Lessons not to Leave in Lockdown
The 16th March feels like forever ago now but, in terms of days to remember, it was a game changer for so many of us. It was the evening that Matt Hancock told the Commons that “all unnecessary social contact should cease”, which was ramped up by Boris Johnson a week later when he said that people “must” stay at home.
As I write this on 8th September, almost six months later, I am still working from home but the difference is that I am preparing for my first day back in the office tomorrow. This milestone has made me reflect on this completely unique time and ask myself what, as the leader of a medium sized business (which happens to be a law firm), I’ve learned that I must not leave in lockdown. There are too many to list in one article but here are my top three:
1. Make decisions like every day is a pandemic
When the s**t hits the fan, procrastination is not an option. As a firm which relies heavily on transactional work, both corporate and property based, we knew we were exposed and that we were going to take a hit in this pandemic and quickly. We therefore went straight into emergency planning mode. As I look back now, I see a Leadership Team that acted quickly, decisively and as kindly as possible, with a clear belief that we, including all our staff, were in this together. Those decisions have served us very well but my take away from this is not the quality of the decisions, but the speed at which they were made and how quickly we then saw results.
In truth and on reflection, some of the harder decisions we took should have been made before we’d even heard of coronavirus but because we had time and because we were probably a bit too nice, we had procrastinated and delayed what was staring us in the face in the hope that it would suddenly get better (we all know it very rarely does!). This kind of delay is never in the best interests of the firm as a whole, so Covid or no Covid, (and let’s face it, we still have no idea what lies ahead of us right now) we must carry forward that same sense of urgency and decisiveness in our decision making. This means that when lockdown becomes a distant memory, I intend to still be asking myself the question “what would I do in a pandemic?” What a difference that one change could make to our businesses.
2. Communicate, communicate and then communicate some more
There’s nothing ground-breaking about this concept I know, but never has it been so important. I believe passionately that you have to lead from the front and be as open and honest as possible. I also believe that, in the most confusing and scary of times, people want to know that (1) there is a clear plan in place; and (2) you have their backs. There is no point having the most amazing business plan in the world if your people, your most valuable asset, have no idea about it.
Whilst we’ve always had a very flexible culture in terms of where and when you work, we have also always created plenty of opportunities for the whole firm to be together, whether that’s at a firm meeting or end of month event. With those tools no longer at our disposal, we turned to technology like everyone else, and namely Zoom for our firm meetings. The first item on our agenda each month has been a full and frank update about firm performance, how that measures up against our plan and what we need to achieve in the following month. This has helped manage expectations as everyone is fully aware of our plan, as well as helping to reinforce that ‘we are all in this together’ spirit.
Pre-covid, I would present our yearly business plan in April with a mid-year review in October and a full review at year end. Within those presentations I wouldn’t spend too much time talking about financials. What I am clear about now and will therefore take forwards is that this is not enough. If we want to achieve our goals we need to be talking about them, as well as our performance against them, as much as possible and this includes financial performance, to ensure that everyone is on the boat and that we are all rowing in the same direction.
3. Time really is money
Our marketing effort is led by our Team Leaders and is very much relationship based. I have no issue with this – it’s a strategy I wholly buy into. What we have seen in lockdown, however, is that whilst our Team Leaders have embraced things like Zoom chats and Webinars and created new and successful marketing opportunities, they have also been able to spend a lot more time at the coal face, which means that the people with the highest hourly rates have been able to do more work.
Unsurprisingly this has lead to greater profitability in many of our teams and, going forwards, we must strike a better balance between non-chargeable and chargeable time by working out where we are really seeing a return on our marketing spend. This is not an easy one to solve as it is crucial that we nurture our best contacts but what I am clear about is that, if someone is going to spend two hours commuting across London and back to spend another couple of hours with a contact, that contact absolutely has to be worth it and we should be having more conversations about that rather than simply signing off another expense claim. As Simon McCrum (a management consultant I have recently discovered and whose book I am reading) says, our time would be better spent nurturing existing clients and getting to their seventh matter, rather than being on the eternal hunt for new clients and their first matter.
So as I board the train tomorrow morning, it will be with a mixture of excitement and a little bit of apprehension, but most importantly with the strongest resolve not to forget the lessons that I have learned over the last six months and to do better – isn’t that the absolute least that we leaders can do in all this?