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Onboarding a New Leader — Virtually

C-suite Exec Reveals Unexpected Advantages of Onboarding in the Midst of a Crisis

Abstract futuristic perspective concept to indicate virtual onboarding

What is it like to start a new leadership role in the midst of a pandemic? How do you build relationships with stakeholders, get to know your team, and lay the groundwork for strategic and operational initiatives while sheltering in place? We caught up with Gavin Gray, the Chief Operating Officer we recently recruited on behalf of client K&L Gates, to get the scoop. Gavin, his husband, and their two dogs were at their home in rural Michigan as the shelter-in-place orders were enacted in New York, so there in Michigan they have stayed. His expansive and inspiring viewpoints on his experience since joining the firm in late March give us hope about how we can use this challenging time for positive growth as we move through and out.

How were the first couple of weeks of onboarding?

It was different. Usually, your first task on the first day is to learn where the bathroom is; I still don’t know where it is. My first day “at the office” was a FedEx package with my laptop and some paperwork to fill out. Aside from not having a physical space in which to connect with my team, the partners and my colleagues, however, this virtual arrangement has not been without its advantages.

Often when you join a new firm, you are met with a mentality of “this is how we’ve always done things”. Now, the old way is off the table; we all have to start fresh. Additionally, in an office setting, there is a level of “warpaint” that everyone puts on to meet the day; the work identity is in full battle gear. Now, in this new reality, people are stripped down to some degree. Much of the formality is gone when you hear dogs barking in the background of the Webex call, or someone’s three-year-old busts into the room. The discussions I’m having with partners and business leaders are different, too; I’m learning more about the individual. Working remotely has strangely led to a more intimate way of connecting with people.

Honestly, I think the hidden, hardest part of this crisis will be getting back to normal (or the “new normal”) without reverting to the status quo. We need to take what we’ve learned, and carry the good parts forward with us.

Furthermore, in a business-as-usual situation, I would be on a plane to visit the partners at their home bases. By not taking time out of my schedule to travel, I’ve been able to get to know more people in less time. Of course, I will need to get on those planes when we are again able to fly safely, but I will already have a base layer of familiarity with the partners.

A third benefit of this situation is that I’m gaining critical insight into how the organization responds to a crisis: Because everything is on its head, I get a sense of what it’s like underneath the business-as-usual momentum. I can more easily see the fundamental systems, as well as observe how different people react to and manage stress. It is no longer an option to ignore certain issues that need to be addressed. It has been enlightening, and, happily in this case, highly encouraging.

How have you been building and bonding with your team?

Ideally, I would build my team by working right alongside them and quickly diving into the strategic work. I have shifted to spending more time dedicated to each individual and letting them feel me out. We have more frequent, “smaller” conversations, with regular opportunities to touch base and establish a rhythm with one another. When connecting as a team, our conversations generally begin with a download of our personal lives, which we wouldn’t necessarily do in an office setting. It is more important than ever to make time for, and acknowledge, the personal aspect of this crisis. We all have a common ground to bond over.

Upon which technologies are you relying most?

We use Webex, Jabber on our mobile devices, and PCs every day. These are all technologies this firm has had for a long time, but people being people—with established routines and ways of doing things—have refused to use them. Now, with just five minutes of poking around the system, even die-hard luddites are leveraging these tools on a daily basis.

In that same vein, there are process improvements we’ve wanted to make for years: We have wanted to be electronically managed from soup-to-nuts for some time, but most partners want to print bills and have an assistant review. Now we have to do it online, and it’s working. We are actually more effective with our billing statistics than before. I had a practice group leader tell me recently how much she preferred making edits to a document online, in PDF form, compared with the old way. We are just using what we already had.

What hasn’t gone well with your virtual onboarding?

Nothing has gone off the rails. We have had the decreased demand that others in our industry are facing. As a leadership team, we have agonized over what we have to do now to ensure our resilience through this crisis and keep the team together. We are making judgement calls on deferring projects, and we wrestle with what we think is fair and proportional. The goal is to weather this together and face it on the other side.

Honestly, I think the hidden, hardest part of this crisis will be getting back to normal (or the “new normal”) without reverting to the status quo. We need to take what we’ve learned, and carry the good parts forward with us.

What have you learned about yourself as a leader through all of this?

I’m good with people, but I also know that I can be overbearing in my enthusiasm. I’ve learned how to pace myself differently through this because when you aren’t in person, your communication style doesn’t always read the way you intended. Furthermore, everyone is in some state of duress, with varying levels of stress at home, and I have to be sensitive to that. I have been active about modulating my approach; this crisis has highlighted how important that is.

In conclusion…

If you can’t serve your clients remotely, you aren’t a good law firm; and if you can’t trust your people to produce without being in the office, you have the wrong people. Obviously, there are advantages to being in the office but right now, in my view, they don’t outweigh the risks. The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that some of our traditions enabled bad habits that just became part of the operating model. The longer we work away from the office, the clearer that will be, and the greater the opportunity to make changes and move forward a stronger, better firm.

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