"I wish I could get a seat at the table" is a phrase that I often hear from many IT managers, directors and CIOs. They often wish that the management team would take their technology ideas more seriously or that they had more of role in the business. Ok...so how can you get to there? How do you get that seat? What steps must be taken to make this a reality?
An important step to getting a seat at the table is a willingness to change what you have been doing. It took me a while to really figure this out but getting a seat at the table revolves around what you are doing as an IT leader. What I will share are the two key concepts that allowed me to get a seat at the table. These are "Perceived Business Value" and "Perceived Accessibility". The key word in both is the word "perceived" as in "perception". If you don't have a seat at the table now, you will have to change how attorneys, administrators, and staff perceive you and the IT department in your organization. Specifically, your department's business value and your department's accessibility.
Changing your perceived business value in the eyes of attorneys and administrators is a very important first step. As we all know, technology is a critical component in law firms and usually has the largest budget of any department. However, don't let this fool you into thinking that its business value is cemented in the eyes of the attorneys and administrators. You must keep in mind that sometimes IT is viewed in terms of technologies such as computers, websites, servers, and software. This is where we want to start changing the perception. You want the attorneys to view IT's business value in terms of making the practice of law easier for them or helping them serve their clients better. For the administrators, you want them to view IT's business value in terms of making it easier for them to run the law firm.
So what can we do to create business value that they can see? IT leaders should start putting in place multiple projects per year focusing on the business of law. Specifically, projects that focus on helping attorneys perform their work and helping them better serve their clients. Also, there should be projects that help the legal admin team better manage the law firm. Now before you get up and run to get the latest version of whatever legal software that's out there, new technology upgrades are not the answer. You will need to talk to the attorneys and administrators first. This is a great way to find out what they really need. Sometimes these solutions are not technology but are process changes using existing technology that is in the firm. A good percentage of the time, these potential projects are practice group or admin department specific and should be done every year no matter how small you think the impact. Having conversations with these individuals are a good starting point and leads us to our next topic.
"Perceived Accessibility". What does that mean? This simply means that if someone has an issue with how they do their work, can they come to you for a solution? Now, this is much different than a help desk call. The most important aspect of this is that the attorneys, administrators, and staff must feel safe coming to you to ask these questions. In order for this to happen, you must make an effort to connect and build strong relationships with these people in the firm. I have done this in past by buying whole departments lunch, taking attorneys to dinner, and having drinks with everyone at after work events. You may be thinking, "That's just schmoozing and playing politics". I would argue that this makes you more available to talk. The key thing here is that you want to establish yourself as an IT leader that is easy to talk to and open to their ideas. In these comfortable situations, they will bring up problems that annoy them. We've implemented many solutions that people have loved just by having that safe conversation and the phrase "I know this maybe silly but what if X". As an IT leader, it is very important to create a safe environment where people can be open with you. If you can do this consistently, you will be perceived as an "accessible problem solver".
Now that you are an "accessible problem solver", you will need to be an "accessible business problem solver". You should now use the time at lunches, after work drinks, events, and even getting coffee to ask them "How are things in your practice" or "How are thing going in your department". If you are seen as safe and accessible, they will tell you. Once they do, you need to follow up with "Well, let me know if there is anything IT can do to help in your area". If this is done frequently, you will get feedback and potential projects. This will eventually lead to a "There's got to be a better way to do X" or "Is there a way my client can do X" conversation. Over time you will get praised for your efforts in helping the attorneys and the admin team solve business problems.
If you're not a people person or an introvert, this can be hard and unnatural. Here are some tips for you.
- Treat these interactions as mini five minute meeting with a "How are things going" goal.
- Schedule on your calendar time to walk around and talk to people, have lunch, etc.
- Use a quota system when you're at an event. Example: I need to talk to five partners, three administrators, three paralegals, etc.
This process has led me to be invited to dinner and drinks with our big clients where we discuss how we as a firm can better serve them. I am part of the firm's strategic planning team and practice group leaders contact me directly whenever they have a technology idea. Lastly and most importantly, the firm's management committee views our IT department as a critical component of their business. Our perceived value is that IT allows them to better serve and retain their clients, makes it easier and safer for them to do their work, and allows them to focus on running their business.
Getting a seat at the table is attainable but you must be willing to put in the work to change how the form perceives IT's value beyond just technology.
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