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Coaching for success or managing for survival?

I often quote a former practice advisor for the Law Society of Alberta, Paul McLaughlin, who suggests that all receptionists should be viewed as “Managers of First and Last Impression.” I could not agree more, as our receptionists are the first to greet visitors in person and by phone. Their marketing “hats” are huge when you think of the positive or negative impact they can make on behalf of the office. And yet receptionists are generally the least paid and most poorly trained, and too often are not given the same respect from their co-workers that other “higher” firm positions receive.

In keeping with the crusade to re-title receptionists, I propose we change the title of supervisor or boss to “Coach.” In my experience, attorneys and support staff are in dire need of many things great coaches give. Too many supervising attorneys are willing to accept mediocre and sloppy work product because it’s easier than effective coaching (in spite of the high malpractice risks). Or worse, they fire employees prematurely rather than investing energy into motivating and training them well. Great coaching is not only a great supervisory tool, but absolutely essential for building successful and loyal legal teams.

Consider what you think are the top five characteristics of a great sports coach. My top five are: great motivator, resourceful teacher, self-disciplined, focused and smart planner. Many other possible characteristics also come to mind: stamina, tough-skinned, resilient, decisive and passionate. The latter five would certainly make my top ten. What would your list include?

Now think about your supervisory skills and those of the people who supervise and manage your employees. Based on your top ten characteristics for great coaches, do you and other employee supervisors in your office share these traits? If not, which ones are absent?

Let me share a few of my reasons for advocating that our management styles must include the characteristics of successful coaches.

Great motivators

Most of us can recall people in our lives that inspired us. Perhaps they only touched our lives for a very short time, and yet we have never forgotten the effect of their words of encouragement and belief in us. While we had to do the work in achieving our goals, the inspiration and motivation we received is like using the best tires available in a NASCAR race. You can get from point A to B on different tires, but you greatly increase your odds of winning with the right ones for the job. In the same spirit, motivation is an essential aspect in our employees’ efforts to achieve excellence. Try to name five ways you have directly motivated others in the past month. Next month, be able to name at least five ways you strive to motivate others on a daily basis.

Resourceful teachers

All employees are unique. What training method works well for one may fail miserably in teaching others. Great coaches know that players with potential should not be discarded merely because they do not “get it” based on one style of training. We must maintain flexibility in our teaching methods and not give up on a team member until we have exhausted all reasonable training resources available. When one method doesn’t work, great coaches look at it as an opportunity to seek out alternative avenues. To do otherwise means you either settle for less or you prematurely eliminate a potentially excellent player. Does your office offer a variety of training methods for employees? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “excellent,” how would you rate yourself as a teacher?


Exercising self-discipline permeates all the other characteristics of great coaches. You must be able to coach yourself successfully before successfully supervising others.


No great coach takes his eye off the team’s goals. He ensures that each and every player clearly understands the goals. What are the top five goals for your firm this year? Are all partners aware of and supportive of the goals you have listed? Has progress toward achieving firm goals been steady?

Skillful planner

Great coaches not only clearly outline goals – they also have a common sense, “doable” plan for reaching each goal. Does your office have a simple action plan, road map or cheat sheet to help keep you on the right path toward achieving goals set? The label doesn’t matter, but having a workable written plan does!

Space does not permit further discussion on my other top ten “great coach” characteristics: stamina, tough-skinned, resilient, decisive and passionate. Nevertheless, they are among the critical components in building excellent legal teams.

Are you pleased with your employee stability and loyalty to the firm? Are you satisfied with the quality and timeliness of work produced? Is office morale positive most of the time? Are you satisfied with revenues earned (and collected!) over the past three years? If you answered “No” to any of these questions, please think about those coaching skills that you and other employee supervisors may lack.

We cannot change others’ personalities, but we have absolute control over our work habits and management style. We should all strive to become great employee coaches, to select and build our teams wisely and be resourceful in our efforts. The benefits will be multifold and the tougher times which inevitably arise will be more easily overcome. We must avoid managing our employees just enough to survive yet another year. Instead, we must learn to coach for success. If we do so, our management hats will fit more comfortably than ever!

Nancy Byerly Jones works with attorneys and legal staff as a management consultant, retreat facilitator, coach and mediator. She is also a practicing attorney, certified mediator and arbitrator. You can visit her Web site at www.nbyconsulting.com. To suggest topic ideas or for electronic copies of forms call 828/264-1448 or e-mail nbjnbjconsulting.com. This article previously appeared in Lawyers Weekly USA, another Dolan Media publication.

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