When focus led me astray

I hadn’t taken the time to pull back from the work I’ve been doing to check on how effectively I was navigating toward my goals in the last few months. Life has been very busy, both professionally and personally.  I’d put my head down, my nose to the grindstone, and I focused on the client work piled in front of me.  I was surprised by what I found:  in some areas, I was right on track to meet my goals, but in others, I’d slowly drifted far afield.

During my mastermind meeting last week, my colleagues and I discussed the tough balancing act of current work vs. future goals. It’s easy to let things slide, especially when there’s plenty of current billable work to do.  (Can I get an amen?)  But focusing on the present is a passive and ultimately fruitless way to build a future.  Growth requires relentless determination and focus on meaningful and clearly articulated “stretch” goals.

So I revisited and revised my goals, and then I designed consequences for failing to reach them. Should I miss, I’ll be making a hefty charitable contribution in some colleagues’ names — enough of a donation that
I won’t get the warm fuzzies of doing something nice but instead the pain of a real financial hit.  My colleagues all set their own goals and consequences, and when we meet again in February, we’ll see the results.  I’m predicting a huge celebration of remarkable successes.

All of this leads me to ask, how are YOUR goals? Whether you’d like to accomplish something big by the end of the year (creating and hosting that seminar you’ve been thinking about, perhaps) or whether you’d prefer to think ahead into the first quarter of next year, there’s no time like the present to get clear on what you want to accomplish or to set up some accountability and consequences to get yourself moving.  If you need a guide on effective goal-setting, check out this blog post I wrote in 2008.

I’d love to hear what goals you’ve set, and what consequences you’ve created to motivate yourself. (And if you’re more motivated by the carrot of a reward than the stick of a consequence, I’d like to hear that, too.)  Just click here to share, and I’ll even set a reminder to check in with you as an added layer of accountability.

Quotes of the Month:

“First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective.  Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods.  Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal.  My strength lies solely in my tenacity.”
~Louis Pasteur

How Can You Work Smarter?

“You’re working too hard.  Why don’t you look for ways to work smarter?” That was a key element of the feedback I received during this quarter’s mastermind meeting.  After hearing my colleagues’ suggestions, I put some new practices in place to help me work smarter, and I do believe I can already see a difference.

And you’ve no doubt heard this distinction before. All sorts of management experts talk about how to work more efficiently, more effectively, maximizing the results of time.  Some of them even have good ideas.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say that practicing law is hard work.  I don’t have any question that it is challenging and demanding, for reasons that I’ve mentioned numerous times.  When clients question whether it’s possible to “work smart” in practice, my answer is a resounding yes.

Working smart means managing your physical environment. If you take the time to keep your desk clear, so it’s always easy to locate the files and the resources you need.  Nothing wastes time like clutter.  The simple act of taking an extra 5-10 minutes to clear and tidy your work area at the end of the day can yield significant time savings.  I had to learn this the hard way, but having learned it, it’s become a standard for myself in the office.

Working smart means managing energy. If I’m exhausted and I try to power through rather than resting, chances are good that it’ll take me more time than usual to accomplish anything.  I’ll make more mistakes, and I won’t be as creative as I might otherwise be.  I’ve put structures in place to take advantage of my energy rhythms (you’ll often find me at my desk at 6 AM, but only rarely after 6 PM) and I’ve been working to enhance my energy with enough rest, enough exercise, good hydration and nutrition, and fun.

Working smart means managing commitments. It’s easy to say yes to every demand, but it just isn’t smart.  Making intentional and purposeful decisions about which commitments to accept and which to decline allows me to avoid the frazzled, frantic pace that undermines good work.  By the same token, I aim to prioritize my work so that I accomplish what’s most important first.

Working smart means managing people. Good delegation enhances effective work.  Whether it’s requesting research or asking an assistant to draft routine communications for my review and editing, delegation frees my time so I can concentrate on doing the things that others can’t do.  (Thanks to our global marketplace, getting help is easier and less expensive than ever before.  I’m hiring.  Should you?)

It’s important to note that what’s smarter for one person will be useless for another. You must identify what makes sense for your practice, your preferences, and your clients.  (That’s why Seven Foundations of Time Mastery for Attorneys includes numerous exercises that make it easy to figure out now you can best apply the principles I share.)

Does any of this mean that it’s possible to take shortcuts and reap the rewards of practice without putting in plenty of time and effort? Absolutely not.  But attention to smart management will make the time and effort you put into your practice pay maximum rewards.

A Tale of Two Leaders

One of my heroes died last Wednesday. Not Steve Jobs, though his death is the one that captured popular notice, and not A.C. Nielsen, whose name has become synonymous with popular television and costly advertising dollars.  Jobs and Nielsen each contributed something critical to our world, but neither is among my heroes.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was one of my heroes, also died last Wednesday, at age 89. He lead the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, then known as “the most segregated city in America”.  Rev. Shuttlesworth sat at lunch counters, called in federal protection for the Freedom Riders and helped after the violence they encountered, joined the march in Selma, urged Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Birmingham, and more.  He wasn’t especially well-known outside Alabama; certainly, no fame on the order of Steve Jobs’ fame, nor has his name attained the widespread use of Nielsen’s.

