the Practice behind high performance
Making Work, WorkTrending

Guest post by Catherine Stothart, Leadership Coach and Team Facilitator, who is the author of How to Get On with Anyone: Gain the Confidence and Charisma to Communicate with any Personality Type.

It’s important for corporate lawyers to build a reputation for excellence and for high performance. But it can be hard to get a grasp of what performance means and how to improve it.

Lawyers are known for their intellectual ability – analytical skills, logical thinking, the ability to synthesise complex information, their attention to detail and so on. Add to this their willingness to work long hours when needed, and they have a strong foundation for high performance.

But while we may have excellent knowledge and skills as individuals, we can’t usually achieve high performance in isolation – we need to work with others who have different needs and priorities to fulfil, and these may conflict with ours. This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Since Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ, it’s been widely accepted that to work productively with other people, emotional intelligence (EQ) is required as well as general intelligence. Emotional intelligence is being aware of your own emotions and able to manage them, and being aware of the emotions of others and able to manage the relationship with them.

This piece covers some of the practical things we can do to improve performance by working in more emotionally intelligent ways, looking at two aspects:

  • How we manage ourselves and our own activities to achieve our goals and tasks
  • How we work with others and manage our relationships with our colleagues, clients and other teams – the “soft” skills of high performance


Many of the people I coach struggle with numerous competing demands on their time, and they try to fit everything in, working at home and at the weekends. But work will always expand to fit the time you give to it, and ultimately, there are no more hours in the day, so rather than working longer, high performers learn to work smarter.

Top tips:

  • Set yourself clear goals and tasks with plans and timescales and agree them with your partner or general counsel.
  • Don’t over-commit and remember that unplanned things will always crop up, so allow time for these.
    If feasible, block out some time in your calendar each day or week and use it for more strategic activities, or to catch up between meetings.
  • If you are invited to a meeting, ensure you know why you are involved – if you don’t need to be there, politely decline.
  • Have a “growth mindset” – be open to learning and developing your knowledge and skills and plan in some time for this.
  • Ask for feedback from others on how they perceive your behaviour, and what they would like to see you doing more of or less of when you interact with them. (Remember that it is their perception and you don’t have to agree with it, but it is useful information for you on how you come across to others).
  • Take time to build relationships with your colleagues and clients (more of that later).
  • Be aware of when you are feeling the pressure and take steps to build your resilience (take some time out, go for a walk, take a lunch break, re-prioritise, talk to others for social support, eat healthily and get enough sleep and exercise).

Managing Relationships

When we communicate with other people, we usually have a positive intention, but sometimes they way we come across can have a negative impact on them and then we don’t have the influence we want.
Being aware of how you come across and being able to adapt your behaviour to build rapport and collaboration rather than conflict and competition, are critical skills for high performance.

Top tips for emotionally intelligent behaviour:

  • Take time to build rapport, even with people you know well.
  • When in discussion ask open questions beginning with “what” and “how” rather than “why”, which can feel challenging and make people react defensively.
  • Listen to the answers and show you are listening, by asking follow-up questions, repeating back some of what they have said, and checking your understanding.
  • Advocate your own position using examples and sharing your reasoning. Don’t feel threatened by challenge but use it as an opportunity to explain your position.
  • Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement and build on common ground.
  • When you disagree, use “and” not “but” to bridge to your point of view (“and I think….not “but I think”) – this can help defuse potential conflict.
  • Build trust by revealing your own ideas, feelings and concerns – people sometimes stay silent rather than risk speaking up, but this can lead to worse outcomes
  • Be alert to how people are reacting and responding to you – if someone’s reaction surprises you, then they may not have interpreted your communication in the way you intended.

When we interact with others, lots of things go on below the surface, often outside our conscious awareness. This is particularly true of our emotional responses and these can lead us to say and do things we later regret. The good news is that we can learn how to notice the signs and how to manage our reactions.

