The Challenge of Not Being Needed
In October of 2018 I took a month-long sabbatical--an entire month. It was the culmination of a decade of work starting with beginning law school in 2008. We had grown the firm from two practitioners, with modest goals of providing legal services to our local community, to six attorneys and a dozen support staff manning three offices, serving twenty-four counties, and providing services as specialized as landowner advocacy for energy issues to simple “I-Love-You” wills for couples.
The years of growth had taken their toll on me personally, and it was starting to creep into my family, my leadership, and my professionalism. Nobody taught me how to run a business in law school, so I made a lot of mistakes and missteps along the way. Each of which I took on very personally, because of course I had to figure this out on my own—didn’t I?
The best decision I made was to start recruiting and investing in an operations team. Since that decision, I have found an amazing team of people who are, without exaggerating, the most talented group of people I have every worked with. Inside each of their areas they have outstripped my skills and abilities so much so that I often have to ask them to speak slowly and use small words--that isn’t as much of a joke as I might hope. Having this amazing operations team and an equally talent practice team had an unexpected consequence.
If you have started your business from scratch, you know all too well the mentality that “it is all reliant on me.” Once ingrained, that belief is a hard one to shake. For me, it was hard to shake even after my team began to outperform me in their subject areas. The reality began to set in that, they are way better than me at what they are doing— and, to put a point on it, they don’t need me in the same way they did before.
This is supposed to be the climax of successful team building. The point at which your team begins to run on their own without you being right there by their side. For me it was an identity crisis and the beginning of a re-adjustment period—and not an altogether pleasant one. My greatest fear when I left for sabbatical was that I would return and find out that the firm doesn’t need me anymore.
I started to think, maybe my job had been to set them up and turn them loose. Maybe it was time to find something else to startup. After all, that would require the least amount of personal growth from me—to leave and stay in my safe place of starting things and building teams.
Not to be redundant, but the greatest discovery from my time away was that the firm doesn’t need me the same way it did before. In fact, I needed to get out of the way of their success. It is both humbling and exciting for me to have come back to a team that had one of our best October’s ever, which led into a 5 month run of record breaking months. The best thing I could have done was remove myself for a brief period of time to allow the team to be what I designed it to be—without my constant “meddling.”
That raised a new challenge. The challenge of not being needed in the same way in which I had operated for years. Do I leave and start again, or do I embrace growth into what it needs be to be now—the place where my strengths generate the most ROI for the firm. I had to grow beyond what I had been doing into a new set of responsibilities and value generating propositions. My responsibilities shifted from day to day operations to maintaining the vision, values, great purpose, and mission of the firm. From project execution to project management. From doing to empowering. From generating to originating.
Building a team is a path to obsolescence.
That is, making the responsibilities and duties that you carry right now obsolete, because you have a team of people doing it better than you could ever had. But it is also a personal and professional challenge for you to step up into what is next for you. What can you do that you didn’t have time for before? How can you bring greater value by leveraging your reputation and experience in new ways? How can you develop your strengths into super powers that start making an impact not just on your clients and customers, but your community, region, state, and beyond?
The challenge of building a team can lead you to the challenge of not being needed in the same way you have been before—if you are willing to get out of your own and your team’s way. My hope for you in building your team is that you someday find yourself in the position of asking, “What’s next?” And when you do, give me a call, we can commiserate over you success.
Investing in Your Team
The story goes that a CEO and CFO were discussing the future of their company.
The CFO said to a CEO, “Can we afford to invest in our people?”
The CEO responded, “Can we afford not to?”
The CFO says, “What happens if we invest in our people and they leave us?”
The CEO replied, “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”
Anyone who has built a team knows that finding the right people is just the first step. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great and Gino Wickman reiterated in Traction, the next step is to get the right people in the right seats.
By this time, I am assuming you are at least interested in understanding your strengths, so you now know, or have a good guess, which seat you need to sit in to bring the most value to your business. If you know where you are sitting, then you know what seats are empty. Finding the team members to fill those seats is the first challenge. The second is making sure you have them in the right seats, so they generate the most return on your investment—and on theirs.
People hired just to fill a seat will end up being in the way and slowing down our progress. A well vetted team member put in the right seat can take us places we haven’t even imagined yet.
