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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Away with the naysayers!

I have a friend who is the CEO and owner of a multinational company. Now in his early seventies, his company has over 1 billion in revenue and employs around 4000 highly trained professionals around the world. At the age of 40 his father passed away and he ended up in a fight over the inheritance with his siblings, which he lost. Empty handed he founded his company from scratch, and became the undisputed market-leader about a decade later. This tale is however not about my friend’s achievements, it is about the people that surrounded him, his advisors, his co-directors, his financiers. No-one had any faith in his ideas and plans. Banks did not want to invest, they thought he was mad. How wrong they were in only focusing on the many risks and unknowns and not looking at the potential upside. In hindsight they must have pulled their hairs, as they also could have earned millions.

It is not just my friend, who had a great but untested idea, which ran into a negative attitude and resistance from ‘industry experts’ and banks. Notably in 1985 Steve Jobs, was fired from Apple, only to be hailed in as the savior a decade later. There’re many other similar stories. Faced with a new idea or concept it is so easy and tempting for commentators and experts to be negative and shoot it down. It is easy to quickly come up with 10 reasons why NOT to do something, but perhaps there is ONE more meaningful reason to push ahead regardless.

Opportunities and naysayers

Lawyers are the ultimate naysayers. If it comes to highlighting potential risks, they are second to none. Call it professional deformation, if your entire working life revolves around spotting every potential present or future risk under any thinkable or even unthinkable scenario, you can be forgiven for carrying that attitude into the partner meeting. Like sharks that can spot a drop of blood in the ocean from miles away, a lawyer can spot the tiniest of risks before anyone else can.

This focus on the negative is exactly what sucks the life out of partner meetings. Managing Partners typically have to strategically plan and lobby in order for any proposal not to get shot down in the first minutes after presenting it. What they fear most is one partner taking the floor and raise questions or objections on one tiny detail, after which the whole discussion derails into a whirlpool spiraling downwards, ultimately ending in the rejection or mutilation of the proposal. Any MP will confirm that it is extremely rare for partners to respond with instant enthusiasm to anything. Even being shortlisted for an award could be met with vitriol.

Quite often naysayers dominate the discussion. Lawyers have a Pavlov-response when it comes to discussing potential downsides. As soon as anyone starts an argument they cannot help themselves diving in that rabbit hole. Discussions can derail on stupid and insignificant details without prior warning. Many great opportunities were missed and good proposals got axed because of these dynamics.

There is no single best solution

It is a common misconception that there will be a best-solution to any problem. Typically there are several solutions that produce different outcomes, which are all equally acceptable. One can have a heated debate on whether the color of the new letterhead should be green or blue, but in the end it does not really matter. The paradigm that there is only one possible best solution is deeply ingrained in the lawyer way of thinking. Every single detail must be right and one should never ever settle for what is less than total perfection. In the real world unfortunately this does not work. Compromises have to be made and risks have to be taken.

It would be so liberating in many ways if lawyers would be able to control their negative reflexes. It is so much harder to come up with an idea or initiative, than it is to shoot it down. The eternal focus on the downside and the negative, often creates a negative mood in partner meetings. Just ask yourself the question why is it that most partners hate going to partner meetings? How often is it fun, how often does it feel like progress is made, how often does it feel like time well spent?

Partners are busy with their client practice. If they spend time on internal meetings, make it count. Grab the opportunity to use the ‘swarm intelligence’ of all the brains in the room to brainstorm on new ideas. Use the partner meeting to build a strong culture of unity, trust and ‘esprit de corps’. In order to achieve that we need to change the way we respond to all things new.

Constructive criticism

I am by no means advocating partners should not speak their minds. On the contrary, critical interventions often lead to cross fertilization. What needs to change is the way in which critical questions are delivered. For a trained lawyer it super-easy to verbally burn down any initiative or idea to the ground, but that is not very helpful, is it?

What has proven to work really well is to instate a rule that any contribution needs to make the proposal better. Instead of highlighting risks, offer suggestions how to mitigate those risks. Instead of shooting down an idea, offer an alternative solution to reach the same ultimate goal. Basically anyone questioning an idea, proposal or initiative, should bring a better alternative to the table. Naysayers need to become co-constructors. Implementing and keeping such policy in partner meetings will notably change the culture of the firm for the better.

Rest to say that while proposals can absolutely benefit from the input from partners, for the majority of initiatives and proposals that are put to the partner meeting by the firm’s leadership, it is better to just trust their vision and judgement and refrain from diving into potential weaknesses altogether. In the end it does not really matter if the letterhead is printed in blue or green.


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