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Calibrate’s Haley Revel speaks to the urgent need for law firm leaders to focus their efforts on building a talent strategy that supports professional development opportunities in the areas of critical thinking, strategic thinking and problem solving in the 2023 annual print edition of ALA’s Legal Management Magazine.

We’ve all seen the industry headlines in 2023 that cite unavoidable workforce layoffs of lawyers and business professionals to cut costs and maintain firm market share. While economic forces remain a leading driver of layoffs, leaders should consider other ways to avoid taking drastic measures. Focus on the firm’s biggest asset (talent) and their skills.

Leaders should embrace a solid talent strategy that frequently looks across all skills and competencies to enable a team with more agility during economic headwinds and to ensure continuity of client service delivery. But we aren’t talking about just any skill — we are referencing the often-overlooked skills embedded in “thinking,” specifically critical thinking, strategic thinking and problem-solving.

Perhaps more than any other business skill leaders should value, critical thinking can make the difference between success and failure. Every dollar an organization spends or receives is the direct result of a decision. Critical thinking is even more impactful when paired with a leadership focus. It helps an organization stay agile in often-changing competitive landscapes where emerging trends drive a response to take advantage or fall behind. Meanwhile problem-solving allows employees to engage in the psychological process of realizing, evaluating and resolving daily business challenges. With strategic thinking at play, employees and leaders become more skilled at anticipating, forecasting and capitalizing on opportunities.

Consider today’s technological advancements with tools like Google, ChatGPT and Waze, where valuable information is readily available at anyone’s fingertips without much effort. Gone are the days of having to research stacks to find answers, study and develop niche capabilities to be an expert, or to simply navigate one’s physical location. Using critical thinking skills has shifted society from starting with a blank slate to instead understanding how to leverage resources to support a decision-making framework, deliverable or outcome.

In organizations with hierarchical management layers — combined with the minimized social interaction in a widely adopted hybrid workforce model — there has been a significant reduction in the practice of critical thinking skills. Strategic thinking is less of a skill learned through textbooks or training but rather one that is developed through exposure to senior leaders, their ideas and their ways of working. Without a leadership-driven, collaborative team approach that involves all levels in an organization interacting frequently, the necessary exposure to develop strategic thinking skills is not readily available to the most proficient employees — especially those with the potential to become leaders.

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Within every organization, some roles will be inherently transactional, focused on simple and repetitive tasks. These task-oriented roles do not require anything more than an employee completing an action and checking the box. In effectively led organizations, these skills are outsourced or automated so that thinking skills can be elevated and the talent (the people doing the work) can contribute more strategically to business needs. The pace of change in society continues to quicken and technology progressively is becoming integrated with daily business operations. That means employees are expected to manage their role responsibilities with a heightened sense of understanding and ability to manage a complex flow of information.

However, it is increasingly evident that many are not proficient in managing this responsibility successfully because they lack the skills. Leaders must embrace this gap and provide opportunities to develop such skills. Good critical thinkers are more likely to suspend judgment early, which is important in the creative process. They embrace problem-solving strategies and can consider complications from multiple perspectives and understand the bigger picture by examining how different parts of a system (the business) interact with one another.

Strategic Thinking

As we see more businesses elevate responsibility of their teams from simple business operators to strategic business partners, strategic thinking skills are critical to the individual and overall business success. As an individual, thinking strategically allows one to make a greater contribution in their role, become more essential to their organization and prove that they’re ready to control greater resources.

Strategic thinkers typically employ solid critical thinking skills to analyze and understand their current situations, then layer in strategic thinking to construct a path forward. When thinking strategically, a person will also use critical thinking to discern the likely outcomes of one planned action versus another.

In law firms — or any organization — employees and leaders with strategic thinking skills are more proficient at identifying opportunities for change and taking advantage of them. Doing so, in turn, increases agility, market share and profitability. That makes the organization more durable.

Overcoming the Gap

Overcoming the thinking skills gap is not a hard challenge for leaders to tackle; developing talent is the best place to start. It requires an investment in analyzing and closing skills gaps, and — like any successful development program — it requires sponsorship from the top.

The good news is that obtaining buy-in from peer leaders should be an easy first step as improved problem-solving and critical thinking skills fundamentally lead to better business outcomes of increased profitability, performance and reduced operational costs. By offering everyone the opportunity to cultivate thinking skills to thrive in their roles, leaders will realize greater success for themselves, their teams and their organizations. It’ll create a culture that embraces technology to elevate human ingenuity, reframes failure as an opportunity for learning, and breeds patience and grace as employees advance their ways of thinking.

Get in Touch

Interested in learning how Calibrate can help deploy Talent Development initiatives in your law firm? Contact Haley Revel, Managing Director of HR & Talent Management at Calibrate.

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