Small firms

Running for my life

Sally Azarmi began training for the London Marathon last year, despite never having run competitively before, and having a painful condition in one leg. And the training taught her more about running her law firm than she ever could have expected

In 2012, never having managed a business on my own, I had an overpowering and inexplicable urge to set up my own firm. So I set one up. In 2015, in my late 40s, never having been athletic in my life, with arterial disease in one leg (the cure for which is exercise), I had the overpowering, inexplicable and idiotic urge to run the London Marathon. So, I applied, as a charity entry to raise money for the British Heart Foundation (BHF). When I heard I had a place, all I could see in my mind’s eye was an image of myself flying over the finishing line, in heroic manner, to shouts of, ‘You can do this!’. I had similar dreams of grandeur when setting up my firm. Little did I know!

What running has re-affirmed for me is that, while there will always be competition and many things will always be beyond my control, both the viability of my firm and my performance in the London Marathon will, to a degree, be down to something I can control: my own mindset

What I also didn’t know seven months ago was how much training for a marathon would transform not only my physical wellbeing, but also my thinking and, surprisingly, the way in which I manage my firm. I have read many self-help books, I have eaten the frog and believed my cup was half full, but none of these books and their philosophies taught me as much about myself and how to manage a small firm as marathon training has. So, here are my five management lessons from marathon training.

1. See it as it is (be honest)

Running has helped me to grapple with the issues I would naturally shirk away from and leave for another day because they are not pleasant to deal with: in other words, to be honest with myself. When I first started in August, I had no training plan. I thought it was enough to want to run. But I could run no more than three miles in about 50 minutes, which for many people, would be walking pace. My left leg, the bad one, would cramp severely the entire time. It was immensely painful to run. I had to face it: I was never going to run an eight-minute mile, I was never going to find it easy. I could not become emotionally attached to an outcome – say, completing the marathon in four hours – but I had to try to run. I also could not expect to improve by just committing an hour a week to training, I had to have a plan, and I had to commit myself and my time to it, no matter how painful and unpleasant it would be at times.

At about the same time, I started to look at my business in the same way. I realised that I had to be honest with myself, and look very closely at what I was doing and what my firm was actually achieving. I grappled with things I had been putting off. I had hung on to my office building (and its great view) and a number of overheads I did not really need, for longer than I should have. I had become emotionally attached to a way of working which was costing me more than I needed to spend. I looked at alternatives, and found an entirely new way of working, without compromising the standards of my firm, which cut my overheads by 30 per cent. I moved into the building just across the road from where I was, a ‘concept building’ which cut my rent by two-thirds – and the new rent included many of my overheads, such as printing. I managed to improve my working conditions and cut costs. I would not have thought this possible a year ago.

2. Plan, but keep it simple

The BHF gave me a simple training plan covering 20 weeks. I committed to the plan. I had no idea how I was doing really, but I just made sure I kept to the four key running sessions every week, no matter where or how busy I was. Running always hurt to start with, but the pain became more bearable. Gradually, I went from walking, then running 15 miles in a month, to running 35 to 50 and eventually 120 miles in a month, and even 20 miles in a day. This was unbelievable for me.

Like marathon training, every business needs a good business plan – that’s obvious. But I realised that the training plan actually worked for me; it delivered, in ways that my business plans had not. It worked because it was simple and I committed to one outcome and one outcome only: to run and to run better. Running was the process, and better running the target.

On reviewing my business plan, I saw that, while it ticked all the right boxes, it had a myriad targets for each year: to grow income by so much; to expand into new areas of law; to open a new office in Dubai; to employ five fee-earners by the end of year three etc. Some of these targets gave structure, but some were targets for the sake of targets. Employing five people was an aim in itself, when in fact, my aim initially should have been simply to run a business which was true to my vision: to provide a bespoke legal service of the highest standards to my clients, and which generated a level of profit that I was comfortable with. That has nothing to do with aiming to employ five people in year three. It is about committing to my practice and my clients, knowing and believing in the value of the work that I do, and charging reasonably for it. So I realised I needed to first understand how I define success for my practice, and then pare things down to the very basics, learn to walk before I could run. This was the most difficult lesson.

