Lawyerist’s Small Firm Scorecard asks whether managers in your law business are skilled at managing other people and whether communications in your firm are frequent, open, and honest. We ask because, in our view, management competency and the communication ideal are two of the load-bearing pillars for running a successful law firm.
Yet, almost universally, lawyers who run law firms (and who are, therefore, required to manage people) have never been trained, formally or informally, in managing others. Generally speaking, that doesn’t end well.
In recent years, people-management best practices have evolved to include more emphasis on holistic feedback. Innovative organizations have found ways to incorporate broader feedback and insights from employees’ peers, managers, clients, direct reports, and others into their talent-management processes.
An intriguing tool has emerged from the forge of this circular feedback hyperloop: the manager README. You can use it to jumpstart your people management improvement in a flash. In this page, you will learn about README files in general and manager README files in particular, plus some tips and inspiration for when you’re ready to sit down to write yours.
A Brief History of the README.
README files have a long history in the coding world, and thus hold a special place in the hearts of some of our nerdiest colleagues.
At its most straightforward, a software engineer writes a README to help users more easily understand complicated code, written by the coder herself. Here’s an excellent README template posted on Github, for example.
Traditionally, these files—preferred in most coding conventions and required in some, like GNU—are simple plain text files the developer includes with a software release to give users instructions they’ll need before they begin.
Getting Started with Your Manager README: A New Twist on the Old Convention
As the name implies, a manager README sits at the confluence of run-of-the-mill README files and next-generation people-management tools. Your manager README is just like a traditional README file at its core…it is probably a plain text file, it is user-centric and probably chock-full of instructions, warnings, and other information, and “users” should absolutely read it before they start tinkering.
But these are for people, not software. And, specifically, they’re for people charged with managing other people. And they are brilliant. Because what is more enigmatic than software? People. That’s what.
What is it Not?
Plenty of authoritarian managers have a laundry list of hoops through which their direct reports should, could, or must navigate. A manager README is definitely not a description of those.
Your README also does not outline your expectations for your reader. It is decidedly not for a manager to share plans about the organization’s future or how important a particular client is. It isn’t to explain why dropping everything on a Sunday afternoon to respond to email is important (hopefully it isn’t, but even if it is, this isn’t the place for that).
This is also not your journal. So your manager README shouldn’t include things that describe who you want to be as a manager (“Dear diary, I am really going to try to answer all of my emails within 2 minutes of receiving them!”); it should describe who you are (“Dear diary, the truth is, I usually don’t get to my email very reliably. It is waaaaaay better to hit me up on #Slack if you need a quick reply.”). If you have personality quirks that you’re working on, say that. But this document isn’t aspirational. Your puffery here probably looks disingenuous and comical when ready by your direct reports who know—or will soon know—whether you’re full of it.
Some Inspiration for Your Manager README
There are a few public manager READMEs out there to inspire you. But be careful. While nothing is new under the sun, your inclination may be to amalgamate vast swaths of these inspiring documents into your own. But success here is not borrowing someone’s voice (no matter how beautiful) nor parroting someone’s values (no matter how much they put words to ideas that have long echoed in your mind); it is capturing your voice and values and putting them to work for your people and your business. Get inspired in other peoples’ work, but don’t get mired there.
John Cline, an engineering lead at Blue Apron, published his manager README on Medium and celebrated its success, both as a management tool and a self-reflective one. “Your manager README should follow from your values as a manager and your own personality quirks. Haven’t figured that out yet? This is a great exercise to nail that down.”
Chuck Groom, the director of engineering at a company called VTS, had a bit of an epiphany in writing and publishing his README: “I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly laid-back manager, along the lines of The Dude. I sat down to write a short list of my few minor pet peeves. I kept on writing and ranting and well… it was pretty obvious that a lot of things bug me. Let’s face it, I’m less The Dude and more Walter.”
Finally, Oren Ellenbogen, another software engineer, is often credited with being on the leading edge of the manager README trend. Perhaps that is because he was relentlessly transparent in describing what he calls his “personal quirks,” which include some gems like “I argue with ‘passion’—I may raise my voice a little or get a bit red. I don’t like it about myself, and I try to improve. I tell myself that ‘I’m all-in, all the time’ but it’s just me losing my temper. When you feel I crossed the line, tell me. It’s not my intent.”
Here’s What’s Next
If you’re intrigued, inspired, or both, here are the next steps you’ll travel as you pull it all together.
