The Main Thing…

I’m back in the office this week between two business trips. Last year, I decided to cut back on travel, and I’m now away less than a week each quarter – not counting my annual 3-week vacation. Being in the office more than out has highlighted the importance of staying on task in a few ways.

When I have more time available to be at my desk, I find that it’s easy to get pulled into non-essential busywork. Email is a terrific example. When I’m on the road, I’m ruthless about clearing out my email. I read, act, and delete as quickly as possible. But if I’m not attentive, that pattern slips when I’m in the office. Decisions get delayed (no time to read it now, but I’ll save and read it later… really!) and email piles up.

I’ve also noticed that a long stretch of time in the office increases the risk of scheduling my work around others’ priorities. When traveling, my flexibility is naturally limited. When I’m in the office, my scheduled is less fixed – if I don’t have a client meeting, it’s easy to reschedule blocks of time I’d intended to dedicate to long-term projects.

A friend often reminds me, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”And so I ask myself each morning, what’s the main thing for today? Whether I’m in the office or on business travel, asking that question gives me immediate focus.

In this week’s post…“I’m sharing a few favorite quotes about focus. We all talk about it.

What’s your main thing?

Quotations of the Month

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

— Alexander Graham Bell

“An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgements simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”

— Edward de Bono

“Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”

— Aesop

What You Know Can Keep You Stuck

Book Review: Strategy and the Fat Smoker

By: David Maister

As the title of David Maister’s book Strategy and the Fat Smoker suggests, the problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do: it’s that we do know and yet we choose to ignore that knowledge. Maister promises a dose of “real” strategy: “Real strategy lies not in figuring out what to do, but in devising ways to ensure that, compared top others, we actually do more of what everybody knows they should do.” In other words, it’s all about implementation, and that’s the focus of the book.

Organized in sections pertaining to how organizations should think about strategy itself, clients (including marketing and selling), and management, Strategy and the Fat Smoker speaks to those who understand that knowing without doing brings little value. This can be a trap for lawyers, because we like to find the best answer and so we can research and think and plan well past the point of diminished returns. But “best” can sound like “perfect,” and perfect is unattainable.

Maister’s introductory chapters on strategy include several gems, including:

If you truly want to succeed (and many people do not want it badly enough to make it happen) then you must never settle, never give up, never coast, never just accept what is, even if you are currently performing at a high level.


[T]he primary outcome of strategic planning should not be analytical insight or smart choices, but a superior resolve to accomplish something.


The best way to approach this re-evaluation [of the organization’s purpose, mission, vision and values] is to begin with a very small inner circle of top management leaders, who can look each other in the eyes and ask: “Are these really the decision rules we as leaders are prepared to stick with?”

Maister invites readers to plunge in with any chapter, and Chapter 17, titled The Trouble with Lawyers, invites study. Maister’s preface to this chapter indicates that he originally wrote it to explain, “Why lawyers and law firms are different from other professions.” He then notes that others in consulting and the financial services industry identify with the culture and behavior that Maister ascribes to the legal profession, but almost any lawyer who reads this chapter will recognize that Maister is indeed speaking to us.

Maister highlights four problems that prevent “lawyers from effectively functioning in groups:”

  • problems with trust;
  • difficulties with ideology, values, and principles;
  • professional detachment; and
  • unusual approaches to decision making (referring to lawyers’ propensity to attack any idea presented to locate and highlight its weaknesses, with the result that “within a short time, most ideas, no matter who initiates them, will be destroyed, dismissed, or postponed for future examination.”)

Having identified and explained these peculiarities, Maister asks why lawyers do so well financially if the profession is riddled with these problems. His answer?

The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other lawyers. If everyone else does things equally poorly, and clients and recruits find little variation between firms, even the most egregious behavior will not lead to a competitive disadvantage.

