Scaling Feedback to Fuel Growth: Betsy Miller & Tory Nugent of Cohen Milstein, (Part 2)

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business development

We continue our conversation with Betsy Miller and Tory Nugent, co-chairs of the Public Client practice at Cohen Milstein, about how they use feedback to improve talent development.

Both Miller and Nugent say they stay heavily focused on feedback as a way to help members of their practice develop current skills and acquire new ones and drive growth and profitability.

Indeed, how they both approach feedback is largely inspired by authors Sheila Heen and Doug Stone, who were both mentors of Miller in Harvard Law’s negotiation program. In their first book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Books, 2010), Heen and Stone teach those giving feedback to identify what personal, internal emotions are involved in a difficult conversation and examine them from an objective perspective. The goal is to discharge those internal emotions from the emotional reaction you are having to the situation. “If two people are entering into an interpersonal contract, a professional contract, they both think they have agreed to offer something into that relationship and that they are supposed to get something out of that relationship,” Miller explains. “Most frustrations arise from resentments that come from something there being out of whack.”

Most people in the normal course of difficult conversations get into the blame game or have their “identity buttons” triggered. However, in the framework that Miller uses, students learn to analyze the difficult situation from an objective, problem-solving perspective and disconnect their personal emotions from the outcome of the difficult interpersonal conflict.

Cohen Milstein

To those individuals who designate assignments and give feedback, Miller and Nugent outlined seven key actions:

  1. Make expectations explicit before the feedback is needed — Miller and Nugent ensure that the expectations for an assignment are crystal clear to the lawyer, who is receiving it. “Most resentment comes from failure to make a ‘clear’ request,” Miller says. If, for example, a partner has assigned a brief to a junior associate, the partner is expecting a draft of the brief that is client-ready, fully polished and without any errors before the associate goes home today. That, however, may be perceived as an unclear request by the junior associate. To get the process as perfect as it can be, Miller and Nugent have invested in training to teach the members of their practice to make clear requests and clear offers.
  2. Give informal feedback in the moment — When an assignment is not meeting expectations, Miller and Nugent “address it quickly because in the moment, it’s just a thing to reflect on.” To further the previous example, clearly the junior associate is not meeting expectations for the brief, and the associate felt that more time was necessary to accommodate the need for the back and forth review of the draft. The partner can therefore provide good feedback by saying, ‘We cut it too close to the deadline for my review — tell me what you will do differently in the future.’
  3. Make feedback actionable and digestible — When constructive feedback is called for in an annual review, Miller and Nugent try to make it digestible and actionable. For example, in a situation where expectations were not met by a junior associate, she would say, ‘There were times this year when we asked for an assignment to be provided to us by a certain deadline and in a certain way, and those expectations weren’t met. Let me share some examples…’ Telling the junior associate that they need to provide more advance notice before missing a deadline is a concrete problem that can be fixed.
  4. Provide context for feedback — When having conversations with associates on how to improve, Miller and Nugent are very explicit about what the circumstances are around the criticism and why it matters, making sure that associates feel like their leaders are invested in their individual growth. As leaders, they know that the flipside is that the criticism becomes hard for people to hear if they feel like you are not in their corner, explains Miller.
  5. Instill a growth mindset in young talent — The best bosses are the ones that provide a structured approach to teach new skills and use a feedback loop to help their employees acquire those skills. Miller and Nugent both practice a growth mindset when assigning challenging work to associates. For example, they will say, ‘I know this is a reach and you may feel overwhelmed by it, but the reason I’m asking you is because I know you can do it and I think that the growth is important. I will be there with you and helping you learn how to do this.’
  6. Share positive feedback often — Miller and Nugent give positive feedback much more often than they offer critical comments. It is so easy to say as an example, ‘I think you handled that client call really, really deftly. You did a wonderful job answering their questions. You were very direct.’ Doing so helps young lawyers learn their strengths and creates trust with the giver of feedback because when the critical feedback comes up, the associates know they are supported.
  7. Add reflective questions to the annual review — Miller and Nugent have also made big changes to the practice’s annual evaluation process. For example, they added several reflective questions to associates’ self-reviews, asking about their achievements, what they are most proud of, what their most victorious growth moments were, and what moments were learning experiences and how they formulated an action plan to do it. “[If] there’s a recognition that a project or an assignment did not go as well as hoped or did not meet expectations, the reflection on it empowers the associates to take charge of it in the review conversation,” Miller explains.

Likewise, Miller and Nugent provide guidance to partners who are reviewing the associates, such as giving the associate the opportunity to speak first to summarize how the year went and describe their celebrated achievements and their moments of growth.

From the co-chairs’ perspective, it makes the conversations much easier because the partners then can focus on the substance of the dialogue without guards being up because of interpersonal conflict. “If constructive feedback is only given during the annual review process, it feels like a character assault to the junior lawyer, and resentment festers, making it harder to focus on the substance of the feedback,” Nugent says.