But Rev. Shuttlesworth embodied leadership:  the kind of leadership that puts principle and dedication to an end result in the forefront. His actions (along with those of countless others, both well-known and not) led to a fundamental change in the world.  He is described as fearless in the face of intimidation and physical attacks, a firebrand who preached integration from the pulpit and even more through action, a blunt speaker who refused to run even when his home was bombed.  Although he gave rousing sermons and speeches, his focus was action.  As he said, “We got a lot of things done that we wouldn’t have had just by words and philosophy alone.”

Though Rev. Shuttlesworth was the de facto leader of the Birmingham effort, he sought out King’s leadership. King had the credentials and the prominence to be the movement’s spokesman.  Rev. Shuttlesworth’s single focus was on the success of the movement.  He believed that any movement could have only one “person after whom an episode or a generation is named,” King being the one for this instance.

Why should this matter to you in the context of building your practice? It matters because Rev. Shuttlesworth’s life is a remarkable example of leadership.  The juxtaposition of his death with the death of Steve Jobs illustrates that at times a leader determines that the action should get the focus (as Rev. Shuttlesworth decided) and sometimes the personality of the leader himself becomes synonymous with the action, as Jobs and his technology became almost one and the same.  In a similar way, King became the face of the civil rights movement, though behind him (as with Jobs) many, many others were required to act to accomplish the identified mission.  Does Rev. Shuttlesworth deserve to be better known than he is now?  Undoubtedly.  But he determined that the movement needed a different face than his own, and the success of the movement was more important than his own legacy as its leader.

Both style and substance are critical to an effective leadership message and an effective marketing message. Steve Jobs is mourned for the person he was as much as for his role as architect of the technology he created, but had he not built Apple, the world might never have noticed that personality; Rev. Shuttlesworth would not have inspired the people he did had he not shown himself as a plainspoken, mission-driven activist.

As both these leaders did, you must choose when to focus on substance and when to focus on style to get the maximum effect.

Here’s the question you must ask:  how do your clients see you? Right now, do you need to bring in more personality a la Steve Jobs, or would it be more effective for you to focus primarily on the substance?  Should you market the substance of your practice, or should you market yourself in some way?  In other words, does your practice stand on its own, or must you be its face?  Does your practice need a face and a champion other than your own, such as referral sources who may be your representatives in the community?

When you consider marketing through this lens of style and substance, you determine whether substance is the most effective way to connect with potential clients and referral sources. Make no mistake:  you must deliver on the substance, and your style must be such that potential clients are drawn to you, or at least not repelled by you if your substance pulls them in.  And you must decide at every juncture which attribute you will highlight and why.

What makes you special?

Every professional has some skill, opportunity, or attribute that few (if any) others can access. You may have heard the marketing acronym USP, which typically stands for Unique Selling Proposition.  A USP refers to those distinguishing factors.  Identifying your USP is key not only to letting your potential clients know what makes you different and why they should hire you, but also paves the way for you to market yourself in fresh ways.

For example, a Unique Selling Proposition might be that you draw on your background in tax law to support your clients’ licensing needs. Perhaps you are a divorced father of two who draws on your own life experiences in serving divorcing fathers.  In either case, you might use the USP you’ve identified to craft a marketing message that answers potential clients’ questions or concerns (some of which they may not even be aware of yet) by highlighting your USP.

To identify your Unique Selling Proposition, ask yourself:

  1. What past experience (professional or personal) bears on your practice?
  2. What skill, knowledge, or experience do you bring to your practice that will be helpful for clients?
  3. What kind of practice-related opportunities can you forecast, and how can you position yourself to meet them?

Another way to think of a USP is as a Unique Service Proposition. How can you serve your clients in new or innovative ways?  In addition to your primary services, can you offer any ancillary services or products that will better meet your clients’ needs?  Are there free or reduced-fee services that you might offer as a way of introducing yourself and your skills to a class of potential clients or referral sources?

A Unique Service Proposition might include offering monthly free Q&A meetings during which you respond to potential clients’ questions about topics related to your practice area. For example, if you practice elder law, you might host a monthly gathering to help adult children learn what legal issues they should plan for as they assist their aging parents.  You could offer a fee-based group in which you cover key issues in more depth, and you might have certain forms or templates for sale that the adult children could use to implement your suggestions,

Perhaps your practice spans geographic areas in such a way that you don’t often have an opportunity to meet face-to-face with your clients. You might offer videoconferencing of other technology-based communication and collaboration resources to bridge the distance and interact more directly with clients.  Since many lawyers still limit their interactions to telephone, email, and mail, you might craft a marketing message around the personal service you offer, the importance of tailoring legal solutions to each individual (or business) and weave in your enhanced communication opportunities.

To identify your Unique Service Proposition, ask youself:

  1. How can I meet both legal and non-legal needs that my clients frequently present?
  2. How can I build innovative services that will benefit my clients?
  3. What might I do to answer potential client questions, introduce my clients to beneficial resources, or otherwise extend my services in unexpected ways?

Identifying your USPs and using them to craft a marketing message requires analysis, insight, and sometimes even an intuitive leap. Try brainstorming what can distinguish you and your practice with the proviso that no answer is too wacky to be considered.  Sometimes impractical or unpalatable ideas provide the leap to a truly unique marketing message and practice.

Sometimes it’s hard to gain the 30,000-foot perspective necessary to identify what you can harness to distinguish your practice. If you’re having trouble spotting your opportunities, contact me to set up a time to discuss how I might be able to help.