312: Amy Gardner—How Can A Great Law Firm Build Better Teams?

Hear how when teams work together, everybody succeeds

You may have not paid much attention to the cultures inside law firms. Law firms are really no different than other firms. Some have strong cultures that seem to work smoothly. Others need a hand. One hand they often reach for is Amy Gardner, our interviewee in today’s podcast. Amy is charming. A smart woman who has worked in law firms and now with them to help them reimagine their organizations and create teams that work better together than alone. In our conversation, you will hear ideas that are as relevant to your company or non-profit as they are to Amy’s clients. As we all try to navigate our new work culture, her story is well worth a listen.  

Watch and listen to our conversation here

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It doesn’t matter what type of company you have today—you need strong collaborative teams that are looking to help each other succeed

No longer can we all be competing for position, power and promotions. Today, we have to find ways to talk to each other, build relationships, and know whom to trust and count on. That is what Amy does so well. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her website Apochromatik, or email her at amy@apochromatik.com.

Want to learn how to form better teams that work great together? Start here.

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink with Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. And as you know, I’m your host and your guide. And my job is to get you off the brink. And I can’t do that any better than by bringing wonderful people to you. Amy Gardner is one today who’s going to tell you about some major things you should think about as we come out of a pandemic. But you know, this is not easy, and everybody’s brains are fighting it. You don’t quite know how to do it so you’re making it up, not quite well. And I always believe in over-determining success. So if you can overthink what we’re doing a little bit and begin to plan for it, and realize that not everyone’s going to do it exactly the way you want. Then all of a sudden, you’re going to find new ideas, turning into great new ways to work together.

Amy comes out of Chicago with lots of offices there looking for people to come back into them. I don’t know, it’s lonely at home, but it’s easier. I have a client with 70 employees, all of whom don’t want to commute, all kinds of things going on. But let me tell you about Amy so she can help you see, feel and think in new ways. That’s our job because if you can see something and you can feel it, you’ll decide, I can do that too. So that’s what we want to share today.

Amy Gardner is a certified career development and career transitions coach. She’ll tell you about that, and she’s a team development and leadership consultant. The company she’s with is Apochromatik. And she’s going to say that better than I have. Her work draws on her unique experience as a Dean of Students at the University of Chicago Law School, which is pretty cool. And a successful career practicing law. At first, as a big law litigation associate and later as an associate and then partner at a midsize photographer, she received her BA from Luther College, her JD from the University of Chicago Law School and her MA in public policy from Northwestern University. Amy’s got great credentials for you today. But the most interesting part is that she’s working with people like you right now to help them see,  feel, and think in new ways. The times they are changing. Amy, thank you for joining me today. 

Amy Gardner: Thank you for having me. I’m so glad to be here.  

Andi Simon: It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Please tell the audience who’s Amy Gardner? What’s your whole journey been like? And how does that bring us to where we are today? 

Amy Gardner: Well, I grew up in Ames, Iowa and my first jobs were working in Wisconsin delis, where I learned a lot about leadership and team development by running, wait for it, Big Kahuna Café at Noah’s Ark Waterpark. America’s largest waterpark, land of the free and home of the wave. It was a fantastic experience, actually. So after I graduated from Luther, I worked in political campaigns in Iowa before going to law school. And as you said, I graduated from law school and went straight into a large law firm. I worked at Skadden’s Chicago office for just about five and a half, not quite six years. And then from there, I went to a midsize firm.

And when the opportunity arose to return to my law school as the Dean of Students, I really viewed it as an opportunity to better prepare students for the practice of law in ways that an excellent classroom education doesn’t necessarily cover. And as part of doing that work, I kept talking to law firms that were saying, Wow, this is really great and nice things that you’re doing. So I was talking to law firms to get them to subsidize the things I was doing. And the firm would say, We need this, we need this. And so finally I decided, okay, here’s this opportunity. And so initially, our work was focused on legal employers, but now we work with lots of different industries. And my husband and I founded Apochromatik five years ago and we’ve been married for just over 20 years. And today, I get to work with smart people every day. I get to work with teams that want to be better. And I get to work with lawyers who want to love their careers more. So it’s a pretty good gig.  

Andi Simon: What a nice journey, what a nice balance. You know, learning comes from doing experientially as opposed from sitting in a classroom and hearing. And unless we’ve done it, we don’t really know what it is. But these are very challenging times, I’m sure you’re seeing. So tell us two things. One a little bit about what you do, how you do it, and a little bit about what you see going on in the markets today that can be helpful for others who are experiencing it. What do you do? 