  • If you are starting to feel frustrated or irritated, take steps to manage your mood, otherwise your feelings will come out in your behaviour and will have a negative impact on the people you are interacting with. Get up, walk around, change your speed and tone of voice, say something positive.
  • Be mindful of what is happening in your body – your physical responses are an indicator of an emotional reaction and if you can pick these up, you can manage how you behave. Eg tension in the shoulders, faster heart rate, shorter shallower breaths, are all signs that your body is preparing for fight or flight. Take a deep breath, count to 10, move away while you gather your thoughts.
  • Look out for cues that others are experiencing negative emotions – their tone of voice and body language indicate how they feel. If they appear bored, nervous or angry, they probably are, and you will need to change your approach to engage them.
  • Avoid reacting in a way that escalates to conflict and take the heat and pace out of the situation by using a calm tone of voice and measured body language.
  • Make allowances for the negative impact of their behaviour on you and seek to understand their positive intention. The colleague who comes across as impatient and demanding might intend to get quick, achievable results. Your peer who appears slow and inflexible might want to ensure that there is a carefully thought through plan.
  • Act in a way that helps other people maintain their self-esteem, otherwise they will become defensive and less open to collaboration. Don’t criticise them or make them feel they are wrong, don’t interrupt or talk over them. Instead, ask their opinion, encourage them, show interest and concern for their concerns.
  • Communicate positive emotions – enthusiasm, energy, curiosity – and these will be picked up by your colleagues.

Being able to manage ourselves and our relationships are essential for high performance. If you can match the impact of your behaviour to your intention, and respond constructively to other people’s intentions, you are more likely to achieve the influence and the high performance you want.

Obelisk In ActionTrending

We were really lucky to have Terry Miller OBE talk about concrete and practical things that have made a difference in her varied and successful career, and the question was posed to our Wednesday Live audience about what has made a difference in their journey through work. Terry told us that overall, her success was borne out of realising what mattered most at the different stages in her life, not to mention making time to nurture outside interests will maintain drive and avoid burnout. She also provided some more detailed advice about keeping your career on track and forging one’s own path to success…

1. Don’t slam doors on your way out

Over the course of your professional life you are likely to have several jobs, particularly working as a freelance consultant, and will meet and work alongside many people. These people are your network, for good and bad. Ideally, your lasting impression is one that ensures they will recommend you and bear you in mind for future opportunities.

2. Maximise every encounter with physical and mental preparation

It’s vital that every time you meet or speak with someone you consider the impression you give – you may not get a second chance to remedy a less than ideal encounter.

  • Mental preparation – Anticipate what to expect. Reduce points to diagrams, read documents several times if necessary. Be concise and stick to what you know: if you don’t know something, say this early and don’t waffle.
  • Physical preparation – Choose outfits for important times as your ‘battle dress’ – comfortable, well-fitting clothes that you look good and feel confident in. Pay attention to your posture and avoid crossing your legs when seated as this folds the body in on itself. Practice a ‘superwoman’ power-pose and breathing exercises beforehand. Speak in a measured, non-rushed tone and be commanding – avoid upward inflection when making statements and you are less likely to be challenged.

3. Leadership is about managing people

No matter how brilliant you are no one ever does anything by themselves. The most important skill to learn is to surround yourself with excellent people.

  • Give constructive criticism – do so immediately, couch it in terms that this is something that can be fixed, deliver with emotion.
  • The art of really listening – Terry cited the virtue of MBWA (management by walking around). Boundaries are required for concentration and short but regular updates to ensure goals are met.
  • Be supportive under pressure – Terry said that at LOCOG they had a small soft chimp toy that was passed to those who were experiencing a bad day or difficult time as an act of team support and sympathy.

4. Position yourself for promotion

Act as if you are already there, this channels your focus and helps determine how people regard you. Terry described in the final two years before being made a partner at Goldman Sachs, how she decided to act as if she had already been appointed – not to mislead but to inform her conduct in meetings and running projects  as a partner would, with conviction and authority.

5. Take charge of your career

Think every six months about how your career is developing. People thrive if they take responsibility for their career, and drift if they expect others to do so.

6. Priorities – low-hanging fruit or tackling the hard stuff?

Terry’s personal approach is to tackle the hard topic by setting an initial hour limit to make it seem manageable.

7. The value of the early no and the sympathetic no

You need to be decisive about what you can do or not do. The longer you delay or leave your response open-ended, the more difficult it is to get out of, so an early no is vital.

The ‘sympathetic no’ is better received. Even if the answer is ‘I’m sorry I have to say no, I’ve looked at it from all angles,’ it has the benefit of being decisive and inclusive. It can be couple with a constructive end, e.g. ‘we can revisit this at another time or start from different position’.

