I was in a pub on Thursday night meeting an old colleague for a quick drink. Whilst I was there, I bumped into another former colleague who was having a drink with a friend. We were chatting and as is normal I asked how things were and how was he progressing. He said that he was leaving his current law firm to move to a smaller firm as a partner. Now I had thought of my colleague as partner material but it was obvious from his response that he had just been overlooked and had decided to go to a smaller firm where he could be made a partner and have an influence.
It did make me think of an article i had read recently concerning how to deal with people who aren't going to make it to the top in their organisation and I did think that it had relevance to legal firms in particular.
So how to deal with middlescence?
This isn't my phrase it is one coined by Robert Morison and Tamara Erickson, quoted in Harvard Business Review.
It covers people in your organisation who are between 35 and 55, though I'd say for law firms, that it would be between 35 and 50.
They do tend to be your hardest workers and also the repositories of large amounts of tacit knowledge. you probably bank on their loyalty and commitment to their cause. However you may also worry about whether they clog up your organisation and stop people coming through to reach the top echelons. However this bottleneck approach makes both sides of the organisation unhappy. Although 30% of people felt up beat by their job, another third feel that they have reached a dead end - the other third are just dissatisfied and about 20% of those unhappy ones are looking for another job.
So how to deal with this adolescent period.
Remember when you were a teenager and all the angst that you went through - well this is what Morison alludes to though he does go on to say that it can be a time for new horizons to open up and to look to ways of balancing the various elements of their life from family leisure and work and to also get their jobs re-energised. I first came upon this phenomena when I was writing up my thesis, with people who joined the firm because they liked it's ethos and didn't feel that they were a small cog in a giant legal machine. So it begs the question - will people leave your organisation because they can't get a life in balance there, but someone else can offer it.
Remember that these people carry your sustainable competitive advantage with them in terms of the tacit knowledge that they hold. Many firms in the 90's discovered this when they went through the de-layering exercises especially the companies that bought into BPR (and interpreted it wrongly) and then discovered the major knowledge lacuna that it had left.
Companies aren't very good at handling this because there are few maps to chart it and also unless it comes up at appraisals mainly invisible and people do tend to suffer in silence.
The answer does lie within as people do have a sense of wanting to renew. So if you can't promote, you may be able to offer alternatives such as fresh assignments, the opportunity to mentor the new people to pass on their tacit knowledge, sabbaticals based on length of service or even helping them find new career paths in your organisation. There are always ways to ensure that the mid career employee stays with you as a positive influence rather than a frustrated blocker.
There are probably a number of people in your law firm who would welcome the opportunity to re-pot themselves and convert their restlessness into fresh energetic directions. They are also useful in that they carry a good deal of tacit knowledge that can be utilised to bring on new junior lawyers and provide them with a wealth of experience gained over the years.
I have a strong philosophical belief that people can be instruments of the sublime and can deliver amazing results if they are allowed to develop their existing and potential skills.
If you share this belief, what are you doing about it.