Amy Gardner: So about half my time is spent with our one-on-one and small group mastermind-to-attorney clients. And then the other half of my time is spent working with teams. It doesn’t matter who I’m working with, the approach is always first to listen, to understand where people are coming from, and then to really collaborate with them to create solutions. And you know, when you’re coaching an attorney on their career, you might be using a strictly coaching approach. But when it comes time to tell them what to do with their résumé, you’re not coaching them, you’re being very directive. And with a team, you’re trying to understand the issues. The issues are often not what appears on the surface. And then you’re working with the team members to improve the situation for everyone. And sometimes that involves one-on-one coaching with some leaders. Other times, it involves a series of group workshops, but it’s fun, because you can see the results of your work. And because you never know.

When Keith and I are doing a workshop together, I often comment that it’s a lot like riding a bucking bronco, right? You know in your mind how it might go and you’ve seen it before, but it’s always going to be a different experience. And at the end, the goal is really just for the team to achieve their goals. 

Andi Simon: So as I’m listening, I’m thinking about my own leadership academy, I have several. And in the process, the word “team” comes up often. But folks, fascinatingly enough, they may have played on a soccer team, or lacrosse team or a football team, but they’re all different teams. And I use the metaphor of sports because it resonates. But I have a hunch, you see the difficulties without a general manager or coach or a model for people to know what it is. What is the goal? Why are we doing this? And on the other hand, being an anthropologist, I tell them, You can’t solo it, unless you have a group, call it a team, you can’t get anywhere. Humans can’t do it alone. Maybe a little but not really. How do you build the right kinds of teams? 

Amy Gardner: Well, to start, I think one thing that occurred to me as you were talking is, I don’t know if you know Michael Hyatt, but he’s been really influential on our business and very helpful. And Michael often says, Vision leaks. What we often see is that we might talk with the leaders of a team and say, what are the team’s goals? and they can recite them in their sleep. But the average team member may feel as though the only real goal is to bring in more revenue, cut costs, and bring in more money. And so you really have to start with, what is the vision, and some of that is, of course, going to be handed down. But other vision needs to come from the people on the team. And because you can do all the trust exercises and communication exercises in the world, but if people aren’t working toward at least some common goals that are a little bit more motivating than helping someone else become wealthier, they’re not really going to get anywhere. 

Andi Simon: That’s an interesting way to talk about purpose and mission. 

Amy Gardner: I remember when I was practicing law, I had a client where I had to keep going to New York every three weeks for this particular case. And it was a great case. But I was sitting at LaGuardia all the time. And the client made a comment to me that maybe he should name a condo for me. And I said, What do you mean? And he said, Well, every time we get a disbursement from this fund, my wife and I buy another condo because we’re sort of building a compound of properties down in Florida. And I was like, wait, I’m spending…of course I was being compensated well for this, right? but you’re thinking, I spent how many hours on the tarmac at LaGuardia and you’re telling me that that’s what this is about? I mean, it just has to be more motivating than that, right? And different things are motivating to different people. But you have to understand the members of the team, why they get up in the morning and who they are and what they have to offer. 

Andi Simon: Well, but I’m laughing because often we really aren’t sure what our job is, or its purpose and meaning. There’s a huge great resignation right now, a huge discussion about young people wanting purpose. They don’t just want profits. And I’m not quite sure, we haven’t figured out that the young people are just telling others what it is that people really want, which is to have a purpose in life beyond simply a job. And it isn’t working for someone, it is working with them. And what does that actually mean? So you have a really big business here. Are there some illustrative cases where you can show like the before and after or some of the challenges that you’re facing? Because, you know, people have to visualize, not envision it, but visualize it because that’s how we decide with our eyes and your stories, very powerful stories to share. 

Amy Gardner: So let’s talk about a team that we worked with not too long ago where we were approached because the new leader had inherited a team that was doing great in many respects, but he discovered they’d never had any sort of team development, nothing formal, never had a retreat, nothing like that. And so initially, our charge was just to come in and do something so that the team understands it’s a new day and the new leader really cares about this development. But everything’s great. So as we start talking to people, we learn that in fact, there are a couple members of this, again, very high functioning team in a very well known company, who these two members hadn’t spoken to in 10 years. And I mean, imagine if you are in a large company, and you are a senior leadership team and two members don’t speak.