Investing in our team will mirror much of our personal journey to identifying our strengths and seating ourselves in the position in our business where we are generating the most ROI for our time and energy. The following are some additional ideas:
A well invested in team can take us to the next level of success and satisfaction. If we invest in our team and keep putting people in the right seats, we are going to find that while our business is doing more than ever before, we may be doing less. This may result in a unique situation of asking, “What do I do next?”
Building Your Team & Lending Your Reputation
For the sake of discussion, let us say that you have accepted that you have built a business that needs more than your set of strengths. And that you have focused on what you do better than anyone else. If so, then you should easily be able to outline the responsibilities that are aligned with your strengths, and the responsibilities that are not. Armed with that knowledge, the following are steps for building the team that will take care of the areas outside of your focus:
Let’s use a law firm as an example:
Using the “2018 Legal Trends Report” as a template, up to 5.6 hours a day is being spent by attorneys away from revenue generating practice.
If an attorneys practice is where her strengths are, then that is a lot of time working on things that she is not great at.
5.6 hours over a 20-work day month equals 112 hours. If she is billing at only $150 per hour and she could utilize just 56 of those 112 hours towards working on billable matters, that is a loss of $8,400 in billable time during that 20-day period or just over $100,000 for the year.
That is a lot of lost opportunity.
Eventually all of that “dedication” took it tolls. I ended up tired, angry, and tired (if you’ve been there, you know that feeling). I asked the question, “what if instead of giving my all my life and energy to the firm, I built something that sustained my life as I wanted to live it?” That was the question that started me on the journey of building my team.
It is easier to allow ourselves to be run by our businesses, than to tame the beast and run our businesses. Answering the question of what you really want for yourself personally has value beyond a dollar figure.
You can start with some of your team being virtual or independent contractors—just make sure to comply with all of your industries ethical and privacy concerns. You can budget their time, avoid increased fixed overhead, and even pass on the cost to your consumers.
Some of your team may need to be in-house, to create stability in your work process or consumer relationships. Just be aware of all of the fixed costs you will incur and be smart about putting your team in a position that is aligned with their strengths, so they generate the greatest return on invest for your business.
Regardless of how you proceed, make sure you can pay for your team through your current revenue stream, then grow your revenue through the extra time you now have.
If you aren’t experienced in the vetting and hiring processes, you will find yourself gaining experience in the firing process.
Having someone filter a pool of applicants for you will save you time, keep you from making an emotional decision, and provide an extra layer of scrutiny of your potential team member.
Plus a headhunter who works for you can help you structure a competitive compensation package that will help you find individuals who are already skilled—reducing your training time.
If you are hiring a contractor take the time to call all of their references and check out all of the comments on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. This is your business, be confident in who you are inviting into it.
Training time is another reason why you want to get someone who is experienced in the hiring process. There is nothing more frustrating than training new team members over and over again for the same position because the previous person wasn’t a good fit.
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I recently had a conversation with an attorney looking to grow her practice. One of the issues she has is that while she had a great reputation as a litigator, she was increasingly less and less happy with having to go to court. She found it draining and that it took time away from the things that were most important to her.
She had put in the time and built a reputation that was driving more work to her, but more work inevitably meant more time in court. I sympathized - as a negotiator and transactional attorney, going to court is not my jam. For her the issue was not one of litigation being outside of her competencies, but that it was something that was not bringing her personal satisfaction. So much so, she was contemplating unbundling her services so she would not have to go to court anymore.
I recommended that she evaluate hiring an associate that is energized by being in court. While she might find going to court draining, there are attorneys that find it invigorating--I know, I am shocked by that too. She is in a great position where she can now leverage her time and experience by lending her reputation and clout to an associate that is energized in an area that she is not anymore.
By bringing in someone with complementary strengths, she is focusing on where she has the greatest impact, generates the greatest value, and derives the most satisfaction. She is also providing the client with someone energized by their matter at every step in the case and creating capacity for her to meet with the new clients her reputation was generating.
We have all built, or are building, a reputation that is garnering respect and, most importantly, new clients and customers. Continuing to build your business will mean finding people you can trust to lend your reputation to whose strengths are complimentary to yours.
As crazy as it sounds, there are people who get excited about everything from reconciliation of bank statements, to review of medical records, to negotiating the particulars of deals, to standing up in front of the court arguing with opposing counsel. You don’t have to be everyman or everywoman to your business. You just need to be the one focused on pushing that domino, bicycle, fly wheel from a place of strength.