Just Write It
As with everything, to get started you need to… start. Open a document (plain text if you’re game, Word if you must) and start typing. This is a reflective endeavor (to put it mildly). Find yourself in a happy place emotionally, geographically, and metaphorically. And don’t rush it.
What Should You Include?
Again, your manager README is you in a nutshell. You should include anything you think will help your direct reports be successful in working with you. You’ll find some great inspiration below. But your mileage may vary. You might include some, all, or none of these, depending on how central they are in your life.
Introduction and TL;DR
Let’s face it: these might be a little weird for the uninitiated. Telling people exactly who you think you are is uncommon as a social convention and fraught with opportunities to be flat-out wrong. So open your README with a brief explanation of how you got here, why you chose to do this now, and what you hope it will do for your relationships with your direct reports now and in the future. You can also conceive of this section as your so-called “TL;DR.” In internet parlance, “TL;DR” means “too long (or “too lazy”); didn’t read.” This thing could easily find itself on the long side, so give a quick, easy-to-read summary that boils you down to your essence.
Explain your job in whatever terms you think will be most useful. This definitely includes where you fit on the firm’s accountability chart, but it also probably includes some insights into your:
- work style;
- typical hours;
- preferences; and
- any promises about how you will conduct yourself as a manager and be held accountable.
Assuming it is accurate, a person leafing through your README will benefit most from how you describe what it looks like when the two of you work together most effectively. For example, you might include insights into:
- what they can expect of you as their manager;
- the most likely timing of your response depending on the communication channel you’re using;
- how you can help them do their jobs;
- how they can help you do yours;
- what do reviews and feedback sessions look like? How do you structure and schedule one-on-ones, and what is their purpose?
- how do you like to get feedback? How do you prefer to give it?
- interpreting your calendar and setting appointments;
- becoming a leader within your law firm;
- things that make you grouchy;
- ways they will know when you’re grouchy; and
- how (and whether) they can help when you’re grouchy.
Your Values and Quirks
This section is also full of important takeaways, and its gems reveal themselves only after being shaped by time and surfaced through meaningful reflection. If you’re able to accurately peg—then artfully describe—your values and your quirks, your direct reports will be grateful. For example, you can share:
- the personality quirks you have and, particularly, the ones you may prefer not to have (and how you are working on them);
- how you view the ideal mix of work and life;
- something about your personal life;
- how you prefer to receive recognition (public or private);
- what they should do if they find that your manager README and your actions are unaligned;
- thoughts about taking risks, innovating, and taking on new initiatives;
- your feelings about pro bono work and how they might incorporate it into their work at your firm;
- how you like to give feedback; and
- how you like to get feedback.
Sure, this thing will probably be long-ish. That doesn’t mean it needs to be boring, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can only talk about your law firm. Think about adding some spice. Humor helps, of course. You can also:
- include related (or, even better, wholly unrelated) links, images, and video that amuse you or better you;
- host your README publicly and, if you’re embracing your inner nerd, host it publicly on Medium or in the internet’s nerd-approved repository for such things: GitHub;
- share how diversity and mental health impact your life, your business, and your philosophy;
- share your feelings about letters of recommendation and job searching; and
- include insights into your StrengthsFinder themes, Myers-Briggs personality type, astrological sign, and the like.
Introduce It to Your Direct Reports
The most effective way to deliver your shiny new manager README is to walk your direct reports through it in one of your regularly-scheduled one-on-one meetings. Explain its genesis, describe the parts you struggled with, and invite their comments and feedback (now and in the future). They’re going to be surprised about some of the content, and you’ll want to leave plenty of time for a free-flowing conversation about how it will impact your working relationship.
Next, find a place for it to live. If you’re particularly bold, post it somewhere public: your office, your blog, or GitHub. Having your document live publicly adds to its heft and encourages you and others to check it frequently and update it as you refine your style and soften your “quirks.”
Once your document is live, it will serve as a foundational element as you onboard new employees and direct reports. The most natural time to introduce it is during a new employee’s onboarding. It can help foster your culture of communication and set healthy expectations for your nascent relationship.
Refine It Over Time
Finally, as with all continuous improvements, you should continue to iterate and improve, seek feedback, and encourage design thinking—yours and your team’s—to always improve your firm’s culture and your management skills in particular.
Encourage Colleagues to Write Theirs
Finally, as you settle into your new normal, begin to encourage your colleagues to write their own manager READMEs. If you and your direct reports find it valuable, finding ways to integrate the tool across your organization will serve as a powerful way to change your firm’s culture for the better.