We all wish we could do things at exactly the perfect time. Launch a new business right when the world needs your product. Get a job at a new company one year before it went public. Start a movement online when everyone was paying attention. Getting in touch with someone the moment they were thinking about you too.
But I’ve seen it time and time again, where just the opposite happens. People wait, and then they look back with regret because they waited too long. A lawyer waited for the perfect time to respond to a client and the client was not happy it took so long. An entrepreneur sat around on their idea and someone else came up with it first. Someone wanted to inquire about a job, but someone else got hired before you.
I hear people say this all the time, “I am not ready. I’m not sure about this. Or the timing isn’t perfect yet.” All valid points … but all sure fire ways to be too late and miss out.
Being early has it’s price too. Sometimes you lose a little time. Sometimes there is more uncertainty. And usually the cost is higher to make it happen. But that’s okay if you are on to something big. Because the value is higher too when it all works out.
In short, there’s a small price to pay for being too early, but there can be a HUGE price to pay for being too late.
So what are you waiting for? Go.
One of my favorite quotes:
A good plan today is better than the perfect plan tomorrow – George Patton
Every time you are making progress on a big project at work but take a 10-second break to check email. No big deal right? Well, if you do that 100 times a day (most people do), that adds up not only to be a significant amount of time but also a significant distraction.
Likewise, drink a coffee every single day in the morning before work? Or a soda at lunch every day instead of water? A little drink never hurt anyone right? But a year later, what if you add them up side by side against a wall. Over 300 drinks would look at lot bigger now.
On the other hand, when you’re in a race to the finish line in middle of a huge project an extra hour can make all the difference. When you’re struggling through a tough project at work or school, a text message from a your mom saying “you can do it” can light up your mood. And we all know this to be true: even a 15-minute call from that special someone you like can change your entire day for the better.
All of us might be better off if we found a way to keep tabs on these little events.
If we lined up all our emails or coffee against the wall, seeing how many were there might be enough to change your mind.
On the other hand, if you just thought for a second about just how helpful an extra hour or a 15 minute call was, we’d do the same for others.
About two weeks ago, only days after beginning my new job at Vedder Price, I had the special privilege of having lunch with Bob Stucker, the Chairman of our firm. In addition to making a good contact at the firm, and eventually making my way onto a couple of his interesting projects, I also had the thrill of seeing first-hand how a top lawyer and revered leader in Chicago navigated his way to the top and what his thoughts were regarding the future.
It was about 11:10am, and only my second week at the firm. I had a lunch scheduled with a couple of associates in the office, one whose office is across the hallway from mine and another who sits right next door. At Vedder, most people tend to head to lunch around noon, so at the time, I was rushing against the clock to get a few things printed and to draft a couple of emails before heading out. But as I was typing up my first email, I looked up and saw Maryanne head into my office. Maryanne is the Chairman’s Executive Assistant, and she told me that the chairman wanted to take me to lunch.
“What a remarkable opportunity I thought to myself.” So of course I told Maryanne that I was excited to head to lunch with Bob, and she replied that he’d drop by my office to grab me at 11:50am. So after rescheduling my lunch with my coworkers and getting started on a couple of emails, Bob dropped by at 11:50 on the dot. He had on a nice gray suit that day, despite the fact that our office recently went business casual in the summer. Fortunately though, I haven’t followed that trend, and I’ve been wearing a shirt and tie to the office every day. So I was dressed for the occasion.
So Bob and I headed toward the elevator, walking past reception on the 26th floor. I noticed that Bob spoke to every single person we passed on the way out, addressing each one by their first name, including our great receptionist Vickie, who sits by the elevator. And although he’s a very busy guy, not once did Bob seem like he was too much in a hurry to say hello to anyone.
On the way down the elevator, he explained that he loved being at the firm and that it was a great pleasure to get to know everyone there over the years. And it was clear that he was sincere about it. After all, he had been at the same firm for his entire legal career and took the time to know everyone by name and learn about their families.
In the elevator, Bob said we would have lunch at an Italian restaurant, Coco Pazzo, which was a few blocks down. It was lightly raining that afternoon, so instead of walking, we hopped in a cab. Bob had an umbrella but unfortunately I didn’t bring mine, a fact that Bob noticed before I did. Bob told me to wait inside while he waived down a cab. We hopped in, and then he sent me to the restaurant while he paid, so I could avoid the rain.
