Symptoms Masquerading as Issues

One of the pitfalls of success

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When the daily activities of a business are disrupted by problems that never seem to go away or high-profile issues screaming for immediate attention, the normal reaction is to act. The “noise” they create often conveys an unjustified sense of urgency before establishing their underlying cause.

Those actions often waste time and money with minimal impact on the actual disruption. The efforts and resources invested in chasing symptoms distract from the daily demands of business and incur substantial opportunity costs.

One of my favorite symptoms masquerading as issues experiences was the case of the secretary who wouldn’t stay.

•      Background Information–One of the highest producing partners in a law firm with hundreds of lawyers lost his secretary of many years to retirement.

•      Issue Definition–After five attempts in eighteen months, finding a new secretary had proven problematic at best. Exit interviews with these disgruntled replacements’ hasty departures revealed their hasty departures were due to the partner, who they consistently characterized as abusive and difficult.

•      Strategic Impact–The other partners were faced with two risky problems. Terminate the partner and lose his revenue and clients or risk a sexual harassment lawsuit which could be more costly.

•      Ideal Outcome–The partner’s next secretary would become a valued resource and support him for many years.

•      Action Plan–Hire a coach to ”fix” the partner, avoid his termination, and reduce the risk of a law suit. That’s what the Board hired me to do.

When we began, the partner and I knew he wasn’t the problem. He’d been working with his long-time secretary doing the same work for many years and his management style hadn’t suddenly changed. After much painful reflection and honest discussion, the problem came into clear focus.

Solution: Human Resources was using the firm’s “standard” secretarial-skills profile to find his replacement. The behavioral traits this attorney needed were significantly different from HR’s ”model” candidate. The recruitment process was never going to solve this problem. The only meaningful solution was to change it.

Outcome: The thought of changing what appeared to have worked so well for years was disconcerting to the Board and felt disruptive to HR. No one was happy except the Partner and me. After further painful reflection and honest discussions, the Board and head of HR agreed to try something different. The result being the next secretary they hired for the Partner stayed with him for the duration of his involvement with the law firm.

Conclusion: What first appeared to be an abusive attorney ended up being more like locking a dog who doesn’t like cats in a cage with a cat who doesn’t like dogs and expecting them to get along.

When problems arise, it’s critical to separate symptoms from problems and avoid playing whack-a-mole!



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