Writing in 2007, Maister suggests that only client pressure is likely to compel firms to begin to act “as firms — delivering seamless service, practice areas that have depth (and not just a collection of individualistic stars), and true, cross-boundary teamwork.” The last few years have demonstrated exactly that client pressure, and some firms have prospered while others have self-destructed. Maister’s books (including the classics The Trusted Advisor and Managing the Professional Service Firm) offer numerous insights into how lawyers and firms may shift with (or even in advance of) client pressure.

Other chapters of Strategy and the Fat Smoker have application to lawyers and firms as well. (See, for example, a chapter on client relationships that asks the key question, Do You Really Want Relationships? and the chapter titled Strategy Means Saying “No”.) The book does an excellent job of delivering its subtitled promise of teaching organizations and individuals to do “what’s obvious but not easy.” It’s readable, practical, and insightful. Buy it, read it, and apply it.

Playing to Win

I love college football. There’s something about the rivalry, the enthusiasm of players (most of whom have to know they’re playing for the love of the game, not for a shot at the pros), and the strategy that’s great fun to watch.

Football also offers lessons for business development, as I noticed recently. A few of my favorites:

1. Play to win, not to avoid losing. In 2010, Auburn was the #1 team. Cam Newton (and other strong players) graduated, and Auburn’s ranking plummeted. The team suspended one of its strongest players who violated team rules at the tail end of the season. It would be hard to blame Auburn for coming to the Chik-fil-A Bowl against Virginia with a plan to play it safe and to make a strong enough showing NOT to lose, and better luck next year.

Instead, Auburn played full-out, even making the unusual play of an onside kick in the second quarter while leading. (Onside kicks are usually reserved for near-desperation moves late in a game.) That play has been marked as the game’s turning point, but it’s simply one example of Auburn’s “all in” play.

In business development, you may find yourself tempted to play it safe or to avoid making a risky move for fear of failure. Calculated risk that reflects your full commitment will always pay off. Sometimes it will result in a glorious failure first, but playing to win succeeds far more often than playing not to lose.Which are you doing now?

2. Watch your timing. Jittery players get penalized for anticipating the snap, or for delaying the snap and thus the game. Knowing when to take a time-out and how to control the tempo of the game is a key aspect of football strategy. Each play calls for careful timing, in knowing when to hold and release a pass, when to power through opponents and when to run out of bounds, and much more.

Timing is less precise in business development, but it matters. Consider the stereotypical bad networker who hands out business cards reflexively and doesn’t understand why no one calls. Promoting oneself before understanding a potential client’s needs rarely succeeds. (That goes for online and website strategy as well.) Especially if you’re eager or uncomfortable, it’s easy to jump directly into how you can help a potential client. Instead, start by exploring the client’s concerns. In other words, don’t lead with your experience or your skills. Remember, we all want to know what’s in it for me?

By the same token, timing comes into play in knowing when to ask for the business. Too soon, and it may come across as pushy; too late, and you may miss the opportunity.

What’s your rainmaking rhythm? If you don’t have a system or at least markers that guide your steps, you may be missing important aspects of timing.



3. Build a team and treat members with respect. Although we tend to herald individual players in football, it’s the team that wins or loses. And while the stars are usually a key force, the best player ever will be ineffective without the support and help of other team members. A brilliant pass is nothing without a receiver, and no play can succeed without blockers.

That’s true in business as well. Your team may include other firm attorneys and staff; sole practitioners may count business allies and centers of influence as part of the team. However you define your team, know that you cannot succeed alone.

Remember that (depending on your area of practice) your former clients may be one of your most important team members. Happy clients will help your practice expand by referring others and perhaps by bringing you repeat business. Client service matters deeply.

Who’s on your team now, and what positions must you fill to support your business development effort?

Those are just three of the reminders I picked up while watching bowl games this week. For you football fans, think about what else you can learn. How do you respond to “penalties” (setbacks), fair or unfair? How do you handle it when one of your “players” makes a mistake? Who helps you to see the big picture, to better coordinate your efforts? Who pushes you to deliver more than you thought you could? How many “plays” can you run? Do you know which are most effective?