Good to better

This weekend I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite management books, the classic ‘Good To Great’ by Jim Collins. If you haven’t read it, you need to, not least because it puts its finger on a problem which perhaps vexes the legal profession more than any other.

It starts off with the immortal line: “Good is the enemy of Great” and then proceeds to explain in devastating fashion why this might be so.

The problem has come into sharp focus for me in a number of projects I’ve been working on over the last year, where I’ve been advising rather successful businesses – that goes for most top law firms I would say – on a variety of rather tricky and complex strategic problems in their efforts to become bettter.

‘Good to Great’ isn’t about the star companies, those which anyone in any sector would regard as simply top notch. In fact, the book suggests many star companies have always been stars; and I’m sure we can all think of law firms which fit this mould.

Rather, it focuses on how some perfectly good organisations became great organisations and how equally good companies just drifted along.

I think the latter issue is the one which hits law firms where they live. Friends of mine working in other industries can but scratch their heads when I tell them the tale of the great raft of law firms where partners earn £300k, £400k or £500k a year and still feel unsuccessful, anxious, stressed, depressed, unworthy. They have difficulty believing that law firms are often a conveyor belt on which it seems partners just have to run faster and faster every year until they collapse or are rudely ejected.

I think this may be because while most partners in most of the big law firms might recognise that they are good, better than good in fact, they don’t really know how they can become any better or even great. They can, of course, implement training courses, business development initiatives and so forth, but the task of bringing the whole organisation ‘up’ seems an impossible and exhausting one.

Management is often blamed for this, notwithstanding that in many large law firms management is a poison chalice avoided by most right-thinking (and high-billing) partners who prefer to scold from the sidelines like Roman senators pillorying a weak Caesar. Colleagues – the poor quality or lack of commitment of same – are a further cause of ire. Recruitment – or lack of it – is another thorn (“if only we could hire a corporate star with following…”), which also usually ends up in the side of management. The ill-defined and largely misunderstood ‘branding’ is another easy target for partners who seem to enjoy ranting against the pitiful position of their own firm.

I won’t spoil ‘Good to Great’, suffice to say that what it does is manages to put cold, hard evidence behind what we all know in our heart-of-hearts is right. You might dismiss it as simple common-sense, and in a sense, that’s exactly what it is. On the other hand, if the sense were really that common, there would be a lot more great law firms, and far fewer simply good ones.

‘Good to Great’ proves to me that the solution to transforming perfectly good organisations into great organisations lies not in spreadsheets, technology, process-management, outsourcing or any of the other totemic presences of our business age, but in very human values – passion, belief, trust, self-discipline, endurance.

Read it. You won’t regret it.

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