It doesn’t matter how great the numbers are, and how lovely the human beings are but, there’s still that what is happening here. And there had been a recent situation where the communication was so siloed, that one person is sitting in a meeting, and overhears the engineering team talking about a new development and realizes or should have realized they better talk to the IP folks but doesn’t connect them. Because it just doesn’t occur. And none of these were disasters, right? It’s kind of like, oh, yeah, they didn’t let us know, now we got to scramble. Oh, yeah, those two don’t talk. But whatever, it’s their deal.

But when you can get to the root causes, and when you can address those things that just brings in a new lightness. It just makes people happier logging out for those interminable zoom meetings, right? If it’s people that you actually don’t mind spending time with, and you understand where they’re coming from, and it was great because at the end of the engagement, we were told it was a resounding success. And more than that, we also saw just how people were talking when we did an icebreaker.

The very first of four workshops, people had no engagement, like wondering, Why do we have to do this. And by the end, people are excited. On their own, people had come up with a schedule so everybody would have coffee with everybody else at least once a quarter to get to know each other better. All these sorts of things that we all know in our heads we should be doing, but you get so busy with all the meetings and all the things that you can check off your to-do list, that so often it’s those personal relationships, and the developing the team and developing the leadership within the team that just gets set aside for the next quarter, right?  

Andi Simon: Let’s dig into this a little bit because we do a lot of cultural change work. Humans have only survived because of groups. It’s a really interesting phenomenon, set people off on their own in the wilderness, and they don’t quite know what to do. But you know, you put them in these cubicles, or these jobs, and they really don’t know what to do either. They do what they do to keep their job and to feel they have some reason for being there. You went to LaGuardia and sat on the tarmac, you weren’t quite sure the purpose or the meaning. But you did it, you made a nice income. And that seemed to be what the job was supposed to be.

But now we’re at a point where people are asking some profound questions, particularly as we’re coming back from being remote. Particularly, Why are we together? And why is being remote so unhealthy for humans, because it is. The incidence of illness goes up, and that’s not just COVID. People experience anger, loneliness that turns into all kinds of psychological and behavioral health issues. We’re supposed to be critters, we’re herd animals. We’re supposed to hang out together, supposed to tell stories with each other. But the trend is now to begin to see this as valuable, not incidental.

And now the question is, well, it’s valuable, but I don’t know how to do it. You don’t know how to talk to each other. You don’t know how to set up some time to have coffee together. It’s like we’re working with a bunch of children, as opposed to grownups. They need new habits to be formed. And habit building takes 30 days or plus or minus, you gotta keep doing it before it becomes ingrained. As you’re watching the reemergence of people going back into the office, I’ve been dying to ask you, what do you see happening? Are some working well, some not? Where are there opportunities for others to benefit from what your insights are? 

Amy Gardner: I think one of the things that you have to remember if you’re asking people to come back to the office is that you can’t ask them to come back to the office just to sit on zoom all day. And this is something that we’re seeing again and again. Particularly for offices, where for good safety reasons, they only want a certain percentage of the people there on any given day, then the people who are in the office are often just in their office on zoom with people who aren’t there. There has to be a reason to be back in the office. I mean, if you want me to get on the L or get on the subway or drive somewhere and pay for parking to go in there, there should be a reason, right? And especially as we’ve seen, so many people have moved farther away from their offices over the last two or three years to get out of inner city cores and move into suburbs and stuff where they have yards and things like that.

I have a client who she and her husband have a couple of little kids and they moved an hour and a half from downtown Chicago and now they both are expected to be coming back into downtown Chicago. And it’s like, what does that do to your life? This is a choice they made but if all of a sudden they add a three hour commute, three hours of commuting each day, so there better be a reason to be in the office. And I think the employers who put out doughnuts or a box breakfast to welcome everybody back one day, and then think it’s going to go back to the same way. This is a real opportunity to reset, and smart leaders are taking advantage of that opportunity to reconsider.

Do we need to be here every day? Do we need to have more open work spaces? Do we need to have fewer open workspaces? Some people have learned that they can concentrate better without the chaos around them, right? Should we rethink what we were doing for backup childcare? If people’s kids are suddenly out of school because of a COVID exposure, how do we want to support them? This is a real opportunity. I was talking to someone the other day, and we were both talking about what if employers think about it, and leaders think about it in terms of not going back, but how can we go forward from here. I think that reset, and that reframe can be really helpful and thinking through what kind of workplaces we want to have. 

