everybody on the team to agree in order to be moving in the same direction.

Value Drivers: In my book, “Being A Leader With Courage,” I refer to certain employees belonging to a group called Disruptors. Disruptors aren’t bad performers but rather people who see things very differently. They challenge the routine, the mundane and the status quo. It bores them and they constantly need a new challenge. You strike me as falling into this category.

Bryan Schwartz: Not only am I a Disruptor, but I also hire Disruptors. Because when you bring a bunch of Disruptors together, you can do some really impactful things. If you can leave your ego out of it, you can manage them. It’s about getting alignment with all of them. Even among those who aren’t natural Disruptors, I try to push those people to reach heights beyond their comfort zone.

Let’s dive deeper into alignment. How do you achieve that with your people?

First, you have to understand how much I value alignment – few things are more important to me than that. Alignment trumps so many other things. If you have a strategy and a culture, your people still have to be aligned. They can’t just be in it selfishly for themselves. Otherwise, nothing goes anywhere.

If you have the right people and have alignment, culture melds it together. In our environment, that culture means: Clients first, firm second, individuals third. Every major decision I had as a leader ran through that funnel. So if some lawyer was complaining to me about meeting his particular needs, I’d say “OK, is that good for our clients and our firm as well? Because if it’s good for the individual but not good for our clients and firm, we’re done talking.”

It reminds me of one of the conversations I had with Christine Robins, President & CEO of Char-Broil, who said, “There’s a difference between alignment and agreement. We’ll have our discussion on things and you can choose to agree or not. But by the end of the discussion, I need people to align.”

I think agreement is the least important quality in a business.

Sure. You wind up with a bunch of “Yes” people!

I always tested the amount of disagreement as a way to see if an idea was good enough. Because on any initiative, if I wasn’t getting a lot of disagreement, I realized I could have pushed the idea so much farther. I’ve felt that if 1/3 of the people in the room are disagreeing with it, that’s good enough. That’s my negotiation level of what I push for. I’m not interested in getting 100% agreement. If I have my 2/3 coalition, the 1/3 is going to have to decide to jump aboard the bandwagon or leave. Usually, because I would listen to them and enable them to have input, it made it easier for people to buy into things they weren’t always comfortable with.

Among the four categories of our Leaders With Courage Self-Assessment, the fourth and last category is called the Courageous Decision Maker, which contains a lot of what you’re describing here: Being inclusive yet unafraid to disappoint others whose views don’t prevail, drawing the line in the sand and sticking with it, etc.

Within that category, I would also add the ability to admit you’ve made a mistake. If you make a bad mistake…change it! That’s courage to me. What’s not courageous is making a bad decision and then riding it into the ground. You have to do what’s right for the cause above all. Many times I had to be more of a servant to the cause and not the people. If I was true to the cause, I didn’t care who liked me as much as the people who respected me.

With so much of your time focused on being the best leader you could be for the firm, did your own book of business suffer?

Ironically, yes. I suppose it did hurt my legal career if you look at it that way. Perhaps if I’d been focused purely on the work itself from age 35 until now, I’d have at least $10 million in my book of business alone. But you know what? That’s OK. Being a leader was such an interesting and fun experience that I would never give up. I went “all in,” I took risks and I would do it all over again.

Besides, I don’t believe in benchmarking myself against others. The only benchmark is your own.

True. If you go with an industry benchmark today and strive for that, in five years you’ll be where everyone else is right now, but by the time you get there, they’ll have already moved on to the next goal.

Yes. That’s a great point. I don’t think I’ve made that argument before. Benchmarking is a reason to not change.

Right. People use it as a speed bump.

I like it. Can I steal that?

Go right ahead. I give these away every so often for free.

Alignment doesn’t just happen overnight. Neither does becoming a Leader With Courage. If you’re wondering how to bring your best Disruptors together to move your firm forward or how to gain better alignment if you can’t get total agreement, the best place to start is to get a baseline of your strengths and areas for improvement as a leader.

Begin with the Leaders With Courage Self-Assessment, which gauges your abilities in a number of categories, including the Courageous Decision Maker. Follow that up with our 360 Assessment to discover how you’re truly viewed in the eyes of those who work closest with you. Because as people like Bryan Schwartz will tell you, the best leaders never stop learning and improving. Are you ready?

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