When Bob walked in, all the waiters said hello to Bob and greeted him by name. As it turns out Bob if pretty well-known in Chicago and at a lot of the local restaurants. So they sat us down ahead of the line, took our orders right away, and Bob and I had a nice discussion for the next eighty or so minutes.
We kicked off the conversation with a little business, first discussing an upcoming project he wanted me to get involved in, where we were retained by a CEO to help negotiate an employment contract. But the conversation quickly diverted into more interesting things, such as his background and mine. The practices I thought I’d be interested in and his process of choosing a practice back as a younger attorney. I also talked a bit about my personal history and Bob talked a bit about himself.
It’s funny, how when you’re having good conversation, eighty minutes can feel like twenty. And before I knew it, we had finished our meal, paid our tab, and had to head out. Fortunately the weather had cleared up, so we walked back to the office, which was the perfect way to finish off our chat less abruptly. On the way home, I brought up a few people I’d worked with in the past, including the Practice Chair of my old consulting firm, who Bob knew directly. That was a good way to really connect with him at the end.
Upon reflection, here are a few lessons I learned from the discussion:
1. Good leaders are also good entrepreneurs. Bob spent his entire legal career as an entrepreneur. Out of law school, he turned down a couple of white shoe firms to join Vedder Price, which at the time was still an up-and-coming law firm in Chicago. “It gave me the opportunity to have real impact” he said. But rather than simply playing a part in an up-and-coming firm and taking what came his way, he also decided to make his own opportunities. And along the way, he helped build a couple of practice groups, including the financial institutions group and the executive compensation group. Today, Vedder Price does more work with financial institutions than any other Chicago firm, and Vedder’s executive pay practice is second to none in the U.S. Most law firms, and business for that matter, are not wildly successful entering new markets, but Bob was an exception to the rule because he sought out new opportunities.
2. Good leaders focus on their people. Bob was the kind of person who inspired others in the office. As I mentioned above, he said hello to everyone we passed and remembered everyone’s name and personal story. “It’s critical to retain every single employee that comes here” Bob said at lunch. Not only because it’s economically better for a firm to do so, but also because we want everyone here to be successful and build a career here. And it wasn’t just rhetoric. In fact, Vedder Price has done a great job of not letting many of its attorneys go during the economic downturn, and it didn’t let a single staff person go, despite the worst of the economic downturn. Bob had a laser-like focus on everyone at the firm. He knew there names, knew where they sat in the building, and reached out to them when it made sense. After all, he was even taking me, the new and only summer associate this year, to lunch during my second week.
3. Leaders reach back and develop leaders. Just a few days before lunch, I was speaking to one of the firm receptionists, and she mentioned that Bob had been a great mentor to many of the attorneys at the firm. At the time, I was glad to hear it, but she had also never worked directly with Bob, so I solicited a few other opinions. I went to lunch that day with two senior partners here at the firm, and one of the them was the lead for partner recruiting at the firm. He said the same thing about Bob, that “Bob has mentored me over the years at the firm and that’s why I’ve done so well today.” And for the last couple of weeks I heard similar comments from a few others. “Was it all just rhetoric?” I asked myself a few times. After all, balancing the tightrope walk of managing client development and people development has always been difficult at services firms.
But for Bob, the answer is a resounding “No.” Bob has already gone out of his way a few times now, to bring me into meetings and teach me lessons about the world of law firms. And after the meetings are over he’ll always imparts a few lines to me. He has also set me up with a couple of attorneys that he works with, so I could learn more about the firm. I was glad to see this was Bob’s style. In fact, I recently wrote about this myself a few weeks back (click here to see the post).
4. To get to the top, do something you like. People who make it all the way to the top do because they are passionate about what they are doing, something I talk constantly about here on my site (click here for one of my favorite posts on passion). Not only do they have good ideas but they actually have a real desire to go after them. During lunch Bob told me that he’s always loved practicing law and that he’s never thought of leaving the firm. He also mentioned how much he like the legal aspects of executive compensation, financial institutions, and securities work. And even though it wasn’t that hot of an area legally back then, because Bob enjoyed it and thought there was opportunity, he paved the way for Vedder Price by initiating work in those areas. That passion is especially evident now given the fact that he’s stayed with the firm and practice areas many years later, despite the modern trend that many professionals have of hopping from firm to firm.
5. Leaders are humble and kind. And it goes without saying based on my story above that Bob was as humble as firm Chairmen come. As I mentioned, Bob knew everyone’s name at the firm, he made sure that I didn’t get wet in the rain, and he even made sure I got enough to eat for lunch, ordering an extra plate while we were there. I was also impressed by the fact that Bob actually showed up to take me to lunch at 11:50 that day, rather than a little earlier or later. Leaders at his level are often so busy that they prioritize their work over other people’s schedules. In fact, many lawyers and client service professionals do. I was particularly impressed that Bob didn’t do that, because he valued my time.
Conclusion. Today’s leaders are called to help tomorrow’s leaders learn all they can, especially now, as the business and legal worlds are changing, as they become filled with new technologies and expand to the ends of every continent, and as they reshape themselves to thrive in today’s changing economy. Fortunately, there are people like Bob who are already engaged in this process. These leaders dedicate serious time and energy to prepare the next generation to face these new challenges and to take on some of the current ones.
That’s because the best leaders know that mentorship is critical. That a leader’s job is not only to cut costs, meet with clients, and negotiate deals but also to make sure the up-and-comers in the organization are well-equipped to do the same. Leaders set the tone and inspire others on how to produce results and eventually how to become leaders themselves. And when they do, these up-and-coming leaders will be inspired and committed to take on more than they ever could have before, which is critical in the ever-changing business and legal worlds. And in the end, these lessons, meetings, conversations, and even lunches with interns can make all the difference.
Every year, thousands of people start at new jobs. Senior leaders and managers transition from one firm to another. MBAs and JDs graduate and jumpstart their careers at businesses and law firms. And students head out to start new summer internships looking to secure offers for the next year. And all of them are thinking the exact same thing. How can I succeed in my new position? Even in a typical year, that question is difficult, because starting all over again is tough. But today, in an era where the markets are still uncertain and firms are still recovering from the economic blow of 2008, that difficulty is magnified. And as the sole summer associate at my law firm this year, I had to ponder that exact same question when I started three weeks ago.
Three weeks ago I had my first day at my law firm Vedder Price. As I mentioned in my previous post about my first day, I couldn’t help but keep thinking how exciting it was to finally get started. But at the same time, I also thought a lot about how to succeed there over the summer, especially in today’s current economic context. Because long gone are the day of the typical summer associate experience at law firms. Happy hours three days a week. Lavish lunches. Expensive dinners and boat cruises. And most importantly large classes, most of which who got offers in the end. Instead, most firms today have slashed their classes by more than half, and some firms have cut them entirely. And without all the firm programming, many people struggle to get integrated at the firm.
Fortunately in my case, I’ve quickly gotten pretty integrated into the firm. I have already been put on a number of projects and so far seem to be making a successful transition. Because things have started out well so far and because I’m still in the early stages of my summer associate position, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how to hit the ground running. And in my view, these ideas not only apply at a law firm but also at any company you might be working at.
1. Start early. Succeeding in any job is not only about performing well during your tenure there, but it’s also about laying the groundwork beforehand so you can hit the ground running. That means sending the right message during your interviews, exposing yourself to the organization early, and reaching out to people as soon as it makes sense. On one hand you definitely don’t want to cross the line of being overeager, but on the other hand there’s definitely an advantage to be connected and to have people know about you – about what you’re interested in and about how you work – sooner than later. In my case, I reached out to a number of people before I ever stepped foot in the office, and I’m already working with a number of them in my first two weeks, including the firm Chairman. But even in the cases where I’m not working with the people I met, I’m better-positioned now not only to work with them later in the summer but more importantly to build relationships with them over time.
2. Get early wins. Another important part of a new job is getting a few early “wins” and figuring out how to build momentum in your role. To put the idea in context, consider the presidential race when Barack was campaigning. His momentum ultimately helped him reach more people in future places. Similarly, think back to when he was newly elected to the role. The same hold true when you begin a new job because expectations are high and perception can be very important. And by the end of the first six months of a new job, or the first couple of weeks of a summer job, it’s good to start meeting a lot of people, to get involved in interesting projects (critical projects that have real impact if you’re at the senior level) and communicate those success to stakeholders at the firm.
3. Get to know the right people. It goes without saying that meeting the right people can be an important factor in shaping our career (or summer stay) at a firm. But by “right” I don’t necessarily mean the “top” people. Instead, I mean the people who are key stakeholders that you need to know. Those people who want to support you. Those who want to get you involved. And those who have the ability and network to actually get you involved. As a new person at any level, it’s important to facilitate early introductions so that you can begin building relationships right away. And I emphasize the word “relationships” not just knowing people. One thing that business leader Jon Rice likes to say is that”It is not who you know, but instead it is who knows you well and thinks highly enough that they will go to bat for you.”
