Experimentation for success: the people factor

In a few weeks, the London Law Expo will take place at Old Billingsgate (pictured below). It is an interesting event, especially the keynote speakers it attracts. This year, Randi Zuckerberg (founder & CEO of Zuckerberg Media, a boutique-marketing firm and production company) heads the bill. Last year, the main attraction was James Caan, the entrepreneur. (Disclosure: I also spoke at last year’s event, and I am on the advisory panel for this year’s.)

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I meant to write about James Caan’s speech at the time, but couldn’t find the right hook. A few things recently have brought it back to mind.

Caan’s investments have always focused on businesses that depend on people. He started with a recruitment business, then moved into property management and has even invested in a law firm.

His keynote last year was packed with valuable tips on running people businesses. He was clear about the metrics he used to keep an eye on the health of all of his investments. He was adamant about the need to support people and to make sure they were right for the role the business needed. And then he said this:

But I like to do things a little differently. If I have found somebody that has the right characteristics, I will always try and find a role or a space for them within one of my businesses.

The very best and the most talented individuals can come from any walk of life and from any background. Experience and qualifications are of course hugely important and should always be taken into account, but sometimes it helps to look beyond these. What can really make all the difference is a person’s character and the strength of their personality.

Despite being highly focused on performance and fit, Caan occasionally allows himself to take chances on people who may not fit a role perfectly, but who feel like good people to work with.

When I heard this, I was struck by the contrast with my own experience in recruiting. The process of making business cases, proving that a particular role wasn’t unusual in law firms (often a challenge for KM teams whose structure can be very context-specific), and then finding someone to fit the role profile is a very taxing one. And yet this is one of the few areas where firms can experiment with ease.

Law firms are complex systems. As Dave Snowden tells us, the best way to start to manage complexity is to undertake safe-to-fail experiments. Here he is describing this approach in a historical situation:

Experimentation in a firm is tricky. Clients don’t often appreciate it, and the internal culture often militates against it.

James Caan’s approach to hiring is a type of experimentation. If you see someone who might work well within the firm, hire them even if there isn’t a perfect place for them. If they are as good as they appear to be, they will create real value that you couldn’t have expected.

This has worked well for me personally in the past. When I joined Addleshaw Booth & Co’s Trade & Regulatory team as a Professional Support Lawyer in 2001, the partners were taking a risk. They hadn’t had a PSL before, and they weren’t really sure what one could do for them. But we got on very well at interview and they decided to take a punt. It worked. Between us, we created the conditions within which the team grew and became very successful, winning Competition Team of the Year in the 2006 Lawyer Awards.

The current market is one in which firms should be experimenting as much as possible. The past few years have been hard and, although things may feel better at the moment, the market has fundamentally changed so that none of the old certainties apply any more. There are all sorts of things that could be subjects of experimentation — delivery models, client engagement, business structures, and so on. But what I see across the market is a small amount of experimentation and lots of copying. And on the recruitment front, there is little change from the past in terms of the specialists that firms are looking to hire.

It is a small risk to take a leaf from James Caan’s book and hire people who would fit well even though there is no obvious role for them. If the firm is honest with the candidate, so that both parties know what the risks are, surely the most dynamic individuals will be tempted to take the risk of their employment being short-lived in return for the opportunity to make a real difference?

(As always, get in touch if your firm is interested in taking such a chance. It’s my job to make a real difference.)

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