The other day, I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast featuring an interview with Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella.  Like or hate Microsoft, they are a heck of an enduring business success. So, when their CEO of the past nine years shares his beliefs about running a business, I listen.

The bulk of the interview was about the rise of AI, a topic that will be the subject of a much longer blog post from me at some point.  But that wasn’t the part that caught my attention.  Near the end of the interview, Nadella mentions, almost in passing, that the job of a leader is to build institutional strength in the organization so that it can be left in better shape for the next leader.

This isn’t a new concept, as anyone who read the popular 1998 “fable” The Five Temptations of a CEO knows that leaders should focus on building up the business, not serving their own egos.  But leaders have only become more famous since then, and their companies have become an even greater extension of them.  Think Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg.  Their companies have become an extension of their personality.  And while they say they want to focus on what’s best for the future of their organizations, three of them are heavily invested in getting off the planet in due course. So, it might just be me, but doesn’t that make you question their commitment to their responsibilities of life here on earth just a little bit?

I don’t blame leaders for wanting to luxuriate somewhat in their success and power.  After all, it usually takes a lot of effort to move into that position.  It should be celebrated.  But it is also a place of great responsibility.  Indeed, many of the Managing Partners I know didn’t particularly want the job.  They might be in it because no one else in the organization was willing to take it on, and/or they might be the only ones qualified to do the role… or weak enough in the moment to say yes.

And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the role of Managing Partner is a cushy one.  Managing Partners only have the power granted to them moment by moment by their Partnerships.  That permission to lead can be questioned, challenged, and taken away at any time.  And for most firms that don’t have a full complement of senior support staff, Managing Partners can be required to get far too involved in the day to day running of a law firm.  They are also called in to solve issues, fixed personality disputes, and deal with any given fire on any given day.  I wouldn’t call most of it a “fun” job.

Meanwhile, most Managing Partners are expected to maintain close to their regular billings. And few are compensated for the leadership part of their role.  For some, it’s actually more of a drain on their ability to earn revenue, for twice the workload.

But I want you to put all of that aside. No matter how you came to be the Managing Partner, you should have a North Star, which is the future.  Quite apart from dealing with the firm’s day to day operational challenges, Managing Partners must also be visionaries which means they must be thinking about creating a better future for their firm.  It’s all about building institutional strength.  Specifically:

  1. What is broken that needs fixing? Do you have a problematic Partner?  Deal with it.  Issues with a staff member?  Fire and replace them.  Is a department in disarray?  Analyze and solve that problem.  Don’t avoid conflict.  Meet it head on.  Deal with it fairly, justly and promptly.  Then move on and upward from there.
  2. Spend time in quadrant 2. This refers to the four quadrants of time management and in particular, the upper right quadrant where we do our most valuable work. Thinking, strategizing, planning, learning, building processes and systems that will make us more efficient.  Look at your firm to determine where you can encourage greater efficiencies and better processes.  Establish small teams (a task force) to figure out how best to get it done.  Launch those ideas, then study their degree of effectiveness.  Make any necessary adjustments and carry on.
  3. Have a vision for the firm. In addition to ensuring it runs well now and in the future, set out some larger-scale goals for the firm.  Maybe you want it to be the top firm in your region.  Maybe you want to expand its service to be more full-service, or to transform it into a high-end boutique in a single area of law.   Maybe you want it to significantly expand in size, through laterals or perhaps a merger.  Maybe you want to open a new office or two, expanding your coverage areas.
  4. Build up your infrastructure. Ensure you have the right people doing the right things.  Put your senior management team into place.  Ensure your practice areas have the resources and support they need.  Invest in software that will make the firm more efficient.
  5. Invest in your people.  There are signs that we are in the beginning stages of the end of the talent wars.  I’ll be happy to see the other side of inflated salaries and under-qualified candidates getting the job, but this period taught us a thing or two about the value of nurturing.   Hire carefully.  On-board effectively.  Have a killer training program that spans cradle to grave.  Learn how to mentor well.
  6. Understand how you compare with your competition. You can’t know how you are doing in the marketplace unless you are aware of the marketplace.  I’m shocked by how few lawyers know who their competitors are.  Keep track of this information.  Monitor them carefully for developments. Ensure you are building up the firm’s differentiators to create meaningful advantage for your firm within your various target markets.
  7. Spend some time being a cheerleader. The mood and demeaner of the leader sets the tone for that of the entire firm.  Take the time to show you are confident, happy, appreciative of everyone’s hard work.  This particular suggestion speaks directly to lawyer and staff longevity with the firm.


As you go about your role, as actions are required by you, ask yourself the question: will my response build institutional strength?  If not, pick a different path.

It’s too easy to tell yourself that the job only requires that you deal with issues in the moment. That may be your daily responsibility, but your ultimate responsibility is to leave the firm in better shape for the future once your job is done.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at