The Gold Medal Standard

Usain BoltI’m a Jamaican, born and raised.  As such, I have had a wonderful last few days.  You may have heard of Usain Bolt.  If you haven’t, he’s a 100m and 200m Jamaican sprinter who just won three gold medals at the London Olympics.  That’s to go with his three gold medals that he won at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  He’s six-for-six at the Olympic games.  He’s also set three world records, repeated times.  Usain Bolt calls himself a legend.  You’d be hard-pressed to disagree with him.

However, the self-described “world’s greatest athlete” said something interesting a few days ago.  Back in Jamaica, before he hit it big, Usain used to run the 400m (that’s one lap around the entire track).  It was, in fact, his signature race.   But Usain Bolt hates the 400.  He hates the training.  He hates the exertion.  So Usain turned to the shorter distances – 100 and 200.  And he was not only better at those.  He became the best in the world.

But imagine if he didn’t take that path.  Imagine if, at the start of his career, he had a coach who told him – “Usain, you’re good at the 100 and you’re good at the 200.  But you’re not good at the 400.  So let’s focus on that instead.  Let’s only talk about the 400.  Let’s only train for the 400.  I’m going to pair you up with coaches who only know the 400.  And the 100 and 200?  Don’t worry about those.  You’re good enough.”

I don’t know what Usain’s response would have been.  I’m pretty sure that coach wouldn’t have a job at the end of the day.  But here’s what I do know.  Had he taken his coach’s advice,  Usain Bolt would never have become a six-time Olympic gold medalist.  He would have spent his time on something he didn’t enjoy and wasn’t very good at, rather than on something he loved and was great at.  He would have been slower to wake up, surlier at practices, and less invested in his career.  He may have realized that he would have been good, maybe good enough, but he would never have been the best.

Now I remember every employee review I’ve ever had.  They’ve all been pretty much the same.  I walk in.  I sit down in front of one or two supervisors.  They open a folder.  They read every review submitted for me.  They commend me for the positives.  They acknowledge my achievements.  That lasts about ten minutes.  Then they sit back and say, “That was great, but here are a couple areas we find concerning.”  We then spend the next fifty minutes talking about all the areas in which I can improve – trying practice areas I’m not interested in, working with partners I have yet to meet, focusing on skills that aren’t as good as others.  Instead of talking about building on what I’m good at, we discuss what I’m failing to achieve.  My weaknesses instead of my strengths.  So I, like many associates before me, leave these meetings thinking how I’m fine at what I do, but I’m not great at it, and frankly, never will be.

It wasn’t until I attended an ABA Section on Litigation presentation at the recent ABA Annual Conference that I realized what the problem was.  The presenters were Professor Bill Henderson, Dr. Arin Reeves and Scott Westfahl.  The topic was “Building Better Lawyers at Every Level.”  Their thesis was simple – law firms have terrible track records at recruiting and retaining young attorneys.  The main reason?   Law firms do not focus on attorney strengths.  But to recruit and retain the best, law firms have to focus on their attorneys’ strengths.  Only in developing those strengths can they create happier, more productive and more invested attorneys.

I was blown away by three experts saying outright that telling attorneys their weakest skills makes for unhappy, unproductive and unsuccessful attorneys.  According to them, the real way to success is through strengths, not through weaknesses.  The best sprinter n the world doesn’t focus on his weakest event; he builds on his strongest.

And the numbers prove it.  A 2003 Gallup Poll found that managers who built on the strengths of their employees were 86% more successful than managers who didn’t.  Similarly, a 2002 Gallup Poll found that people who report “having the opportunity to do what they do best every day” were 44% more likely to succeed at engaging customers and retaining employees and 38% more likely to succeed at productivity measures.

This isn’t surprising.  If you like what you do then you’ll do better at it.  Unfortunately, law firms often focus on the complete opposite.  For many firms, it doesn’t matter how great the associate is at the 100 – supporting, drafting, researching.  Firms think she should be running the 400 – arguing, leading, networking – instead.

So this blog post is a call to action of sorts.  In the upcoming months, recent law school graduates will be starting their new positions as attorneys.  Juniors and mid-levels will be taking that dreaded walk to a partner’s office to listen to their mid-year review.   And supervising partners will be building new teams of superstar lawyers.  Here’s your call.

New Attorneys: Take a strengths analysis.  “Strengths Finders 2.0” by Tom Rath is a very popular one and builds on several decades of Gallup polling.  Learn what you are best at.  Then do what Dr. Reeves suggested at the ABA panel – make a business plan for yourself.  You want your employer to invest in you.  Why should they?  Figure out your strengths and the tasks that best suit those strengths.   Then seek projects that capitalize on your strengths.  Do what you’re good at and you’ll be much better at it.

Reviewing Attorneys: Encourage your junior’s strengths.   You may think it’s a challenge to make her do something she’s uncomfortable with, but you’re setting her and yourself up for disappointed clients, discouraged attorneys, and the continuing revolving door of law firms.  You have spent thousands of dollars and thousands of billable hours developing her skills as a lawyer.  You don’t want her to leave so you can spend even more thousands on developing another young attorney only to have the exact same thing happen again.

Supervising Attorneys:  Read through that Strengths Finder 2.0 list of strengths.  There are 34 of them.  See the wide range of characteristics that people, including lawyers, can have.  And focus on building a team with all of those strengths  – achievers, activators, empathizers, harmonizers, commanders.  With personalities and work styles that complement each other, you’ll be left with a strong, healthy, diverse team of professionals.  To quote the CEO of Ernst & Young (as Dr. Reeves does in her book, “The Next IQ”), “In a  globalized world, diversity is more than just a question of race or gender.  It is a spectrum of attributes … And research shows that capitalizing on these differences is a powerful factor in encouraging innovation.”

Here’s the most important part – we’re not ignoring weaknesses.  We’re reframing how we encourage and grow attorneys.  Building strengths should be our gold medal standard, not crticizing weaknesses.  It’s neither easy nor straightforward, but then again, neither is winning a gold medal.  Because here’s how the story ends.  Usain Bolt may very well run the 400 in 2016.  Thirty-year olds don’t usually win Olympic-level sprints.  But if he does, he’ll do so knowing that for eight years, he was the best in the world at something he was the very strongest at.  And when Rio 2016 comes around, he won’t see the 400 as a weakness but as yet another mountain to conquer.  Reframe strengths, reframe weaknesses.  Build better lawyers, build better firms.  That’s the gold medal standard.

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