Managing mavericks featuring Scott Dongoske with Winthrop & Weinstine
Written by John P. Palen for Minnesota Business Magazine December 2013
Television and movies popularize the maverick charting his or her own course in a hostile and changing environment. We cheer for these people and at the same time wait for their destruction. It's part of the fun.
In a business environment, the fine line between doing it your way and being part of a team isn't just fun and games. Companies need creativity and energy, but they also have responsibilities to produce consistent service and revenue. The backlash against flexible workplaces is just one example of organizations trying to rein in the individual in favor of the bottom line.
What if your organization is made up of mostly mavericks? Some businesses like law firms attract many people who graduated at the top of their class, were great athletes or served with honors in the military. Such individuals are naturally independent, but not necessarily business owners (or partial owners). One law firm has worked to address that distinction.
"Good leaders must balance the bureaucratic process of a business with the mavericks," explains Scott Dongoske, who for 12 years has served as president of Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A., a 200 employee law firm with offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The firm has a local legacy that dates to 1979, and Dongoske has been an attorney at the firm since 1983.
Pointing out common ills like pricing pressure and competition, Dongoske says that law firms had to learn a different way of doing business over the past 10 years — or face extinction. At Winthrop & Weinstine, that has meant defining what its 'A' players look like, then constantly reviewing and improving compensation, technology, pricing and processes to support their success. It hasn't always been easy.
"Race horses don't like to be tethered," he says. "So we've created guidelines and evaluations to filter, attract and develop the right people. We want strong personalities who are highly competitive and who communicate very well, but they also need to understand how to act like an owner."
Being an owner means knowing how a law firm has to operate to serve clients and make money, then contributing to that model. From continuing legal education to how marketing dollars are spent and where attorneys network, Winthrop & Weinstine's structure requires a clear ROI for the individual and the firm.
Dongoske compares this task to a professional football coach who has to take a team of self-motivated but highly independent athletes and get them all moving in the same direction. The leadership approach is customized to each athlete, but the goal is the same. Winning football games or winning business, it should benefit everyone.
"Many people think they are a leader, but you're only a leader if you get people to follow you," Dongoske says.
Like Don Draper on the television show Mad Men, being a maverick only gets you so far. Then you have to produce for the company. Anything less is unacceptable if you want to stay on the A-team.
Tips for A-Team Leadership
- Recognize the mavericks and give them room to differentiate your business.
- Maintain balance by teaching the fundamentals of owning and operating the business.
- Create hiring and development protocols that attract A players.
- Regularly review and maximize compensation structures, technology, pricing and processes that support high performance.