Likable Enough?

July 29, 2016

Whatever else might be true about Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, she is a model of dogged persistence.  And, in that, her career is an object lesson in what it takes to advance in the legal profession.

An entire sub-industry of consultants and sales trainers claims to have determined the secret sauce of law firm success.  Their advice, all too often, sounds very much like the “insights” that pundits and talking heads offer up about Clinton: that she needs to be more likable, to smile more, to be less shouty, maybe wear something besides a pantsuit every day, stop looking like she’s working so hard at everything and proving how smart she is and, instead, focus on relationship-building.

Clinton, by all accounts, was exactly the kind of study-grind kid who built a perfect-on-paper resume and who might have been “likable enough,” even admired, but never quite made it to popular.

Popularity, the kind of social currency that gets you elected to things, from Homecoming Court to Managing Partner, can be particularly elusive for smart, ambitious, professionally-minded women.  It’s the interpersonal equivalent of perfect pitch, a mental threading-of-the-needle that involves being productive but not trying too hard, smart but not pedantic, and friendly but not overbearing.  Some are gifted with the skills that make popularity come to them effortlessly (see also: charisma), while others devote enormous energy to mastering the kind of Dale Carnegie and Toastmasters course work that make it possible to at least fake it.

That’s pretty much been the model for advancement in the business and legal worlds: brains and competence take you only so far.  Going the rest of the way – to the top – requires intangible factors like “leadership ability.”  And, too often, assessments of those unquantifiable traits create all kinds of openings for unconscious bias and straight-up discrimination, as when what might be called assertive in a man is called bitchy in a woman.

We’ve been stuck in this place for a generation now, floundering with ways to “code switch” and create blind application and evaluation processes.  Implicit in all the work being done to build diversity in law firm leadership is the assumption that sheer effort, measured in billable hours, is not enough, that certain personal qualities and soft skills are required as well.  We’re all chasing ways for women and minorities to be perceived as compelling, likable leaders, capable of managing large practice groups and firms, to measure the value added by their unique contributions.

But what if we’re thinking about this all wrong?

What if it doesn’t actually matter how personable you are if you just work really hard and are good at your job?  That old-fashioned notion, the study-grind’s credo, seems laughable to us now, flying in the face of generations of business school group projects and dissertations on organizational design. 

Here’s the thing, though: a major political party just nominated a less-than-fully-likable, self-confessed study-grind as its candidate for President of the United States.  The penultimate glass ceiling for women in leadership has been shattered – and not by someone who learned how to modulate her courtroom presentation voice into a man-friendly sexy librarian whisper or to adjust her body language with super-secret power poses that mirror those of alpha she-wolves.  Come November, this country might very well elect a woman President – a woman who is super-qualified, super-prepared, super-hard-working and notsuper likable.

Hillary Clinton succeeded because over the course of entire lifetime in public service she has continued to rack up accomplishment after accomplishment, credential after credential and qualification after qualification.  She succeeded through sheer persistence.

There’s a real possibility that she might not be exceptional in this.  She might be the rule.

Persistence might actually have been more valuable than personality all along.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain describes research from Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant, who studied the personality traits of effective call-center employees.  He predicted, of course, that extroverts would be better at the job.  But, as it turned out, there was zero correlation.

As he explained, “The extroverts would make these wonderful calls but then a shiny object of some sort would cross their paths and they’d lose focus.”  The introverts, on the other hand, “would talk very quietly, but, boom, boom, boom, they were making those calls. They were focused and determined.”

If there’s no advantage to being likable in a cold-calling sales job, can we really assert that it matters that much in a professional arena where technical knowledge and skill come into play as well?

Maybe it’s time for all those sales coaches and business development experts to stop counseling attorneys on their presentation skills and social habits and give them the one piece advice that might really make a difference: