Career Navigation: three common traps at all levels of success

Ronald Heifetz, the father of adaptive leadership, made the observation that organizations and their leaders “feel pressure to solve problems quickly, to move to action.” We live and work in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world that demands our quick response. Additionally, our culture is driven by winning and achieving financial success. It is easy to see how we often find ourselves perpetually rushed and in a hurry to get to the next thing—there’s always something demanding our attention just around the corner.

The consequence of this constant going and doing is that we don’t stop and think. We get caught up in the action and rarely do we take a step back and examine our situation and diagnose where we are and what we need to focus on. This limits our ability to spend time on what matters most to us as leaders: driving better results in a fulfilling way.  

There are common challenges that I have observed in my work with leaders across a variety of different industries. Overwhelmingly, three themes emerged: Leaders are frequently unclear on strategy, victims of the superhero syndrome, and drifting into isolation. Let me explain…

Unclear on Strategy
Don’t we all just love the word strategy? Corporate strategy. Strategic thinking. Strategic planning. Adding the word strategic to any topic adds gravitas. And it should. Strategic generally means differential importance. However, “strategy” and “strategic” have become so commonplace for most of us, that they have become void of meaning. As it turns out, most people in organizations are unclear what the strategy is. This is partly because the leaders themselves are unclear.

In many cases, there is a lack of alignment around strategy because there is no strategy. Or, if there is, it is understood by a select few leaders at the top of the organization. Most leaders I encounter desperately want to know what the strategy is—it would drastically improve their engagement and performance. Others have very little concern or are even apathetic to strategy because they haven’t seen it impact their role.

There is much to discuss and uncover amid the whirlwind of uncertainty when it comes to strategy. Suffice it to say that many people are unclear on the strategic direction of their organizations. And, the overwhelming feeling and perception is that the leaders at the top of the house are just as unclear.

The Superhero Syndrome
Leaders have unrealistic expectations for themselves—and other leaders. We (and by “we” I mean the collective majority in today’s society) expect our leaders to be superheroes. We each have a unique set of strengths, what some call our “super powers,” but we often fail to remember that we also have weak spots. We have constraints—we are not limitless

When we are able to identify where we stop, it opens the possibility and clarifies where others start. We cannot rest in the false belief that leaders are capable of solving all problems at all times in the best way. We tend to set unrealistic expectations for our leaders—and in turn, for our organizations. And it doesn’t stop there. We are quick to say “yes, I can do that” to clients and prospects without stopping to think if we have the capability and resources to deliver on the promises we make. We fall into the trap of trying to become all things to all people. This inevitably leads to mediocre quality, disappointed customers, and compromised integrity.

Drifting into Isolation
The pressure for leaders to show up and prove their value comes with added pressure and responsibility. I have seen this lead to a tendency for many leaders to go rogue. We don’t want anyone to see our flaws or mistakes because, as leaders, we are more visible and we feel more vulnerable to scrutiny and judgment.

Emerging talent is given the okay to make mistakes. Trial and error is a part of the learning process on the way to becoming a leader. However, there is an unspoken assumption that plagues many of us: once you become a leader, learning ends and you are expected to have all of the answers. We often trap ourselves into thinking: I should be able to do whatever is asked of me. These are the very assumptions that begin to shut down our communication with others and drive us into isolation…and often into unnecessary failure. Over time, this cuts us off from learning, collective wisdom, and the very talent that we work so tirelessly to surround ourselves with, and we become susceptible to making even bigger mistakes.

We can each benefit from having our own “board of advisers”—others who help us check our thinking and assumptions and balance our behaviors and decisions. You’ve heard it said “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same goes for leaders—it takes a village to support and raise good leaders.

The challenges that I have outlined here are not mutually exclusive, and they tend to have a compounding effect on one another. Chances are, if you are struggling in any one of these areas, you are also struggling in others. Conversely, as you begin to improve in one area, you generally begin to see progress in the other areas as well.

As you kick off 2020, do you find yourself thinking about any one or all of these areas? Have you stopped to think how you might jump off the carousel of going and doing and invest in yourself to figure out how to navigate these challenges?

Law Firm Leaders – Effective Leadership Through Crisis

Leaders of every business, including general counsel, are focused on mitigating business disruption and economic impact, all while navigating unchartered territory during the current pandemic.  Law firms and lawyers can differentiate themselves right now, and this is how. 

At the end of Q1 of 2020, lawyers and firms are most likely thinking about their individual numbers and goals.  Under normal circumstances, that would be encouraged.  During this pandemic, however, it is short-term thinking and could hold long term consequences.  Don’t make the mistake of only thinking about how you can benefit due to increased client demands or needs.  You will lose that valuable relationship.

Business leaders and general counsel are looking to trusted advisors.  They need to act quickly with good information.  Their workload has not decreased; more than likely, it has increased as they find themselves short-staffed and with fewer resources.  Their focus now has shifted to essential urgencies often involving supply chains, cybersecurity and their workforce.  As a firm, or as an individual, how can you help your clients right now?  How can you be a resource to them?  Not by billing more hours and increasing your rates. Rather, think about what value you can offer to the person and to the business – working out the hours or the money secondarily.    

For example, how can you help them shift their non-critical work out further down the line without putting them at a disadvantage?  And, can you do this proactively before they reach out to you?  So, instead of reacting to their call or requests, reach out to them with the situation, the suggestion, and your advice or counsel.  This is the time to demonstrate your core values, to be of service and to build relationships for the long haul. 

Although there will be many unexpected needs in a variety of practices, we can anticipate increased demands in the following practice areas:

  • Labor & Employment
  • Bankruptcy
  • Insurance
  • Litigation

Law firm lawyers – don’t make the mistake of seeing this pandemic as a short-term opportunity.  Instead, invest in the long-term relationships in a thoughtful and helpful way.  Put yourself in the shoes of your in-house counsel: be proactive with your clients, take something off of their plate, maybe it makes sense to proactively offer rate discounts.  Don’t think about your own hours and numbers.  Instead, think about investing in the long-term relationship you are building with  your client.  People will remember the law firms and the lawyers who helped them in a critical time of need.

Jodi Standke is the CEO of Talon Performance Group, Inc., a comprehensive talent alignment firm that provides leadership development, communication effectiveness, presentation coaching, business development training, executive search services, and project staffing. She can be reached at 612-827-5165 or at

Resignation Basics: The Professional Way 

For many professionals the resignation process is a time of great distress as they dread having to tell their current employer, their peers, their partners that they have decided to part ways.  This is especially true when one has worked with and at the same organization for a substantial period of time or when a lawyer leaves one type of organization for the same type of organization.  i.e. law firm to law firm or in-house to in-house. Even when you know the career choice you are making is the best decision for you, human nature can cause emotion on both sides of the table whenever a relationship ends.

How does one part ways appropriately, professionally and efficiently?  Many people approach this critical career juncture flying by the seat of their pants and mimicking what they have seen others do incorrectly. Never use the resignation process as an opportunity to “get back at” or “let them know” all that is wrong. It just doesn’t matter, and your reputation is far too valuable to risk for the one moment of satisfaction in bringing up all the seeming injustices you suffered.  

Giving your resignation should be simple, thoughtful and carefully planned. This will reduce your stress and cause you to focus on the one and only thing that is really critical: Making the transition of your departure as smooth as possible for everyone involved.  Your only focus should be leaving your old organization in the best position you can while you mentally begin to focus on your new organization.

Before exploring best practices in resigning and transitioning, one helpful fact to remember is that people and organizations tend to follow a predictable, three-stage pattern when faced with a resignation:

1. They’ll be in shock. This can often take the form of surprise and anger.

2. They’ll start to probe. “Who; What; Where; Why” 

3. They’ll make you an offer to try and keep you from leaving. 

It may take various amounts of time for the three stages to run their course, but most of the time; these steps will run their course.  Knowing this pattern can help one prepare for effectively handling the resignation process.

What Must Be Considered?

The Counter Offer.

First, remember that giving notice means you are crossing a point of no return. Your decision should be final and non-negotiable if you want to maintain your credibility.  Whatever reasons had you explore opportunities outside your organization in the first place still and will exist during and after your departure. Don’t waste your or their time by giving false hope that they can do something to get you to stay.  Once you give your notice, the relationship dynamic has shifted and trust is lost.  


When do you give notice?  The general answer is as soon as possible after you have tendered an official acceptance of a new offer of employment.  It is worth strategically considering the timing of your resignation. You may consider: What matters are you involved in that need transitioning?  What events are happening at the new organization? What is happening with your clients? What is the time of year? Make sure your resignation properly coincides with your start date at the new organization and allows time for you to take a break in between positions should that be desired.

Whatever the timing factors, follow your organization’s exit protocol.  This is true no matter how close you are to some of your co-workers, peers, subordinates; Don’t leave a bad impression by ignoring this rule and talking with people out of turn.  Be prepared to be exited out of the building upon tendering your notice.  

Presenting the Resignation. 

With few exceptions, you should do this in a face-to-face meeting. Thus it is your responsibility to arrange a meeting, and if you arrange the meeting, it is your responsibility to have an agenda for it. Short and sweet messaging at this point is appropriate.  “I appreciate the opportunity I have had here. I have made a commitment to join another organization and will begin working with them in three weeks. Let’s discuss how we can make my transition as smooth as possible.” It is beneficial if you have created an agenda which outlines 3-8 items that need to be wrapped up during your transition and your plan to get them done.  

Exit Interviews.

For some, it may be tempting  to lay it all on the line as they have long dreamed of doing.  Should you be asked to do an exit interview, be polite and answer the questions in a simple, fair and true manner with short answers.  After all, what is in it for you if you air your grievances?  

Additional Tips  to Support you during Your Transition

  • Call a close friend and let him or her know you gave notice. It is often beneficial to talk to a welcoming voice after this stressful interaction. Don’t talk about your resignation with peers.
  • Consider the timing of removing your personal items.  It is much easier to remove your personal items early in the process, rather than leave this task to the last minute.
  • Make sure that you have ALREADY removed any personal items from your laptop or PC, and have taken home those files in some manner – remember copies of all your reviews, testimonials and recommendations. Only take what is rightfully yours.
  • Focus on legitimately wrapping up your business and/or transferring your projects or responsibilities to your co-workers or replacement as assigned. Even if you don’t get much direction, at least write it all up and document your work so that it can easily be understood once you are gone. 

Do not change your professional manners as you transition.  Think about your future network, references, and what people will say about you.  For the experienced professional, the last impression can be more important than the first impression.  

*Note:  Group and portable practice moves may require exception to the timing aspects of a transition.

The Lawyer Plateau

In volatile situations, size and strength are not advantages – speed and agility are. As globalization and uncertain economics continue, law firms and law departments must develop highly nimble operating models that enable them to respond to new opportunities and new competition. Firms that try to maintain “status quo” will be on the plateau and then left behind.

A key ingredient in any model is the talent; both the “seats” in the firm/department and the talent in those seats. One of the most obvious places to see the lawyer plateau in our current day is in the partnership ranks – partner plateau. The partners who rose to partnership via academic year, supporting the firm’s rainmakers, are now, suddenly, expected to have their own clientele. A common firm point of view is that these lawyers are taking up expensive production seats and limiting the firm’s ability to recognize high producing associates via partnership. Often, the partner’s point of view is “What happened? – the game has changed.” Just as an organization must change to meet demands, so too, must the individual lawyer.

Survival of the fittest is happening in our legal profession. Action, training, and tools can alter organizations and individuals at the DNA level. Talon has measured results of lawyer plateau clients over the years and we have seen acceleration like these examples:

1) A partner client with $200k in portable business moved to a firm where it was a culture fit and went through client builder training to triple her practice in 18 months.

2) A law firm client, selecting a specific person in a specific practice area to be the succession leader of the practice area that lost the confidence of the partnership, clients were be referred out of the firm – turned the practice around and brought current client business back to the firm, making the practice one of the top profit areas of the firm.

3) A corporate legal department client: constant, yearly, turnover in one AGC position was blamed internally and externally on bad leadership from the GC. Hiring the right person for their seat at the culture fit level had the CEO praising the GC for the hire that has now been there three years.

An organism must adapt to be able to fulfill the needs of an ever-changing environment. Until recently the legal profession has been fairly sheltered from this requirement. Now the economy is forcing the profession to change and adapt.

Signs of being on the plateau:

• Attrition of associates is par for the course

• We have always done it this way

• I figured it out and look at me, they can figure it out like I did

• Just ignore them, they will figure out they don’t belong any more

• Th is origination is mine and I am not sharing credit

• The only measure of success that counts is the billable hour – that’s 2200 by the way

• They have been here for 20 years, we can’t let them go now

• Every law firm is the same, my only option is to go in house

• I don’t like sitting in front of the computer, that is not what I signed up for as a lawyer

• I want to collaborate instead of fighting to win

• I don’t trust my partners

Solutions to evolution, moving beyond the plateau and continuing to advance:

• Organizational transformation at the DNA level – hard examine of what is working

• Measures of success include more than billable hours

• Origination is shared when earned, promote development of the next generation and collaboration

• Diversity is practiced organization wide, not just discussed at the diversity meetings

• Professional development training is a recognition for high potential performers

• Emerging leaders get training on emotional intelligence and practical leadership readiness

• Communication effectiveness training is conducted regularly and used to attract and retain

• Client support via collaborative teams, expectations on roles, rewards and consequences

Now is the time to look for ways to leave your comfort zone and confront these new challenges in your practice – this leads to invigoration, renewal, energy, reward and intrigue. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will guarantee success. What is certain is that in 2020 and beyond, old models must make way for new solutions.

Talent Management/ Team Effectiveness

Creating a high-impact team (practice group): the perfect storm? 

As human beings it is almost impossible to exist without operating as part of a team, whether it is within the community, family, sport or work. Indeed, organizations are increasingly using team-based structures to increase organizational performance.  The following definition of ‘teams’ highlights the common understanding across all teams: 

“A collective of two or more individuals who possess a common identity, have consensus on a shared purpose, share a common fate, exhibit structured patterns of interaction and communication, hold common perceptions about group structure, are personally and instrumentally interdependent, reciprocate interpersonal attraction, and consider themselves to be a group.” (Carron, Hausenblas, & Eys, 2005) 

The ultimate question is ‘what makes a team effective?’, or as is more commonly used within organizations, ‘how can we develop a high impact team?’ This term refers to teams who are highly focused and outperform in anticipated productivity or describe teams where the members also have high skill sets. It is implicitly acknowledged that this is not the case for all teams, however most teams have the potential to adopt ‘high impact’ qualities and perform better. 

What makes a high impact team? 

There are numerous factors required for a team to evolve from just performing, to hitting peak performance, these key factors are:  

  1. Team goals 
  • Specific goals lead to higher performance than ‘do your best’  
  • Difficult goals lead to higher performance than easy goals  
  • In order for goals to be effective they need to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, recorded and temporal. 
  • Goals are most effective when they are group-centric, i.e. they are designed to maximize each individual’s contribution to the group and have been shown to increase team performance
  1.  Team diversity 

Although teams consisting of similar individuals may appear harmonious, this homogeneity can stifle creativity and idea generation. After all, people who think the same tend to have similar ideas and approaches to problems or opportunities. 

  • Diverse teams were found to have higher team performance than those who were not. 
  • Diversity was related to increased adaptiveness and change effectiveness. 
  • Diverse teams more often avoid groupthink. Groupthink is a deterioration of thinking capacity, reality testing and moral judgements within a group. It is caused by in-group pressures for unanimity and tends to occur in cohesive groups. It is a trap teams who have worked together for a long time can fall into. 
  • Ultimately our physical diversity, be it ethnicity, gender, disability or age, are all only indicators for the diversity that is of real importance – and that is diversity of thought. If we do not have a physically diverse team, that is a surface level indicator that we may not have diversity of thought and perspective. 
  1. Team size 

There is a consistency in thought amongst experts that a team should not be too large. The arguments for small teams are that people can interact frequently, which leads to a natural flow of information. On the other hand, large teams have more resources and are more likely to operate in a more structured fashion. Research has shown the ideal team size is between 6-10 members.

  1.  Team climate 

Within any team, people tend to engage in one of two main undertakings: the maintenance of the tasks or the maintenance of the social unit. How much effort goes into this maintenance depends on ‘group cohesiveness’. Cohesion is essential for helping teams to achieve their common goal. T Cohesiveness can be created by equipping team members with a greater understanding of each other.

  1.  Role clarity 

Role ambiguity occurs when people do not know their role in terms of duties, responsibilities or authority. This is something which can have a detrimental effect on individual effort and performance. Power can be distributed throughout the team or it may lie with the team leader. Ultimately individuals need to know what level of authority they have, and the authority that others have. Sometimes it can be the case that authority levels have not been established and no one knows. This should be addressed directly and swiftly.

  1.  Leadership 

Leadership in a team has an impact on team effectiveness. The two most widely acknowledged approaches to leadership are transactional and transformational. 

  • Transactional leaders focus on enhancements and contingent rewards and punishments, to impact upon team members’ behaviors. They also manage by exception, therefore only take action when something is going wrong. 
  • Transformational leadership on the other hand, involves influencing team behavior through charisma and vision. Transformational leaders are enthusiastic and stimulate new perspectives and ideas, continually motivating their team. They also manage at an individual level, coaching and listening to individual team members in a style that works for each person. 
  1. Team composition / training

The composition of the team is a mix of capabilities, skills, backgrounds, personalities, technical skills, levels of experience and interpersonal skills such as communication and conflict resolution.  The risk of employing the wrong person for the job in terms of capabilities can be minimized through recruitment strategies. Selection procedures, training needs analysis and then training and coaching are all essential to ensure that members have the skills and support required to undertake the role. 


Organizations cannot afford to not examine, identify and address team structures and the blockers to high impact.  Realistically, there are too many variables that can go wrong to take the success of any team for granted. High impact teams are those which are aligned, optimizing team performance. Some high impact teams may occur naturally, although in many respects this is like the perfect storm – a rare coming together of the perfect conditions.