Complete Communicator: #1 Goal for 2024: Pay attention  

Complete Communicator: #1 Goal for 2024: Pay attention  

By Jay Sullivan

We’re all now six weeks into our New Year’s resolutions. We’ve already figured out which ones we’re likely to stick with and which ones we’ve already abandoned. Hopefully, one of your personal or professional goals requires improving your skills and aptitude on the job. If you lead any function in your law firm, whether among the lawyers or the non-legal staff, in addition to your personal goals, you’ll have team goals, a set of objectives for how you want your team to develop and expand their skills. We’re more likely to stick with goals that are simple and easy to replicate so that the new behavior becomes a habit. When it comes to helping our teams grow this year, consider committing to the simple act of paying attention to what is happening around us. There is a tremendous amount of learning that can take place simply by observing.

Much professional growth follows what’s come to be known as the “70-20-10 rule.”  Seventy percent of our growth takes place by working on challenging assignments with other smart people. Twenty percent occurs in structured mentoring relationships. Ten percent is the result of formal learning environments, such as scheduled training programs. Since the majority of learning comes from doing, we have the best chance of increasing our skills and competencies if we focus on improving how we behave while we’re actually doing our work.

Our learning goal for 2024 should simply be to pay attention more to those around us, to notice how we’re acting, how they are acting, and how those actions impact our behavior and our work-product. As a leader in your firm or organization, you can set the tone and the behavior pattern for how to pay attention.

When you are trying to develop your team members, here are three basic steps that will propel learning on a faster plane. Let’s use as an example how we develop our own and our colleagues’ ability to have productive client conversations. (You can apply this example whether your “clients” are external purchasers of your services or internal stakeholders you impact through your work.)

  1. Prep your team members for meetings with clients by guiding them to pay attention. Talk not only about what you will be discussing, but how you will manage the conversation and why you think it’s important to take that approach.  Your subordinates will get more value from the experience if they know what to look for in your behavior. Tell a junior associate, “Let’s make sure we spend more time on this call asking questions before sharing any analysis with the client.” Or, “This general counsel we’ll be speaking with likes to feel in control. We need to go in with a game plan on how to share our information but remain flexible in case they decide to go in a different direction.” In other words, teach them how to pay attention.
  2. Before any call with a key stakeholder, ask your junior colleague, “What are you working on in terms of your own skill development? How can we use this call to help you hone that skill?” You’ll get more traction on this if you first share what you are working on in your own development. “I’m working on engaging in more social conversation with the client rather than jumping directly to business. I’ll take my cues from the client, but my default will be to engage in a bit more chit chat than usual.”  Asking a junior colleague to pay attention not only to what you are doing, but how you are doing it, heightens their awareness of good lawyering and improves their observation skills. In addition, letting a junior person know that you, too, are working on honing your skills helps them appreciate that we’re all on a growth journey and we need to approach that path intentionally. It also creates a safe space for them to share their own area for development.
  3. After each significant client meeting, debrief with your team not only on next steps but the skills you said you were developing. Telling someone before a meeting that you are working on a particular skill only has value if you then ask them after the meeting how you performed. Also, debrief on what the client said and did, and how they reacted to your ideas. As professionals, one of the greatest attributes we can bring to our interactions is an inquisitive mind. It takes only a few minutes after each call to say to ourselves and our teams, “What just happened?” “What did we observe?” “What did we learn?” That’s true whether we have finished a client Zoom call, walked out of our monthly department meeting, or reviewed the changes someone made to our draft document. In order to articulate what we just experienced, we have to pay attention more closely to what happened. The debrief after a call creates accountability for each of us to pay close attention to what’s going on around us.

We can apply these same principles with regard to our written interactions. Most emails can be read once, responded to, and deleted. But longer, more complex messages from colleagues and clients are worth a re-read, an analysis, and some reflection. Trying to understand what’s going on with the writer, why they took a particular approach to a “conversation,” and what can be learned from that approach are helpful steps to follow to learn more and be more discerning. We all get so many emails, we often scan them and, on occasion, misread what the client is asking or suggesting. A short strategy call with a colleague involved in the exchange can help us check our assumptions and rethink how to reply. We have to pay attention on a deeper level to pick up on nuances in other people’s language. A short conversation with others about the email will help them become more intentional about their own behavior. In essence, you’re growing, and you’re helping others grow by teaching them to simply pay attention.

Jay Sullivan is a former practicing attorney and the former managing partner at Exec/Comm, LLC, a communications consulting firm. He is the author of “The New Nimble: Leading in the Age of Change,” “Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work & Beyond,” and “Raising Gentle Men: Lives at the Orphanage Edge.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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