With almost every leader we’ve spoken with, they’ve often stepped into a culture that they inherited in some way and had to reshape from there. Very few of them had to build it from scratch. What’s fascinating about Bryan Schwartz's story is that he really started as head of Levenfeld Pearlstein with a white piece of paper.
Value Drivers: Brian, many of us talk about what we'd do if we could start with a white piece of paper. As the co-founder of Levenfeld Pearlstein, you actually did it. Tell me what you learned from that experience.
Bryan Schwartz: It was a white piece of paper – but I did have a vision. See, even if nobody else has that vision, that actually doesn’t matter. Your job as a leader is to create that vision and sell it. Did I run into times I was discouraged? Of course! Every day! But ultimately, resilience in the face of challenge comes with the territory of building something.
Courage is about belief. With a vision, you can see the small wins. There’s tangible evidence of it working. Not everybody is prepared to take that leap of faith the way you’d like. They have to see it. When I started years ago in this brand new direction, what I continually heard was, “What you want to do is impossible. It can’t be done in a law firm. You’re just wasting your time.” I love that! Tell me that all day if you like and let me prove to you that it can work after all.
One of the insights we uncovered while doing the research for the book, “Being A Leader With Courage” is that leaders and managers can tend to stick with underperformers or misfits for too long. Did you ever fall victim to that or did you have a keen sense of what was working?
There were two pivotal moments for me on this topic:
First, when my Executive Director told me I was the patron saint for lost souls because I would never give up fast enough on people. I would always see the good and not enough of the bad. As a leader, I would only focus on strength. With lawyers, that’s very tough because we tend to always focus on weaknesses. So I was going against the grain in that respect. But when I received that comment from my Director, it was a wake up call on my tolerance of underperformers.
Second, within two months of being described that way, I read Brad Smart’s book, “Topgrading (How To Hire, Coach and Keep A Players)”. In that book, he talks about the morality of firing C-level players. It’s just fantastic. He speaks of how C-level players will never fire themselves and how, as a leader, you have a moral responsibility to fire them. Everybody knows they suck and they’re bringing the rest of the organization down.
You are better off liberating that C-level player to not only give other people an opportunity to shine but so that individual you just fired can be at least B-level player somewhere else legitimately.
How did you learn to continually elevate your own performance and not get too comfortable with your existing skill set?
As a leader, every year I would find a huge area I wouldn’t know anything about and be obsessive about understanding it, whether it was interviewing or knowledge management. Then I’d take a different part of the business and make it the best it could possibly be by trusting my people to take that area to a much better level – or I’d hire the right people to take us there.
In the course of studying new areas to gain knowledge, I got very interested in corporate social responsibility. That has driven a lot of our purpose here at Levenfeld, which is to change people’s lives, make an impact with clients and use our money in powerful ways beyond paying ourselves. So corporate social responsibility has become something for the whole company to get behind besides just billing the most hours. Once I developed the vision for it and implemented a system for it, internal people took the ball and ran with it. They’ve built it to a much higher level than when I started it.
And that hand-off to people you can trust – that’s consistent with how you view leadership, correct?
Absolutely. It has to be. You need to refresh leadership in a professional services firm. Once I’d run the firm for 16 years, it was time for me to get out of the way. You need to give seats at the table to younger people. Otherwise, the firm doesn’t survive. I’m proud to say our people in the middle at Levenfeld Pearlstein who are coming up are awesome.
However, there are other firms with great older leaders at the top but not much of anything built behind them. They’re often waiting to merge with someone else, after which many of those senior leaders leave.
Do your clients notice a difference in your brand versus other firms?
We believe they do. We do client interviews every year to gauge that. It’s very hard to do but it is something our firm is constantly working on. See, the challenge with many professional firms is that we’re not like consumer brands in that if you buy ketchup at one store and then buy the same brand at another store, it’s going to taste exactly the same. Every lawyer you have an interaction with creates a different view of the brand that’s either consistent with it or inconsistent with it. It can be strengthened or watered down as a result.
We’ve had retreats where Ritz-Carlton comes in to talk to us about how they deliver service consistently, for example. We want our people to understand that this aspect of what we do and say is just as important as the work itself. It’s not merely about what you’re doing for the client – it’s what the client is experiencing. How does he or she actually feel when you work with them? Are you being condescending or are you being empathetic? Do you really understand what their goals are? Or have you decided what their goals are? That’s very hard to teach.
What percentage of your colleagues in the firm share your vision? Are you still the one who represents the spark or have others picked up the vision and carried it? Or when you eventually leave the firm someday, will that flame die?
To some extent, it has to die. No firm ever has two founders. The founder leaves a shadow. I think the worst thing to do is compare the poor successor after the founder…to the founder. If you’re in that role taking over, you don’t need to be the same as the founder. You just need to be yourself.
Every person who leads wants to leave their own stamp on the organization and that’s OK. If you look at where Levenfeld Pearlstein was in 2002, it was so different than where our firm is today. Certain parts of the culture will have values that don’t change over time, but some have. You have to not only allow for some of that kind of change but embrace it as part of the firm’s evolution.
Thank you, Bryan, for spending so much time with me. Your bio on Levenfeld Pearlstein's website states you're a "businessman who happens to be a lawyer." I'd add to that description how you're a role model for anyone who strives to be a Leader With Courage.
“I’ll just do it myself.” If you’ve said it once, that’s one time too many.
The best leaders, like Levenfeld Pearlstein’s Bryan Schwartz, are inclusive problem solvers who also know how to delegate. They can trust employees while holding them accountable for their commitments. And they’re not afraid to disappoint those whose ideas don’t prevail.
If these are areas you routinely struggle with, take the next 5 minutes to complete the Leaders With Courage Self-Assessment. Then, once you have the baseline of 26 attributes of leadership, let’s dive into a 360 Assessment that will uncover how you're perceived by others and the areas you can improve upon, whether you’re building a culture from scratch like Bryan or reshaping one you inherited. Will this be the week you have the courage to ask others how you're doing?