4. Do good work. It goes without saying, but in spite of all of these tactics above, in the end you still do have to do good work. You have to put in the time, show critical thinking and analytical skills, be both a leader and a team player, and in the end deliver tangible results. This is true for all new employees, but it’s especially true of senior leaders and perhaps more important at services firms, where budget constraints and finding new clients are critical. And this is especially important in the beginning because the work that you do will be what people remember, and it will make an impression. And although proving to be someone who does good work won’t stick forever, the impression that you do bad work can.
5. Make an impression. And if you do all the things above you will be able to make a good impression and manage your perception at the firm. The is critical, when it comes down to decision time for summers, where some of the people may not have worked with you directly but will have an impression of you, not to mention an idea of what other people’s impressions are. Similarly for full-timers, the impression you make is important because it will not only be the one that sticks with you early but it will also guide the impression that stays with you over the years.
Sounds like an impossible set of tasks? Well, that’s because sometimes it can be. After all, when’s the last time you brokered a relationship with the Chairman of your firm in the first week? And when’s the last time you had people really wanting you to succeed as the new guy at the firm, in a depressed economy. Instead, it’s more often the case that people analyze and test new employees to see what they’re made of, especially now, when job security is not a guarantee and where many people may actually fear for their spots at the firm.
But on the other hand, if you do make to sure to have some early success – build momentum, find mentors and other stakeholders that want to see you succeed, and work together with the people who would otherwise be fearful, then it won’t be a sink or swim approach. Instead you’ll not only have the help of many of your co-workers, but also the real support of people who want to work with you and see you succeed. And over time they will become invested and will make sure that you do well and make a good impression. Any if you can broker that set of events, then the sky is the limit. “Summers” will get their offers, and new hires will have the potential to have big impact over time.
And in the end, the things you do in the first few weeks could make all the difference.
Best of luck to all of those at new companies.
As an anthropology major, I’ve read a lot of papers by the great anthropologist Margaret Mead. In one case she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Well, if this is true, than we certainly need more of these groups today. The current economic crisis is still on everyone’s mind, in addition to other issues like clean energy, new Supreme Court justices, and failing investment banks and law firms. I’m not surprised that many of the law students and business students, not only at Northwestern but also across the nation, are feeling a little nervous in the midst of uncertainty. But in my opinion, times of uncertainty are good because they also create opportunity. And “we have to be willing to take chances, to push the boundaries, to work in collaborative new ways to try to make a difference in our world.” At least that’s what Stanford President John Hennesey told us at a leadership conference in Chicago this past weekend.
This past Saturday, I returned to Stanford to reconnect with hundreds of alumni and former classmates. No, not literally; it’s finals week here at Northwestern Law. Instead Stanford came here, to Chicago, as part of their Leading Matters tour to showcase how the school is playing a leading role in helping solve some of the world’s biggest problems. And the Cardinal crowd in Chicago was well represented—students and alumni from the GSB, alumni from the law school, and others from various departments and schools at Stanford–and there were over 500 alumni registered for the Chicago event.
Among others, Penny Pritzker, President Hennesey, and Helen and Peter Bing were there. And for all my law school readers, I also had a chance to hear and meet Constitutional Law expert, former Stanford Law School Dean, and current litigator at Quinn Emmanuel, Kathleen Sullivan. I found her talk to be especially compelling, given my first final exam is in Constitutional Law and given that all 65 of the rest of my section mates were in their apartments or at the school studying while I was at the event downtown. (Click here for my follow up post on the Constitutional Law exam).
The entire crowd was engaged and ready for an inspiring afternoon. After almost every remark for the first five minutes, a series of claps, and “wows” would ripple through the audience from front to back, and sometimes back to front, often ending with those around me, an entire row of Stanford MBAs. In his welcoming address, Mr. Hennesey ended with the remark I mentioned above … that “This is a university willing to take chances, to push the boundaries, to work in collaborative new ways to try to make a difference in our world.”
In that moment, right at the outset, I re-connected with Stanford, which unfortunately has been a rare experience given I’ve spent the past four years in Boston, Phoenix, and Chicago. And for the day, I didn’t think much about my upcoming finals here at law school. Instead, I took the day to engage in the event, connect with old friends, conjure up old memories and traditions, think about the broader vision that Stanford had, and finally to do what I enjoy most, meet lots of new people.
