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Healthy discord

19 May 14

The Word of Gold: successful firms ascend through dissent

by Stephen Gold

“Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who will argue with you.” (John Wooden, the most successful US basketball coach, ever)

Ask professional firm leaders to describe their organisations, and usually “collegiate” is one of the first words to shoot from the blocks, conjuring the image of a committed team striding towards a common goal, harmonious as the Treorchy Male Voice Choir and focused as Vladimir Putin. Well, perhaps.

Nothing is more precious than great personal relationships. My best friend of almost 30 years used to be my partner, so I would never decry relationships that begin in the office and blossom into something more. Esprit de corps in a firm really matters. I have a couple of concerns, though. First, collegiality is often a euphemism for the tolerance of mediocrity, aversion to necessary confrontation, and settling for same-old, same-old. Do your colleagues truly put the firm before self-interest? Do they think of clients as belonging to them or the firm? When did they last refer you a client, or take a real interest in your area of practice?

Does the way they work or interact with clients and colleagues regularly drive you nuts? If the honest answers to questions like these cause you concern, they should, and quiet seething is not enough.

Secondly, there is good evidence that collegiality is overrated in business, and that on the contrary, encouraging dissent is far more valuable. In 2002, Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld at Yale School of Management set out to investigate what makes an effective company board. He looked at all the usual suspects: experience, how big a stake the directors had, the mix of younger members and grey heads, even regularity of attendance. He found many of them overrated. Two of America’s most notorious meltdowns, he noted, Enron and WorldCom, were stuffed with glittering names from the corporate elite. We all know of examples closer to home. This was his conclusion: “The highest performing companies have extremely contentious boards that regard dissent as an obligation and no subject as undiscussable.”

So is the key to getting on not getting on? It isn’t quite so simple. Dissent has a vital role to play in shaking up our assumptions. It compels us to ask, “How can we do this better?” Firms that encourage challenge are more likely to be the ones that deliver great service, innovate, and attract the best people. But context is all. Professor Sonnenfeld uses another important word: trust. Dissent has value only if it is driven by a sincere desire to achieve what is best for the firm. If it is motivated by a personal or sectional agenda, at best it will be a tiresome distraction, at worst completely destructive.

Lawyers are good at dissent. We are the only profession paid to argue for a living. And we probably place a higher value than most on the concept of collegiality. This may seem a paradox, but the two are far from incompatible. In fact, the success which constructive dissent helps to generate, along with real accountability for behaviour and performance, creates an environment in which true “all for one and one for all” collegiality is much easier to achieve. As a board member of one firm I work with put it recently: “From now on, sacred cows need to be scared cows.” He was honest enough to admit that this memorable epiphany began life as a typo, but then penicillin was also discovered by accident. And so I say unto you: “Lo (or perhaps “low” in this case), to find yourself in sweeter pastures, follow the scared cow.”


Stephen Gold was founder and senior partner of Golds Solicitors, which grew from a sole practice to UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and adviser to firms nationwide. Stephen can be contacted on 07968 484232, at stephen@stephengold.co.uk, or on twitter: @thewordofgold

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