When it comes to investing in a team, sometimes the cost is monetary, and the benefit is peace of mind. So, when it comes to investing in your team, the question is, can you afford not to?
Stop Pulling–Start Pushing
What happens when you realize that you have built something that requires more expertise than you have?
Usually anxiety happens.
And anxiety leads us into a trap of believing that if we just try harder for longer, we will figure it out. After all, isn’t that how we made this far? Just trying harder. Inevitability we find ourselves exerting a tremendous amount of energy trying to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Pulling on our own bootstraps is a fight we can’t win.
So, I propose a redirection of all that energy towards understanding what you can do better than anyone else.
Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, in their book The One Thing, explore the power of understanding how and where to focus our energies to make the greatest impact. They use the example of increasingly larger dominoes. Take two and half minutes to check out Stephen Morris’ video demonstrating what Keller and Papason wrote about (https://youtu.be/y97rBdSYbkg).
In short, you can push on a wafer thin domino, a fraction of an inch square, and twenty-nine dominos later, if each is only 1.5x bigger than the one in front of it, you have knocked down a domino the size of the Empire State Building.
Let’s dwell on that for just a second.
By investing our time intentionally in the effort to understand where we need to push, we can exert less effort and have a greater impact than trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The One Thing is an easy read and a great place to start on this journey of understanding strengths, weaknesses, skills, and abilities.
After accepting that your greatest benefit to what you have created is to apply your energies where you will get the greatest return on that investment (ROI), you need to dig deeper to find and define your strengths and weaknesses. I cannot over recommend Strength Finders 2.0 from Gallop Press and Tim Rath. Also a very easy to read book that has profound implications.
Understanding your natural strengths as an owner and leader will identify quickly where you are lacking. For example, my top 5 strengths are Ideation, Strategic, Input, Futuristic, and Connectedness. I have learned to embrace those core strengths. I also have acknowledged some of my weaknesses, like Harmony, Competition, and Discipline, are necessary for leading a successful business.
I could just say, “I need to work harder to turn my weaknesses into strengths and be a well-rounded person.” And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with striving to be well rounded. But that is a journey of lifetime that our businesses cannot wait for us to complete. Instead of throwing all our energy towards our weaknesses, we can redirect our energy and invest it where we can generate the greatest amount of ROI.
Using another physics example, take the gears on a bike. The point of having gears on a bike is to create the ability to adjust the return on energy input from our legs, to the petals, to the gears, thru the chain, to the wheels. By adjusting up and down through the gears we can ensure that we are getting as much ROI for our energy as possible. At too low a gear, we are pushing harder than we need to and expending energy we will need later. At too high a gear, we are pedaling fast but not getting the maximum amount of return per push. Understanding our strengths is comparable to being able to dial in the gears on our bike. We can adjust the gears of our business, based on the financial terrain, to maximize the ROI for our energy spent moving our business down the road.
Instead of trying to pedal faster or harder to make up for our weaknesses, we need to know where we need to push to generate the greatest ROI and find others to invest their time and energy in the areas where they are strongest. There are people who are amazing where we are lacking. Finding them and adding them to our teams is a much greater use of our time and resources than trying to become mediocre at doing something we weren’t good at to begin with.
Take time to read Jim Collins Good to Great. Collins uses the example of a fly wheel (if, like I didn’t, you don’t know what a fly wheel is, checkout the following video for a simple explanation https://youtu.be/7K4W4hA6aV4). Collins proposition is that if we are willing to focus our energy on moving forward the thing(s) we are best at, both personally and as a business, we will get the greatest ROI.
Whether it is a domino, bicycle, or flywheel, there are numerous examples of how the most important journey we will embark on is the one where we invest in discovering how we can apply our strengths to a focused area that will generate the greatest impact and ROI for our time and energy.
We can choose to expend our energy pulling on our own bootstraps—usually out of some sense that we have to do it all by ourselves. If we do, our business will never be more than what we have to offer, and our ROI will be limited to our own strengths and limited by our own weaknesses. Or we can choose to start pushing from a position of our greatest strengths, setting our domino, bicycle, flywheel, business in motion and potentially changing the course of our careers.