8. The value of the second alternative

Put the option that works best  for you as a second choice when presenting options to others: ‘What would you prefer? We can either pick this up in two weeks or we can deal with it now?’ In Terry’s experience, this invariably works!

9. Be realistic about having it all

Terry discussed her own career trajectory and balancing her own life priorities as a parent as maintaining a slower longer position on the career ladder, but on her terms. Her outlook is that it is possible to have it all job, parenting or outside passions, but not all at the same time.

10. Take advantage of the unexpected and the challenge of the unknown

In 2005, Terry’s plan was to step out of partnership and focus on horse riding. However, she was invited to become the general counsel of LOCOG, the opportunity of a lifetime. This required her to accept a complete change of personal plans and go into many new areas.

Final thoughts – Mistakes and mentors

There were two particularly interesting questions from the audience: the first regarding mistakes – Terry said it was her experience that being honest and dealing with them directly is the best policy; this fosters trust and an ability to focus on solutions rather than a more unhelpful process of others finding out later.

The second related to Terry’s experience of mentoring. Ideally, this would be done by your manager, someone who wants you to perform at the best of your ability. However, she also said there was an important role of a ‘truth teller’ someone who could give more objective advice and this may be someone higher up the organisation.

Terry Miller OBE is an independent non-executive director of the British Olympic Association, a  director and trustee of the Invictus Games Foundation and a non-executive director of Goldman Sachs international bank, having previously worked as international general counsel. She was also general counsel for the London Organising of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) from 2006- 2013.

Making Work, WorkTrending

Now that December has arrived, it’s a natural time to reflect on the past 12 months and focus on your fulfilled goals and achievements.

The year is ending, we get some time off and a change of routine, which allows us all to step outside of the day to day distractions. A bit of distance from work allows more objectivity, and indeed honesty, about what you’ve achieved this year and what more you want to do. The Christmas party season is a reminder to us to appreciate and evaluate what has gone by, and what is to come.

Lawyers in particular can sometimes be too hard on themselves and focus on what hasn’t gone to plan, seeing it as failure. It’s probably a legacy of focussing on fine detail, and looking out for potential problems that can colour their outlook.  Even more reason then to consciously celebrate the wider achievements; so a once-yearly opportunity to do that should be seized. We all have the desire to do better and be better in all aspects of our lives; we want to be happier and make others happier too. Taking stock of your achievements and progress is all about authenticity. A positive way of doing this is to embrace a ‘growth’ mind set, a name given by psychologist Carol Dweck to the idea that intelligence can develop, and that effort leads to success. It’s important to remember that the new SRA Continuing Competency framework recognises the need to reflect on what you need to do in your professional life and to build a plan to support yourself in achieving these goals.

Rather than looking backwards in a critical way, it is more helpful to look back over the cases and projects that have been completed – look at what you have achieved. You will of course recall the things that didn’t go to plan, but there will be so much more that you can appreciate. Focus on your strengths, what characteristics that are unique to you and how you can use them in all spheres of your life. Taking stock gives you that moment of confidence, to objectively focus on your performance and take those conclusions with you on the next step of your journey. Here are some steps you might like to follow when taking stock of your year…

Write your year from start to finish

Look at where you started the year, where you hoped it might lead and what happened. If you had to sum up the year in a paragraph, what would you write? What was the theme or story of your year? Is there anything you wish had not occurred or had played out differently? Would you like to maintain that, or see it change completely in 2017?

What are your key tangible achievements?

This can range from wins and awards, to client satisfaction, securing repeat work, solving a particular problem in your life, or making something right. It’s much easier to remember what went wrong, so compiling a list of both small and large achievements will provide balance and remind you what you managed to resolve and do better.

Note personal milestones and progress

Other positives may not feel like achievements as such (maybe not yet) but are steps in the right direction, or important milestones to be marked. It can include things you do better now than the previous year, and things you hope to do better going forward. Look at where you might have stumbled, you carried on and didn’t give up, that is an achievement in itself – you just need to do the things to ensure that won’t happen again.

Highlight opportunities that now present themselves

Even if certain things haven’t taken off as you would have hoped, the way things have played out may present a clearer or even different path to follow into 2017. You may find that you have learned more about yourself and you may have a new perspective on success, career goals and priorities in your life that you are now going to focus on.