Andi Simon: Yes, well, I’ll add to that, because I’ve been doing research on what does work mean and what is the workday. I coached a bunch of folks who during the COVID period early on were now at home, and they were trying to figure out what is work? They were really delighted to be able to take a morning meeting and get the wash done. Then take a noon collaboration with their colleagues or friends. Then they could work at eight or nine at night when the kids went to bed. And they were saying, what is work? When do we do work? There were profound questions about the transformation that was opening up opportunities, unfamiliar in the past, but really important ones about what is the meaning of work. Where do we do it?

And then that wonderful little article that I saw of the gal who finished at one o’clock and said, Well, pay me to 5 o’clock because I have nothing else to do. And her question wasn’t about her willingness to do more but what I had to do, I did it fast. Don’t penalize me for being efficient. But how do you reward me? What does this mean, in terms of what I do? Now, this is different from being on a factory floor where the machines keep going. But so much of our societies are our knowledge workers. We’re managing their minds and their time. Now, the question is, do we manage them? Are they managing us? Are they all gig economy folks? It’s a real interesting time. What do you see?

Amy Gardner: I think one of the complications of people working at different times throughout the day is the brain science tells us that you actually need more extended periods away from work for your brain to relax. And so if you decide, I’m going to work another segment from 6pm to 9pm, fine, but then your brain can only reset from 9pm until you start again. You don’t have that extended time off. And particularly with weekends, we’ve seen that a lot, and it just leads to more burnout. But there’s also the effect that if you are a leader who decides that works for you, great. But if you are then sending an email at eight o’clock at night, and not scheduling it to go out tomorrow morning, then you are sending messages to your team. And so what might work for you and be great for you, you have to think about how that’s affecting other people.

And we worked with a team where a number of changes had been made to accommodate parents who were trying to supervise homeschooling kids, which, thank goodness they did. Of course, they need to do that because you cannot have six-year-olds trying to school themselves at home without supervision, right? I think we can all agree that was a good thing. But what happened was that it didn’t acknowledge that other people on the team might have other activities that they prioritized. And because things have been shifted to later in the day, we talked with one person who said, Look, you know, I don’t have kids, I don’t feel like I can say anything. But throughout the pandemic, the one thing that has kept her going has been this one workout that she was doing online, five or six o’clock every day. And because they shifted things back, she couldn’t do that. And she didn’t want to say, My workout isn’t as important as supervising the next generation of our leaders, right? But it was really causing consternation and frustration for her.

So some of it is creating an environment where everybody can say, Hey, I know this isn’t the same, but I sure would like it if we could, you know, honor my activity and my priority right now. So I think that some of the flexibility has been great in a lot of ways. I worked remotely right after I got out of college when I was working for political campaigns. And let’s just say that remote work in 1998 was a lot different than it is now. And then I worked remotely for a national legal nonprofit organization when I left the law school, and now with our business we’ve worked from all over the world. And I’ve seen some of these changes, I’ve made all the mistakes there are, I think, at different points. And we have to allow ourselves to experiment and understand. It doesn’t have to stay the same way, but some of these things that can seem great in the moment, once you get going and do them for weeks and weeks and months and months, may not be a long term solution for everyone. 

Andi Simon: That takes me to the point, Is going into the office necessary? You just raised a very important point. I want to have people think about the complexity of that person who’s working with you, and give them the right or the option to work in ways that make sense to them. Because as you follow the logic, is going back into the office the solution? It is a very profound question about how we are going to invent the next stage. Because to your point, some worked, some didn’t, so what have we done? It’s going to happen all over again. And how do I measure working? Is it working or not? How will we know? 

Amy Gardner: We’ve seen that there are some generational differences among some teams about being in the office. I just spoke with somebody, maybe a week ago, who had a lot of resentment and said, Look, they were fine with me working from home when they were either going to have no one work, or we were all going to work from home, right? And now they don’t want people working from home. I mean, it is this thing of everybody pitched in and could work from home and readjust.