Anyway, if you are going to exert all that energy, why not put it in a direction that can create change and foster success. Knowing your strengths will let you know the kind of strengths you need to find to supplement your business strategy.
Image Credit: Gary Keller and Jay Papasan authors of The One Thing and Jim Collins author of Good to Great.
The Myth of Bootstrapping
I am issuing a challenge. The rules are simple:
In the modern vernacular, “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” means “I have improved my situation with no outside help” or “I am a self-made man or woman.” The reality is, it is physically impossible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Like blowing on the sail of the boat you are standing on—you are not going anywhere.
Bootstrapping is a dangerous myth that only serves to isolate and harm owners and entrepreneurs. The act of pulling on your own bootstraps demonstrates that reality. Go ahead and try right now. Stand up, bend over and grab the back of your footwear, then pull as hard as you can. This can wait for 60 seconds.
What happened? Did all that effort levitate you off the ground? If so, please take a video and send it to me--we will make millions! I would wager that, at best, you were locked in a fight between your legs and your back and arms or, at worst, you were pulling yourself towards the ground.
The physical, and embarrassing, situation you found yourself in is an outward manifestation of a mental state that believes the bootstrapping myth. If you believe that you can improve your life, your business, or your relationships with no outside help, you will actually find yourself becoming smaller and being under a greater deal of self-made strain. By yourself you are actually less.
Less aware of your environment.
Less responsive to opportunities.
Inevitably, your vision becomes focused on the hard realities of the ground and not the vast opportunities around you.
The very nature of bootstrapping limits the many facets of our lives to only the skills, abilities, and energy we bring to it. If we insist on trying to be and do everything for our business, our business will only ever be as big as we are. While there are myths of the super men and women who “do it all”, we mere mortals are best served by understanding that the entity we are building will need, and likely already does, more than we have to offer.
By the way, congratulations on bringing into existence something that requires more than your skill set—you are awesome!
I have a handpicked team of people that makes our firm more than I ever could have on my own. You can check them out at thewhitelawoffice.com.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Like you, I have the ability to do what my team is doing, but I also technically have the ability to perform my own surgeries—there is a large gap between ability and competence. My purpose in writing this is to share how I built my team and how my primary job became building, investing in, and leading the team that makes up our firm—our business.
What was the first step? Accepting the reality that I was holding my firm back from what it could become by limiting its growth to my skills and abilities.
Remembering is fundamentally an act of imagination that requires us to tell a story about what happened to us.
As we remember past events, our imagination fills in gaps in our memory to tell a cohesive story.
Cohesive storytelling requires imagining an entire world within which the story makes sense.
The conceived world need not be real, it just must be consistent.
If the world is ill conceived, then the story fails to engage.
The act of remembering requires a cohesive world within which that memory makes sense.
The memory is reliant upon our perception of the world.
If we introduce an outside perspective into a memory it can cause a misconceived reality to fail due to inconsistency.
Nostalgia is a form of imagination.
A form where our memories exaggerate the story with great fondness
Traumatic events are also a form of storytelling--albeit horrible repetitive stories that our mind cannot let go of or attempts to cover up.
The act of storytelling can create healing and wholeness of past events because it moves us through the same mental processes of remembering.
A compelling story engages our imagination in the same way that remembering does.
The catharsis of a well told story can move us through the emotions of past loss and pain.
The elation of fictional love can allow us to imagine ourselves in a situation where we are loved for who we are.
The long struggle in one direction of fictional friends can inspire us to take on our own adventure with those closest to us.
Storytelling is good for not just the soul, but also our heart and mind.
May your next story move you towards healing and wholeness.
I read recently that we are in the modern golden age of epic storytelling.
As a closet nerd for much of my life, it is very cool when my secret passions become mainstream.
Cinema, books, video games, and tabletop gaming are experiencing a resurgence and unprecedented success in the mainstream markets.
Even at that, it is difficult to condition yourself to talk openly about your passions after decades of squirreling it away cause no one else cared... or they were secretly squirreling it away to cause they thought no one cared.
One of the by-products of my time away last October was getting re-engaged with story and narrative.
I remember as a kid hiding under the covers with a light reading adventure books long after lights out.
Do you remember "make your own adventure" books?
They were awesome!
I remember reading 800 pages in one day of a sci-fi story on summer vacation cause I just couldn't put the book down.