Tackle unfinished business

Call them resolutions if you like. Assess your immediate and long term aims: pick up on things that you wanted to do this year but didn’t get to, what you want to take further and overall what sort of year you want the next to be compared to this one. Keep the list as a fairly broad set of goals and don’t give yourself unnecessarily restrictive deadlines to avoid them becoming an extra point of stress in 2017.

Give thanks

The best way to end the year on a high note is to share the joy and good feeling with those who have played a role. Take time to send wishes to those who have been pivotal in your life and show how much you appreciate them and look forward to spending more time with in the future.

Making Work, Work

If you work on a freelance basis, you may not receive formal appraisals.  However, your personal performance will be central to the chances of being offered new opportunities. Working as a legal consultant s requires you to be aware of the pressures on legal departments to deliver accurate legal and commercially focused advice to their businesses. There may be a perception that freelancers may not take performance issues as seriously as full-time staff because of their temporary nature.  Yet in our experience, successful consultants (as well as personal pride in doing a job well) know that high performance is critical to their success in working in a freelance capacity. This requires an ability to ‘read’ the culture and standards necessary of the permanent team and matching them. However, without a traditional employment structure to set performance reviews and parameters, how does a consultant measure and monitor their performance?

Assess the business needs and priorities

It is vital to find a way to assess the needs and priorities of a client’s business and ensure they are being met. At Obelisk, the client relationship team seek to understand their needs and suggest tailored legal solutions involving specialised consultants. Obelisk has built up a unique picture and understanding of the clients’ needs and pressure points and are aware that a legal team has to deliver to its business to a very high standard. This emphasis is important to understand as a consultant and your credibility and future work opportunities very much depends on meeting the client’s specific needs.

What skills are GC’s looking for?

Needs do vary across organisations and sectors, but there are some broad expectations that can help you measure your performance on the job. We spoke to general counsel across a variety of sectors: banking and financial services, multinational consumer goods and footwear and clothing, to investigate what they see as the key skills and focus for an in house lawyer.

  • Legal competency is a given, but lawyers must be able to show how they keep up to date
  • Evidence of core skills – drafting, negotiation, advocacy and communication
  • Commercial nous, an in-depth understanding of sector specific issues for the business (e.g. resourcing, supply chain, distribution and delivery of services, employment, IP etc.)
  • The ability to forge relationships with sector trade bodies and regulators, if the role requires this
  • Ability to co-ordinate across the different business functions and communicate effectively
  • Capacity to advise the business with solutions, but within their risk appetite – what one GC called ‘Simplify, Navigate and Solve’.
  • Competency with technology platforms – be aware of the commonly used tools in business and particularly those that can help you work effectively Awareness of the cultural ethos and communication styles and be able to report effectively with the context of the business in mind
  • Consider the long-game even when coming in on a very short-term project – clients have had experiences that have left a mess to be cleaned up when the job is done, so it’s vital to understand bigger picture of job you are doing
  • To summarise: good in house lawyers are a part of the business in all senses.

How to build this into your career as a consultant

Here is some guidance on continuous reviewing of performance as a legal consultant:

Aside from analysing your performance from a client perspective, it’s important to assess your own goals and objectives in line with the client’s: is the project moving you forwards?  What can you learn whilst working to improve your skills and experience? Is there any capacity for training informal or formal whilst in the role? Such as handbooks and templates which may give sector specific insights. At Obelisk, you will get free access to PLC when in role and reduced cost access to external training courses, as well as free monthly workshops and links in the weekly update letter. Under the new SRA Continuing Competency requirements, you have to keep up to date and keep a plan and record of how you are maintaining professional competent.


It is our experience that the key to successful freelance work is building trust swiftly and this is achieved by clear and open communication. Address minor frustrations before they escalate. Your client may not be showing any signs of frustration but are you experiencing some of your own? Is there a way of solving the issue, could you be communicating more effectively? Reflect on the ease in which you are able to complete tasks, if you don’t have everything you need to do the job well, it is up to you to speak up. Understanding targets and priorities are particularly important when working in a freelance capacity. We can help and advise you if you are unclear.

As a consultant, you need to have empathy and understanding of every client and their business on a level that you would have as a permanent member of staff, so continually reviewing these key points against your own work is vital. We seek feedback from clients during each role and will discuss this with you as well as an end of role assessment. We view this as key in terms of meeting our client’s needs and ensuring that our consultants are given every chance to succeed.