I attended the first few sessions with GSB alum Marquis Parker (MBA & M.Ed, Class of 2006, and Stanford MBA blogger). I also re-connected with fellow 05 Anthropology major, Andrea Lazazzera, who also happened to be the master-organizer of the Chicago event! I saw two of my good friends from my undergrad days, who I met during Stanford’s Engineering Academy. I had drinks with a good buddy who also lives in Chicago but who I don’t see often because of law school. And I even ran into a Stanford grad that graduated from Northwestern Law in 2009. It was great seeing everyone again.
But more than the great connections that I made at the event, the underlying purpose was to show that leadership matters and that Stanford is playing a leading role as the nation is facing real challenges ahead. And “in a series of panels, speeches, and seminar sessions, President Hennessy, deans and faculty shared their bold visions for Stanford in the 21st century.” They discussed the current financial crisis, foreign policy issues, clean energy, Obama’s appointment for the Supreme Court, and how Stanford leaders were leading in all the fields.
“It was pretty impressive. The entire event blew me away. I was inspired,” one of the guests said to me as the day concluded. Another alumni commented that “it was good to see everyone again in such an inspiring environment.” I agree with both of the comments. And what I found most interesting about the event was that topic of money or donations never came up, at least not to my knowledge. Instead, the focus of the event was on education and on leadership.
And in the end, I re-engaged with the idea that when we bring ourselves together around a common purpose and when we connect with others, with ideas, and with inspiring leaders, then we can effect change on a broader scale. Not only because we have more hands to help and minds to come up with ideas but also because you can connect with the hearts of the people, and inspire them to do more than they could have ever imagined on their own.
And after being capped off by a 15-20 minute video during dinner, the event did just that. The message was compelling and well worth the time, even in the middle of finals week. In fact, after the event, I’m now even considering heading to the one in Boston toward the end of the year (I spent a few years in Boston before Chicago) and maybe even to the one in the Bay next month, depending on how my summer work schedule plays out. The event in San Francisco already has nearly 900 registered attendees, and could turn out to be a huge reunion-type event.
Either way, Bravo Stanford! And best of luck the remaining events!
Perhaps you’ve seen it before. A leader in your organization that can’t bring the team together to work toward a common goal. Well what about the reverse? Someone in your organization without a leadership title, but with a natural ability to persuade others and to really make things happen. I suspect most of us have seen both types. In my opinion, that’s because often times a title doesn’t always mean what it suggests. And because generally you don’t need a title to have an impact. Here’s why I think that’s relevant for some people at Northwestern.
Just last week here at Northwestern Law, many of the school’s organizations began sending mass emails to the Listserve. Be on the board of this club, become the president of that club, join our new committee. These are the slogans that clubs send out, hoping to find a few interested and over-ambitious students to take charge in the club next year. Because Northwestern has a diverse set of student clubs, many of them tend to have a pretty big role on campus and in student life. They put on conferences, bring guest speakers to campus, organize panels and networking events, and often join forces with other clubs to come up with events that are bigger or more innovative. And for a club to pull that off, it needs to an organized group of students that want to both plan and execute all those events for the year.
Well, the good news for schools is that there’s never a shortage of students willing to do that. Many students flock at the chance to sign up for leadership roles, both in clubs that are for leisure and in clubs that aim to have impact. In fact, I’ve even put my name in a for a position or two, including one on the JD-MBA board. I hope I win the vote, because I think I’m a good fit for the role. Similarly, I’ve also done a lot of work already without technically being in the role. It’ll be interesting to see how the results turn out.
But generally, here’s my opinion on club positions. If you’re able to get a lead role in an organization, then you should take it. Landing the role will probably earn you at least a little respect from some of your colleagues, it might also give you more self-confidence as you try to make change, and at times it may give you the status you need to make organizing a bit easier. But at the end of the day, having the title usually doesn’t guarantee any impact. Instead, what guarantees impact is being able to work with other students and finding a way to achieve results together. Because that’s what adds real value to a club and also to any organization.
There’s an old proverb that says: “A good leader is someone who can motivate his colleagues to get things done without making his teammates feel that it was the leader who actually did the work.” What does that mean? Well to me, it means that the best leaders understand the value of teamwork. That a team working together can accomplish more than the sum of its individual parts and that the best teams work well together on a level playing field to achieve their objectives. And in the end, a team is most effective when everyone’s title plays a very small part in that process.
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