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Managing Velcro and Teflon

by Erik Mazzone |

When your firm gets to a certain size there is a moment where your job goes from getting stuff done to getting stuff done through other people. Depending on your personality and skill set, this is either pretty good or pretty bad news. 

In order to grow your firm to this size, you likely already had to serve as chief marketer, head of legal, director of operations, talent acquisition coordinator, and visionary. Even if many of those roles are now inhabited by other folks on your org chart, you probably had to master those competencies to get where you are.

As well as one more: manager.

A quick look at the P&L statement of any law firm in private practice reveals that the biggest and most important expense is the salaries of the people who work in the firm. It would nice – ideal, even - if those salaries were attached to humans who automatically showed up every day, efficiently did their work, and then left with no drama. No absenteeism, no spats with coworkers, no incompetence or malaise. Like little Chat GPT robots. Minus the hallucinations, hopefully. 

But that’s not how people work. Employees need significant feedback, coaching, and training to perform at their best. In other words, they need management. Even when you hire amazing folks, they still need it.

Countless books have been written over the years on the tricks, tips, and traps of managing people, so today I just want to focus on one narrow little slice of management. A slice that causes trouble in almost all organizations from the trillion-dollar tech companies to the smallest law firms. A management behavior that is a fly in the ointment. A monkey in the wrench. A pain in the… well, you get it.

If you have more than, say, three employees working in your firm right now, I’d be willing to bet you have some version of this problem in your walls. It may fly below your notice most of the time, but if you interviewed your employees, I’d lay good odds at least one of them would say it’s a problem. 

The problem is Velcro and Teflon. 

There are two kinds of employees in the world: the ones made of Velcro and the ones made of Teflon. For the sake of this metaphor, I am pretty sure Velcro still exists in the world and needs no explanation. Teflon, in case you have never heard of it, is a nonstick coating used for cooking pans and possibly for killing all of us with chemicals. YMMV. 

Velcro employees are stolid, earnest, and hard-working. They are the folks who, when there is an assignment to distribute, just seem to absorb a bunch of the free-floating tasks in a business. They just stick to them – like Velcro. 

Next time there is a task to be done that doesn’t fit neatly into any staff member’s position description, watch where that task eventually lands. After an awkward game of “not it”, some member of your staff will resignedly raise their hand and agree to add the task to their probably already long list of things to do. That person is a Velcro employee.

Across the room, quietly avoiding eye contact, waiting for the assignment phase of the meeting to be over is your Teflon employee. You will recognize this employee by their uncanny ability to wriggle out most of the free-floating tasks that come their way. They always have good, sensible reasons for evading work. But the end result is that they end up with a lot less on their list than their Velcro colleague.

These two kinds of employees may look similar on spreadsheets and be paid similarly and occupy similar seniority on org charts, but they also might produce vastly different amounts of value for the firm. 

It’s not that Teflon people don’t do work. They do. They are just good at figuring out which tasks will be counted and recognized, and which ones will just consume time and energy and never inure to their benefit.

The problem for the manager is that Velcro may be producing a lot more value for the firm than Teflon, but that the existing management systems don’t account for that value. It’s the classic situation of realizing how many other things a dutiful employee was doing only after they have left the firm. 

I try not to use too many sports metaphors in discussing management but given that we live in basketball country and it’s getting to be that time of year, I’m going to allow myself one short basketball story. 

Shane Battier, who Duke fans will remember fondly, became known in the NBA for adding value to his team in a way that was hard to quantify. Sports loves statistics, so the idea that their voluminous data wasn’t capturing everything that mattered was vexing. The New York Times Magazine published an interesting article about this, called The No Stats All Star, if you want to read more.

Battier’s team eventually came to rely on a crude metric called “plus-minus”, which simply calculated what happened to game score when a player was in versus on the bench. Battier had a really high plus-minus, meaning his team did a lot better when he was in the game than on the bench. Most players with high plus-minus scores were obvious superstars, lighting up the court with their brilliance. The thing about Battier is, it wasn’t obvious what he was doing that made him a high plus-minus. They just knew the team performed better – a lot better – when he played.

Shane Battier is the patron saint of Velcro.

The point of this isn’t to shame the Teflon employees on your team. They may be some of your best employees. They just produce value that is easier to see and quantify and tends to live in their assigned duties. They tend not to be the ones who jump on time-consuming, free-floating tasks that circulate through the bloodstream of every business. Essential but hard to quantify. 

The point is that as the manager of your firm, it is a huge unlock of value if you can spot contributions from places that aren’t obvious, from employees that are quietly adding to the good of your team without necessarily commanding attention for it. If you can figure out how to identify and value your Velcro employees as well as your Teflon ones, you have all the ingredients for success. 

Keep an eye open for things that happen off your spreadsheets and away from your key performance indicators. For the employees who take on thankless tasks land and quietly get them done without recognition or fanfare. In your performance reviews ask your employees if they are doing things for the firm that are behind the scenes and aren’t getting recognized. Ask them if their colleagues are. Start to look for these wrinkles in the fabric of firm management.

This will help you figure out where the value is being produced from your most significant investment. And it will help your employees to feel more valued along the way.

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