Three strategies to make your in-house legal talent stay
Individuals with unique talents can profoundly impact the organisations they work for.
The most effective in-house lawyers can play a vital role in getting complex deals done. They can lead on the understanding and mitigation of big risks. They can offer compelling perspectives to decision-makers that significantly impact business and people alike.
To ensure the most talented people on your team continue to expend every effort to do the most challenging work, you have to ensure that they develop their full potential, their contributions are valued and they are, and continue to be, happy.
This article looks at three strategies to help retain your talent. They all centre on one simple concept: prioritise them, not just what your organisation needs from them.
Many managers feel uncomfortable engaging with their talent about what they want and what their boldest ambitions are.
Managers may fear that by asking directly, they may be unable to manage (let alone meet) their talent’s expectations. They put remunerative incentives on the table and encourage them to take on internal opportunities rather than taking the time to understand their talent’s deepest aspirations.
But circumnavigating deeper conversations and attempting instead to intuit what your talent wants doesn’t allow you to express one of the most powerful messages for motivating your best people to stay: you 100% understand their unique talent and are 100% committed to their growth.
1. Ask more about what drives them. And listen
What’s most motivating for you in this project? What’s the part you enjoy the most when working, say, with this team? What support do you need to be more effective?
Although it is often motivating to assign challenging work to your talent so they gain great professional experience, remember that creating space to hear their views is also highly motivating.
Making an impact on a project because of their unique skills allows your talent, in fact, to experience a deeper sense of purpose with their work.
There are other reasons why asking these kinds of questions is important. As companies continue to become more diverse and inclusive workplaces, diverse talent brings unique new perspectives, which in many organisations remain yet-to-be fully explored. The pandemic has also shaken up what people want from their careers.
What exactly motivates your diverse talent is something you need to be committed to finding out.
So ask yourself: are you overlooking what your talent has or limiting what they are able to offer? Has the atlas of their unique skills been mapped out so that, together, you can navigate the best course for their unique professional journey?
These conversations with your talent are about listening, listening and again listening before making a plan and including plenty of “tell me more” throughout.
The answers you will hear will help you to identify, and work with, one of the greatest potential retainers of your talent: what matters the most to them.
2. Engage safely around their past mistakes. Help them grow
High-performing lawyers usually set high standards for themselves. Their drive to excel is what makes them excel. At times, however, high standards come with a tendency to overthink the times they were not ‘perfect’.
A manager who is keen to develop their talent, especially their more junior talent, can turn these perceptions into opportunities for bonding and for supporting their talent's growth.
This is less about helping your talent to fix whatever went wrong. It is about engaging your talent in a deeper conversation to help them reach their own conclusions about what lessons they learned.
You can start with simple questions like: “Do you remember three months ago when you dealt with project alpha? Have you had the chance to reflect on what you learned from that?”
When experiences are relatable, you can also share your own past experiences as an example of what was holding you back and how you overcame it.
This is especially valuable for your young talent because unprocessed experiences can take a toll on their self-confidence and, consequently, on them achieving their fullest potential.
When you reach enough safety to go into lessons-learned conversations with your talent, you are also expressing a powerful message to help your talent stay: that you are reliably there for them on both their good and their hard days.
3. Never under-recognise your talent. If they spent all their time doing the most difficult job, praise them in abundance
Do I need to say they did a fantastic job? Don’t they know that already?
Many managers assume their talent knows they are valued. Many managers rely on the fact that they have said it before; if they expressed it, say, a few months ago, they assume their appreciation still resonates with their talent – and that’s enough to keep them going.
But this is rarely the case. The shelf life of appreciation is short, and its greatest motivating power tends to fade quickly.
The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio is 5:1. High-performing teams need an average of five positive statements (“that’s really helpful”, “great suggestion”, “very useful”, “I really like your approach”, “this is very thorough”) for every negative comment you make (“that doesn’t make any sense”). Positive feedback requires frequent sprinkling.
We perform better when we are supported through positive recognition. Opportunities to express appreciation are, in fact, available daily (and freely!) in the form of recognising your talent's many small but meaningful contributions, not just major achievements.
Appreciation that is small and frequent combined with appropriate recognition for great achievements will help retain your talent. From time to time, you can also talk with your talent about how much they feel appreciated by you and your organisation; for example, ask them to rate how valued they feel on a scale from 1 to 5.
Their answers will contribute to building the picture you want to understand about what drives your talent. It will also prompt you to fill any disconnect between how much you value them and much they feel valued.
So, if you want your greatest talent to stay and continue to make a profound impact in your organisation, don’t let their appreciation batteries get depleted. If they do, your talent will, at some point, look for other recharging points.