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ALA’s Seattle Master Class: Don’t Wait for the Fire

Friday, December 20, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amanda Davis
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Like Chicago, the city of Seattle was also leveled by a great 19th century fire. In 1889, an assistant in a woodworking shop was heating glue over a gasoline fire when the glue boiled over and spilled onto the turpentine and wood chip covered floor. 

You can imagine what happened next.

Nearly every building was made of wood, the city had a barely-existent fire department, and the weather was breezy and dry. After just over 12 hours, 25 city blocks had burnt to the ground. 

Such is life in the 19th century. Fortunately, the people of Seattle weren’t stuck with a cow to blame.   

In the rush to rebuild the city, Seattle’s population doubled and the new town, replete with modern brick buildings, would sit several feet higher than the original. The fire also led the city to abandon its all-volunteer fire department in favor of a professional one and took control over the water supply. 

Voila, no more catastrophic fires. 

With my ALA Chicago chapter scholarship, I was afforded the opportunity to visit 21st century Seattle to attend the ALA Master Class: Leadership for Legal Management Professionals from Oct. 21 through 23. The class’s aim was to give firm leaders more tools to handle the myriad law industry changes, the personnel they must bring through those changes, and the stress that all of that combined can put on a person. The two-day workshop offered two tracks for attendees to develop these skills: Change Agent and Soft Skill. I chose the Change Agent track because I felt it was the most pressing issue as law firms adjust to a rapidly changing technological landscape vis-à-vis client demands. 

First, Debbie Foster of Affinity Consulting kicked off the event with a trenchant lesson on mindful leadership complete with a group breathing exercise— (relearning how to breathe was crucial to her talk)—and an inspirational country rock song to close. These somewhat awkward bits aside, Foster nailed it when she talked about how patience and empathy are key to being a mindful leader. “Connect with people, know their stories, talk about what’s on their cubicle walls,” Foster said. “We need to pay attention.” When you start with empathy, you begin to listen—and that will eventually lead you to the truth. 

Another valuable insight from Foster’s talk was rekindling the practice of simply doing one thing at a time. We’re so often busy spinning plates that we forget to accurately and delicately handle what’s in front of us, leading to unforced errors, ticked off attorneys, disengaged employees, or lost time. And what does all that lead to? More plates to spin. 

All of this, however, can be mitigated by being mindful of how you show up. Whether to the office, a party, or just home to your family, becoming mindful, grateful, and taking a pause to reflect when you arrive is paramount to your effectiveness as a leader. Judging by my fellow attendees in the room, it seems like we all had the tendency to forget this once and a while. We can be excused; sometimes it seems like every little problem is thrown at our feet. 

After this pep session, a group of us followed Foster to her talk on Cultivating an Innovative Organization. Jumping off from her mindfulness lesson, Foster took a deeper dive into the steps needed to bring a firm from ground zero to innovative acceptance. To start an innovation moment, Foster pointed out, you need to pick a project that matters, especially since non-lawyer led innovation is prohibitively more difficult.  “A technology solution is a great way to launch a new innovation project,” Foster emphasized. 

A wonderful tool for cultivating innovation is a “friction” list. That is to say, we should be documenting and becoming sharply aware of all the problems, pressure points, and nagging inefficiencies that we see in our firms and formulating plans to address them. Workplace friction, whether personnel or workflow related, tells us that something is wrong and that innovation is needed to improve balance. 

The next day, Amy Gwin talked about how to create an Aligned and Inspired Organizational Culture and how culture, the beliefs and behaviors of your people, is really the firm’s “operating system.” Culture, she said, is a strategic imperative and is as important as any other organizational strategy. 

Judy Hissong of Nesso Strategies then picked up the Agent Change volley to dissect Strategic Change Management, a session focused on honing in cultural change in order to manifest meaningful change within the firm. The bulk of the session focused on dealing with the recalcitrant people with whom we’re all too familiar. Getting your people to that transformative state takes cunning and guile and there are four quadrants to go through to get there: Deny, Resist, Explore, and Commit. “Whenever you hear someone say, ‘remember the good old days?’, you know that’s a person in Deny,” Hissong asserted.

One of the underlying themes of the Master Class was that the nature of cultivating innovation and change in firms is often fraught with obstacles, hindrances, and doubts. While the tools to handle these headwinds are available, the most important thing is a leader’s mindset. Getting to the right mindset means learning to be present and facing the difficulties that lie ahead. Such is the so-called Stockdale Paradox—where confronting reality is the only viable means to successfully changing it. In the class’s closing session Hissong related such a paradox she faced by telling us a story about the time she was playing competitive volleyball for the United States. She wasn’t sure where she fit in, she felt outclassed by her teammates, and she had to watch her team struggle to start the tournament. Yet, by maintaining a positive attitude, accepting where she was, and coercing her teammates to confront some unhappy truths, the team was able to turn things around and start winning. “Your job is to better the ball that’s hit to you,” Hissong said.  

When the people of Seattle had to rebuild, they had to face some harsh truths. No longer could they build everything out of pines and firs; they shifted to the more labor-intensive brick and mortar. The fire department was professionalized.  Private water suppliers were abandoned in favor of a municipally-owned water system to ensure enough water pressure ran through pipes and hydrants. They knew what they had to do, they had the people and resources to do it, and used good civic planning to bring it to fruition. Now the Emerald City stands as a world-class metropolis on the cutting edge of tech, aviation, e-commerce and, of course, coffee. 

Similarly cultivating change in business requires the combination of vision, skills, incentives, resources, and good planning to make it a viable success. This is the Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change that Hissong shared with us.  Sometimes, a good crisis--or “fire”, as they say--pushes us to lead and innovate for nothing else than self-preservation. But crises aren’t fun, and the stresses multiply when we’re being reactive rather than proactive. As firm leaders we’re asked to better the ball that’s played to us, no matter how errant, lazy, or lousy. All of that’s out of our control. What matters is how we show up and identify the problems, the friction, that holds our firms back and risks our growth and optimization. 

The art is to figure this out before things get out of hand. Otherwise, you’re just waiting for the hot glue to boil over.  


Phil Crivellone
Howard and Howard Attorneys, PLLC