I remember reading the Lord of the Rings over Christmas break every year after graduating from undergrad.
I remember Jaime getting me books on CD to listen to on my way back and forth from law school.
I remember wanting to share in those stories with others, but feeling like I was isolated without common ground to begin a conversation.
Then last fall I stumbled on to a group of voice actors that live stream, for 3-4 hours at a time, their Dungeons and Dragons game.
I realized I just lost some of my conservative religious friends by just mentioning that game; trust me I was told the same thing in the '80s too, it just wasn't true.
Anyway, for those of you sticking around, I started listening to Critical Role's podcast from the beginning.
I listened to some 500 hours of content while driving, mowing, cleaning, and to the exclusion of watching any movies or TV.
I was enthralled with the story, not because it had non-standard fantasy tropes; in fact, it had all of the tropes that you would expect in a fantasy story.
No, I was enthralled because each character had autonomy and agency to control what would happen next (subject to the dice rolls of course).
The autonomy and agency gave rise to collaborative storytelling the like of which I had never experienced before.
It was compelling--I had to keep listening to know what was going to happen next.
And at episode 115 I sat on my weight bench in the basement and cried because of how the first campaign ended.
Heck, I get a little misty-eyed just thinking about it.
When was the last time a story did that for you?
It can remember good, even great stories that I return to time and time again, but I have not experienced anything like the power of collaborative storytelling before.
Thru listening to their game, if found a renewed love for narrative and a desire to experiment with it.
So, I did what I always do, jump in feet first and see what happens.
Best. Choice. Ever.
I currently run three games; one of which has 3 guys around my table and 5 via video chat.
I prepare for the way the story could branch, but I never know what they are going to do and mostly end up improvising as they make decisions.
So much laughter, so many "oh shit" moments, and so many great choices are foiled or come to fruition due to a roll of the dice.
2 hours have never flown by as fast as it does when leading one of those games.
But for all the fun, it is the story that keeps us talking about it afterward.
The players actively retell what happened in the last game for days after we finished.
And they plot and scheme about the next game on our Slack channel, that we had to set up to keep track of the game.
There is something about taking on a character that frees you from what you are in, to explore what could be.
Whether theater, writing, or playing some D&D, when you can step away from a problem and engage a whole set of non-consequential problems with creativity, and a bit of flair, sometimes you find creative solutions to the problems that have consequence.
Moreover, you find a place of belonging with like-minded/like-hearted co-adventurers.
The video below does a great job talking about that.
All of this very long post to say, it took a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin because part of what I needed to embrace was allowing my geek flag to fly.
It is okay to normalize the love of narrative.
It is very cool that people love sports, politics, business, etc.
I learn a lot of very cool stuff from those people.
But for me and my tribe of storytellers, we love the narrative and all of its endless possibilities.
If you ever want to to talk story, let me know.
It isn't weird, or at least no weirder than talking about sports - and they have a whole set of cable channels dedicated to that.
And if you ever feel like your alone in your love of narrative, I have a bit of advice: risk taking an adventure outside your doubts, you'll find out you aren't alone, and... roll for initiative!
(If you want to see some of the places we adventure to in our games, check out thebrotherswhite.com)
It is a new(ish) word that taps into an ancient, almost genetic need.
It is simply put the desire to be wanted.
Being wanted surpasses being needed.
Being wanted goes beyond being useful.
Being wanted doesn't mean you have to be talented enough, skilled enough, smart enough, attractive enough, or witty enough to fit in.
Being wanted is the desire that someone else has for us to be around without needing us to be useful to them.
Being wanted doesn't mean we can't be needed or useful.
But being wanted does mean that the desire to have us around isn't conditioned upon need, usefulness, talent, skill, intelligent, aesthetic, wit, or whatever we believe we must be to fit in.
It feels good to feel wanted.
To know that you are part of a tribe that says that first, before all other things, you are wanted.
But that is a rare feeling and rare environment to find ourselves; in a tribe of people who get and accept us for just who we are.
But they are out there.
You just have to get out and find them.
Come on, wanderer!
Wander a bit further with me.
P.S. If you are diagnosed with persistent ass-holery (1), you have my condolences, and (2) no tribe has to accept an asshole as they are... they just don't.
Seek a cure and get better, don't expect them to change to accept the smell.