When Two Must Work as One: The Challenges in Sharing Leadership

Topics: Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts

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I read and was struck by Laura Empson’s recent article, Leadership Dyads: The Ideal Leader is Two People from the recent issue of Thomson Reuters’ Forum magazine. From my work with leaders of major law firms over the years, one of the inherent problems of having two professionals sharing any senior leadership role starts with role clarity. Indeed, the need for developing role clarity is not easy when most firms do not even have a formal written job description for their Chair or Managing Partner positions.

The job of leading a law firm may certainly be demanding enough for two professionals; but the test is selecting the right two people to share the role. From my vantage point I have witnessed multiple examples of attempts to split the firm leadership job that led to clashing egos and crippling power struggles, especially if one of these two partners conceals any ambition for holding the position alone.

The most successful pairs often consist of firm co-founders or partners who started at the firm at the same time when it was smaller — also, it’s easier in those firms that truly have a “team-oriented” culture. Despite some problems with sharing responsibilities numerous professional service firms have made it work. Here are the key components where I believe the two co-conspirators need to focus:

Cultivate Self-Awareness

One of the initial hurdles to sharing leadership responsibilities is that neither of the two co-leaders usually get a say in choosing their counterpart and this can obviously cause some frustration.

In the ideal situation, the firm should be selecting co-leaders that have complimentary capabilities and different sets of experiences. Perhaps one is perceived as the more senior statesman while the other is recognized for their youthful entrepreneurial spirit. In other words, the best situation is where the two partners bring different skill sets and different talents to the table such that either would freely admit that they could not do the things that the other does. This allows their different leadership styles and different competencies to benefit of the firm.

In beginning to understand each other, each co-leader has to be brutally honest — in understanding their respective strengths and weaknesses. It is advisable, early in any working relationship, to engage them both in some form of self-assessment to obtain a measure of leadership strengths, personal work style and emotional disposition in order to establish some hard data to examine and compare.

Ensure There Is a Shared Commitment to the Firm

For two professionals to successfully lead one firm, they need to come together in developing a shared ambition for where they wish to see the firm go and what they would like to achieve during their joint tenure.

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Having examined a number of shared leadership arrangements, one factor is paramount — partners have to be prepared to work together as a team for the good of the entire firm. This factor, more than any other, allows them to work through any differences and collaborate effectively. Each must be prepared to learn how to take a step back in the areas where the other is better equipped to take the lead. There can be no competition for power or accolades; and a very specific problem arises when motives are suspect. If either is perceived to be pursuing a personal agenda — that is a clear red flag.

Develop a Working Relationship

Being a co-leader is demanding in that it runs counter to the natural tendency of professionals to strive for individual achievement. Indeed, co-leaders must agree to share the responsibility — both the glory and the agony — as a team, not as individuals. When some outcome is achieved primarily by one of the co-leaders, the partners may assume the two worked together or feel that it is appropriate to recognize both leaders equally.

The greatest challenge for both to overcome will be to subordinate respective egos. Co-leadership can only work if each partner is prepared to share credit and… share blame, equally.

Clearly Define the Roles

Agreeing to work together as co-leaders always involves some upfront discussion about roles — and those roles must be carefully designed. One of the more common distinctions when dividing the workload is to have one individual dedicated to the external environment (strategic direction, client service and new business development) while the other takes responsibility for the internal environment (budgets, personnel and operations). Or, one might be responsible for the international offices, while the other focuses on the domestic operations. One might be in charge of technology and finance; while the other oversees marketing and partnership issues. Responsibilities can be divided by interests (strategy vs. operations), skills (innovation vs. implementation), or personality bent (being task-oriented vs. people oriented).

The firm also needs to be very clear concerning the degree of freedom each has around taking individual action. For example, will it become an eventual cause for conflict if one of the co-leaders is constantly the source of media commentary and has their name in the papers representing the views of the firm? Or, while it may be unrealistic for both co-leaders to be present in all meetings and interactions with other partners, on which subjects does one co-leader have complete discretion to represent the other?

Finally, there needs to be a purposeful effort to ensure that no administrative professional (CFO, CMO, HR, etc.) ever reports to both co-leaders. It is conceivable to have the marketing and IT professionals reporting to Mr. External and the financial and personnel professionals reporting to Ms. Internal.

It is important to avoid any potential for confusion; and much like with parenting, subordinates should not be allowed to play one co-leader off against the other by asking one for something to which the other co-leader has already said no.