If you think back to March 2020, nobody got to say that’s correct. And so if you have team members who pulled it off and have done a good job, for you to turn around and say, Oh, we have a blanket policy. Of course, people are going to be frustrated, right? And especially right now where you can have other options. We were involved in a common mentoring program and one of the people I’ve been fortunate to work with in that program went to his boss and said, I’m really burned out. I’ve been working all these hours and I need something to give. And her response was to talk about how she works on weekends. And this is somebody who’s in high demand, who sent out two résumés and got two interviews, right? I mean people have other options and they’ve always had other options. But it’s much more stark now, I think. And so some of it is employers have to figure out what works for the workplace. But they’ve got to be reasonable about it. And everybody’s definition of reasonable might be different based on where they’re sitting. 

Andi Simon: In the work that we do, and I suspect in yours too, we think about it backwards. That platinum rule, do unto others as they want to be done to. And that little illustration you had, you couldn’t care less if you work weekends, a couple of weeks off without any penalty to go on a hiking tour or something that made sense. So let’s flip this a little bit around and not get so angry that the employees are defining what it is that we will be doing. You can’t do without them. I mean, I often talk about leaders needing followers because if you don’t have anyone following you, you can’t lead anywhere. And so don’t diminish the power of that follower. They will either embrace you or they will abort you. And those are the two folks who didn’t talk to each other. This is such fun. So we’re about ready to wrap up. Please share two or three things that you’d like our listeners not to forget. Because we tend to remember the ending even better than that lovely beginning. What should they remember? 

Amy Gardner: I think one thing to keep in mind is that just because you did it one way before doesn’t mean you can’t get a fresh start.  And so if you can seize this as an opportunity to reconsider how things are working, whether it’s in your own career or whether it’s with a team that you’re leading, or a team where you are a member of the team. This is an opportunity for everyone to pitch in, and reset and consider what we want things to look like.

And I think the second thing is to give yourself and the people around you some grace. None of us have ever come back from being home for two years before. None of us have been here before. And so it is very much giving each other grace and understanding that different people have had different things happen over the last two years. I’ve said many times, we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. And so the staff person who has not had backup childcare and may have lost a family member in the last two years is in a very different position than the person who may have moved to their vacation home and had lots of space, maybe been with a spouse and without small children running around. It’s just a different experience. So give everybody including yourself some grace.

And then the last thing is to get help. There are lots and lots of resources. You can start by sitting and listening to Andi’s podcast for a day. How much could you get out of that. But there are so many things, so many resources out there that you can draw on. You do not have to go through this alone if you really want to seize this moment. 

Andi Simon: I love Amy’s point. You got to seize the moment. It is a really unusual gift to you to rethink, reboot, redesign, but figure out what matters to you. And I often use a little exercise. What do you want to do more of or less of? You make a list. And every time I do that with the folks I work with, they say, Oh yes. Nobody’s stopping you from doing more of that, or doing less of this. You got to take control of what you’re thinking. Your mind does exactly what it thinks it wants you to do and the habits take over. It’s a time for you to rethink what you’re doing and have a good time doing it. Why not? If people want to reach you, where can they do that?  

Amy Gardner: You can always find me on LinkedIn if you search for Amy M Gardner. There are many other Amy Gardners out there. And you can also always email me: amy@Apochromatik.com. 

Andi Simon: So for all of you who come to our web, to our website who come to our podcasts and are a part of our great audience, we are in the top 5% of global podcasts, whatever that might mean. I’m always honored. I love your emails. Send them to info@andisimon.com. Tell me what you want to hear more about. Amy was perfect for today because I can only tell you that a bunch of folks out there, clients of ours and others, are trying to figure out how to figure this out. And humans are clever creative creatures, but they also get stuck in the stories of yesterday and right now we need to craft new ones for tomorrow. It’s a new chapter of your sitcom and it’s fun.

My books are there on Amazon. Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business has done really well. And On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights is still clicking away there. It has won an award and it’s bringing us great clients who did change and that’s what we’re all about. So On the Brink with Andi Simon is here to help you see, feel and think in new ways. Amy, I’ll let you say goodbye and then I’ll say goodbye.  

Amy Gardner: I just hope people will know that they can feel free to reach out always. I am glad to hop on the phone or hop on Zoom and chat through whatever issue you may be encountering. Always glad to hear from folks. 

Andi SImon: And don’t forget, there’s no reason you have to do this alone. There is nothing better than picking each other’s brains and having some time to laugh over a cup of coffee. It’s a good time to do it. Although someone asked me if having wine every night with a friend is a good hobby. I said I’m not sure what your hobbies are. Bye everybody.