Everyone has worked with people who are heavy, and everyone has worked with people who are light. Light is better.
You ask a heavy to do a job, and he says that he will. But you’re not at all sure that the job will actually get done. You call two weeks later to ask for a status report, and you receive back an ambiguous response about what’s happening. As the deadline passes, you ask for the finished product. It finally arrives, a couple of days late.
That’s a heavy load for you, the supervisor, to bear. Multiply that by eight direct reports (in a corporate law department) or 20 associates (working under your supervision at a law firm), and the burden is unbearable. All that heaviness crushes you, and, next time around, you go in search of light people.
What does it mean to be light?
On your first project, it means being completely responsible. If you have a bright idea that would interest a curious person, then bounce your bright idea off the supervisor. Bright makes light! (Take that, Adin Ballou.) (“Might makes right” is attributed to Adin Ballou??? As I’ve said before, writing this column is good for me. I would have guessed “Nietzsche,” or some other philosopher, which just proves my ignorance.)
If you have a question that an intelligent person would ask, bounce your question off the supervisor. Asking an intelligent question doesn’t burden the supervisor. By asking the question, you show the supervisor that you’re alert and on the job; by getting an answer, you avoid doing unnecessary work.
Turn your first project in on time and right. That will give the supervisor comfort, and it will begin to convince the supervisor that you’ll be a light load the next time around.
What do you do the next time around? Provide (short, coherent) status reports at intervals that make sense, given the size of the matter. Those reports will calm your compulsive supervisor; she’ll think, “Oh, thank goodness. Unlike all those heavies, light is actually doing the job.”
When do you give the supervisor a status report? A couple of hours before the supervisor will think to ask, “Gee, I wonder what’s happening with the project I gave to light last week.” That’s right: Give the status report just before the supervisor thinks to request it.
When do you answer the supervisor’s questions? A couple of hours before the supervisor will think to ask them. By anticipating all of the supervisor’s concerns, you make yourself light. And the supervisor will notice this, whether consciously or not: When the supervisor gives you a project, it’s completed by magic, and the supervisor is never forced to think twice about it. Perfect!
All lawyers are on both sides of reporting relationships. Folks who are ten minutes out of law school have legal assistants or secretaries under their supervision. What makes for a good legal assistant or secretary? Lightness. If you must ask the secretary six times whether the travel arrangements have been made or the package shipped out, the secretary is heavy. If you’re not sure that the legal assistant will actually cite-check the brief, the legal assistant is heavy. That heaviness, multiplied across everyone who’s working for you, adds up.
As you age, the lightness and heaviness of being evolves. When you’re a senior partner, when do you provide a status report to a client or answer the client’s question? Just before the client thinks to ask. When you’re the general counsel, when do you tell the CEO what’s happening in the biggest case disclosed on the 10-K? Just before the CEO thinks to ask.
I understand that reading minds seems hard. But it’s not, really. Here’s an example:
There’s a big hearing in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. When do you report to [the in-house lawyer; the head of litigation; the general counsel; the CEO, depending on who's interested]?
A: Immediately after the hearing ends, before you hop in a cab.
B: Wait for the important person to send you a text message on Wednesday, asking how the hearing went.
If you don’t know the answer to that question instinctively, you might consider giving up your career in a professional services environment.
Here’s a follow-up example: What should your report on the hearing say?
A. “It went well.”
B. Provide enough detail to answer the questions that a reasonable person, curious about the hearing, would ask.
Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Figure out how he thinks and what he wants to know. And then anticipate his needs.
There’s a corollary to the rule of providing information just before someone thinks to ask for it: You should also provide information just before someone is embarrassed by his ignorance. Thus, if you’re attending a meeting with a client (or a boss, or whomever — someone important), and one of your colleagues is likely to be asked a question to which he doesn’t know the answer, then anticipate the question, supply the answer, and avoid your colleague’s embarrassment. Tell the CEO before she goes before the Board, or the GC before she speaks to the CEO, or the partner before she meets with a client, that issue X is likely to arise, and the answer is Y.
Give people information before they think to ask for it and before they’ll be embarrassed by their ignorance. Project “the unbearable lightness of being” you.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.