3. Recognise and blast through psychological barriers

For the first few months, when people asked me how I was doing, I was apologetic in my description, stressing that I am not really a runner and am very slow. I felt I was an imposter in a world full of fast and experienced runners. It is true, I am slow and I have excuses for it, but I eventually realised that, slow or not, I was doing it, I was out there running, even in the worst conditions, and at the same time, improving my health and raising funds for a charity that saves lives. When I cut my half marathon time by 40 minutes over three months, I believed that I could run faster. Effectively, through action, by going far beyond my comfort zones, both physically and mentally, I was achieving what had seemed, for me, the impossible.

Equally, in running my business, reaching certain billing figures as monthly targets seemed impossible. Yet recently, monthly targets which seemed unachievable have been reached and even beaten. This has been partly due to the fact that, while I have a long-term business plan, I am more concerned about the immediate steps I have to take every day that can help me reach the target for that week. This aim drives me to get over my psychological barriers which can lead to procrastination; instead of allowing myself to get distracted by emails and meeting invites (many of which have more to do with promoting someone else’s business than mine), I make myself tackle things I’ve been putting off, like difficult cases, so I can bill for them.

4. Seek help: gadgets and experts

I have learned over the last year that there are people in this world who live, eat and sleep running. When it comes to running, I am an absolute novice, but I do have access to experts, and I also have a watch that tracks my every move, and translates it into colourful graphs I understand. By having my training plan written by an expert, seeing a personal trainer once a week and relying on my watch, my running improved in a way I could never have achieved on my own, and I also had the support I needed to encourage me to carry on.

In managing a small firm, I am spoilt for choice in terms of sources of help: there are many consultants, experts and expensive software which could help improve the management of my firm, but equally, the costs of which could break my firm. The key for me has been understanding what help and advice my business really needs, and therefore which sources of help are the best fit for my business, and then spending money on that. I have a team of experts behind me who understand my business ethos and enable my business. What may take me hours to work out comes as second nature to them, and they often see something that I would never have thought of – a solution, a way of working, a way of preventing a problem before it starts – which helps my business move forward. I also rely on technology to show me exactly where my firm is financially each month. As with running, the graphs provide a much more accurate and tangible picture of how my firm is progressing than that which is in my mind.

I rely on technology to show me exactly where my firm is financially each month. As with running, the graphs provide a much more accurate and tangible picture of how my firm is progressing than that which is in my mind

5. Competition

Running is both a solitary exercise and highly competitive, like being a sole practitioner. I have no desire to beat anyone else’s time, but I do want to improve my own, and complete races I enter. I also would like to avoid being overtaken in races by men dressed as giant crustaceans – but that may not always be possible! When I run in races, I am fully aware of the competition, but if I stopped to think about it for too long, I would probably never run again. I am aware of other people, I watch and learn from those who are faster, but equally, when I am overtaken, I carry on at my own pace, determined to finish, believing that I can. At times, I have overtaken people half my age who had run past me in the first mile of a half marathon but are struggling at mile 10!

The legal sector is undergoing unprecedented change, moving at an overwhelming pace – competition is increasing, and established ways of working are disappearing. I am in a building surrounded by very young entrepreneurs, with businesses that seem to grow or close overnight. I monitor and learn from competition, to ensure that the service my firm offers remains one that I believe is needed, that has continually adapted to clients’ needs, and that is sustainable. For instance, I have trained in new areas of law to keep up with my clients’ changing needs, and I have had to adapt to offering alternative forms of charging, such as fixed costs, without compromising my business.

What running has re-affirmed for me is that, while there will always be competition and many things will always be beyond my control, both the viability of my firm and my performance in the London Marathon will, to a degree, be down to something I can control: my own mindset.

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