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November 30, 2007

How do you teach great habits at work?

"Hey, kid. This document, that contract, your proposed cross-examination--it isn't good. Not even close. It isn't good work, and it was never good in any known universe or context. Your standard is low. And unless someone tells you this NOW using roughly these words and this tone, you'll be hatin' your work and your life by the time you're forty."

What the poets and philosophers say about Man (and Woman) is true: we are all miracles capable of miraculous things. But how do we get there? Well, someone much smarter than me said that excellence at work and in life comes from great habits. In life, examples would be eating fruit instead of glazed donuts or Egg McMuffins in the morning, running two miles 5 times a week, or each day without fail saying thank-you and praying for guidance to God, Allah, Yahweh, the Kibo Demon or The Big-Ass Oak Tree in your yard.

Great work habits? Examples: outlining an argument or contract before starting out; proofreading a document like your life (or job) depended on it; structuring and monitoring with discipline the course of a strategy for a case, deal or marketing campaign; making that marketing phone call or writing that thank you note two days before the big meeting in Europe or the trial in the Southern District of New York; and "following" your good habits even on a bad day, or when you are tired.

Get it down and get it down early.

There are scads of books out there on bringing the best out of our employees based on notions of somehow cultivating their best instincts and igniting the joy of doing great work with a "team". These are noble works. And they almost always miss or omit one ugly truth.

Only about 1% of employees--if that--have a "passion for excellence" 24/7. The rest have their moments. These other employees, even if brilliant and energetic, constitute, say, about 90% of the work force. Like anyone else, Coif and Law Review people can quickly lapse into complacency, smugness and the work ethic of your no-good Uncle Seamus who went out for a pack of Luckies one day and never came back. And if they are young employees (under 35), you may have a problem on your hands.

With the "life habits" above, at first, we are more likely to do out of fear for our health or questionable salvation or whatever bad consequences are out there if we don't take care of our bodies and souls. Same goes for work. Every once in a while I meet a young person in the 1% who is driven to do things "right" at work--even to the point of perfectionism.* Most employees I see at my shop and others have that inspiration--but only fleetingly. As un-PC or brutal as it sounds, these wonderful folks need not only inspiration but fear, a kick in the self-esteem, a challenge, or a blow to their pride to get them back on track and moving. Sorry. They don't have that engine that drives them to excellence, and probably never will. But they are still well worth it.

Your feed-back to them--especially at first--needs to be both constant (i.e., in "real-time") and honest. It's training. And it's damn hard work for you.

Much has been written about Generations X and Y. This is the self-esteem generation that my "driven" generation (Boomers) somehow created. They are the beneficiaries of "life" grade-inflation, pretty nice circumstances economically growing up, and being told that everything they did was "just great". Everyone apparently made the soccer team; no one saw their name on a cut list. I see them every day, especially at other firms--at my firm they either change or leave--and someone at their law or accounting firm or Fortune 500 company of the screw-up variety is still telling them that they are "just great".

And, well, gulp, they just aren't.

"Hey, kid. This is not personal. But this document, that contract, the deposition you're taking--they all suck. They aren't good, they were never good in any universe or context. Your standard is low. And unless someone tells you that NOW using roughly those words and exactly that tone, you'll be hatin' life and your work by the time you're forty."

My point: To develop good habits, you cannot rely 100% on appealing to his or her "passion for excellence". That's partly a great notion and partly a ruse. Using the fear of losing his or her job is fair game, and you should even back it up. You have a job to do and a business to run. If someone gets in the way of that, feel free to take them to the woodshed, warn them, fire them. You need to be honest. And your business needs to survive and prosper by having people in it who "get" what you want--not what they want.

Practicing law and most kinds of problem-solving work is hard, and should be hard, especially at first. Use positive reinforcement when it's due and deserved. But don't shortchange the development of your employees by telling them "you're great, keep up the good work" when you don't mean it, and it's not true. Even if it means you're not being "nice". Your clients will suffer, you will suffer, and you'll be hatin' life. If the work sucks, say it sucks--and explain why.

*Perfectionism is bad, folks, but I can work with it.

Posted by JD Hull at November 30, 2007 11:57 PM


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