Do you have what it takes to land the top job?

To get to the top it takes a lot of fortitude, determination and perhaps a little bit of luck. There may even be key bridges to cross: your first role as a team manager, to leading a practice group, to then taking on a ‘head of’ role and perhaps the ultimate prize of a director role.

Achieving the move internally

Stepping up within your existing firm may be a tough call. Statistics suggest only around one in eight director roles get filled internally. Why is this?

Some sage advice comes from a seasoned director who now offers consultancy and coaching services to law firms. “One issue is that some people remember the day that you walked through the door and cannot position you as leading the function,” he says.

This means that if you want to move up internally, you need to position yourself as someone who can operate at the highest level. Take on firm-wide projects and look to identify the stakeholders who have influence and build credibility with these people and teams.

Barriers to the internal appointment are usually around perception. This might relate to lack of team management experience, and concerns over ability to shape strategy or to ‘push back’ – often wrapped up in the old cliché ‘he or she lacks gravitas’.

One way of getting around this is to find yourself a sponsor or coach to support you in the transfer or perhaps a secondment to another business services functions to help get wider experience outside your functional silo.  You can also sign yourself up to any firm-wide leadership training. Most firms do have them and put yourself forward for any leadership initiatives that might be outside your comfort zone but will give you great exposure to the right people and the skills needed.

Moving to a new firm

Quite often moving to a new firm is the only way to achieve the next rung on the ladder or the leadership role. One director offers the following advice: “Too often people get absorbed in the day-to-day business as usual. To lead a function you must have curiosity – about the rest of the business and about business in general outside the firm to do with the market, the economy and the sectors important to the firm. You must be politically astute but willing to push back – to ask why and why not?

Prepare your case for promotion

If you want promotion you have to prepare for it. It doesn’t just happen. Think about what is needed to achieve promotion. Think about your CV – it doesn’t have to be in a linear sense and if you do something good, write it down so you remember it.

We would also recommend:

  1. Having someone who can champion your achievements, whether this relates to an internal promotion or to a move externally.
  2. Gaining visibility across the wider business. This includes managing firmwide projects but also getting close to the other business services directors, who will become your new peer group when you achieve that jump.
  3. Building relationships with partners. Here too, you must be visible.
  4. Identify ways you can manage your team, tasks and performance.
  5. Influencing key stakeholders at a strategic level, helping change behaviours and influencing the agenda.

Challenges in your new role

Once you have achieved your goal and secured your first director role, the work really starts. You will need to build new and firm-wide networks. And you will have to strike a careful balance between securing some early wins that will convince the firm that you are going to make a difference – and remembering that some of the most worthwhile battles will take time to win.

But with the right experience, framed by careful planning, the best directors will already be set to embrace these and the many other challenges waiting ahead.

Developement, Recruitment & Retention, Promotion

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