3 Leadership Mistakes That Hinder a Growth-Mindset Culture

All law leaders want to see their firms thrive by bringing in new business. Firms that embrace a “growth mindset culture” — in which people feel safe taking risks, and view setbacks and failures as opportunities for growth — find more innovative ways to achieve that goal. In their determination to succeed, however, some leaders inadvertently squelch the growth-mindset that could transform their law firm culture by leaning on their intuition instead of what the data tells us about motivation and growth.

In our work consulting with law leaders, we see three common mistakes that are counter-productive to the goal of growth:

Pitfall #1: They assume that what is true for them must be true for everyone else. Leaders typically become leaders because they are successful, and often the behaviors that led to their success are intuitive for them. It’s natural for people to assume that what worked well for them will work well for others, but not everyone is capable of following that same path. Leaders who find themselves saying in frustration that their colleagues need to “try harder” or “apply themselves” may be doing more harm than good. The truth is that most people don’t try to underperform, fail, or disappoint on purpose. Many factors contribute to overall productivity; often, while team members may recognize what their leaders expect of them, that’s not the same as knowing how to perform the necessary steps to get there. Accepting and celebrating that we all approach tasks differently is the first step to facilitating greater engagement with business development. Leaders need to help their team get clarity not only on what is required to be successful, but they must also be invested in helping people figure out how to execute successfully.

Pitfall #2: They believe there is one playbook. Often a follow-up to pitfall #1, sometimes leaders assume that if they just share the steps that worked for them and other rainmakers, the attorneys on their team will be able to “wash, rinse, and repeat” to generate the same outcome. The truth is, though, that these kinds of panels and training sessions often have the opposite effect. When an attorney tries to force themselves to repeat a set of steps that do not feel authentic, the results will probably be disappointing. And, regardless of the outcome, this approach to client relationships is not sustainable for most people, because there are multiple styles and paths to participation. GrowthPlay’s data on how lawyers and other doer-sellers develop business shows that there are at least five distinctive roles and strategies to be successful in client development. While 98% of doer-sellers match at least one of the roles, less than 16% of attorneys match all five and no attorney has time to do all five well. Therefore, it’s much more effective for leaders to foster a law firm culture that helps team members discover and develop the strengths they already possess and then find ways to apply those strengths to the strategy that will work best for them.

Pitfall #3: They micromanage the process. At the other end of the spectrum from leaders who provide little direction are the overly prescriptive leaders who try to dictate the medium and the message for engaging with prospective clients. Not only does this focus on control demotivate high performers who have developed their own approach to business development, it also robs those who are still learning of the opportunity to exercise their judgment and problem-solving skills. Fear is always at the heart of micromanaging — the fear that if you don’t make people do things your way, they might stumble. While it’s no doubt true that trusting your team members can feel risky, firms with a growth-mindset culture view setbacks as inevitable and generative. Yes, attorneys who approach business development differently might fall flat. Or, they might create a new path forward the rest of us never could have imagined. Embracing this uncertainty makes room for new possibilities.

As Daniel Pink demonstrates in his book A Whole New Mind, research shows that when we want to motivate professionals and promote a growth mindset, we have to create a law firm culture where individuals experience three key things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They need the freedom to find the process that works for them. They need a sense of competence that builds their confidence. And, they need to believe that the work they are doing matters beyond just dollars and cents. Leaders who want to help their firms thrive in today’s market must focus on fostering the growth mindset that allows attorneys to engage authentically — and successfully —with business development efforts.

Read our blog Five Myths and Truths of Collaborative Growth for more tips on creating a growth mindset culture.