Skip to content
Featured Image
Client Feedback, Service & Teams
5 minute read | 5 years ago

Secrets to Success: Zest, Grit and Self Control

Photo of Laura Meherg By: Laura Meherg

Wicker Park Group periodically revisits some of our most popular blog posts. This is the first in a series of posts written in 2013, which we will repost in the coming weeks. The qualities explored in these posts resonate with what clients are telling us they desperately need from outside counsel.

A fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine years ago talked about educators across various socioeconomic backgrounds trying to measure and improve the character of their students. Using research, the KIPP charter schools have a list of  seven character strengths that leaders believe are most likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement:

• Zest
• Grit
• Self-control
• Social Intelligence
• Gratitude
• Optimism
• Curiosity

We at WPG also think these seven indicators will lead to success in client relationship management and business development. Each character strength feeds into how you relate to your clients, how you achieve desired results and how you manage all of the relationships around you successfully.

In this first post, we are covering zest, grit and self-control.

When we hear the term zest used within a professional context, a lot of us imagine the office “cheerleader” always telling everyone what a good job they’ve done. But that’s not really what this means—it means active participation and enthusiasm for the task ahead. When done right, zest makes people want to work with you and have more confidence in your abilities. Many times, we’ve heard clients specifically mention enthusiasm as a factor in who they hire and how they rate attorney abilities. In one instance, a large client of a mid-sized firm moved its work from the firm to another one because the client received an unsolicited “great pitch” from attorneys who were impressive and enthusiastic. The client said, “We hadn’t gotten the same experience or enthusiasm from [our former firm].”

Likewise, a GC once singled out passion for the law as an important added value. He said, “[I notice] when attorneys have a passion for the law, are passionate about their jobs, are passionate about providing legal services and it’s not just a rote experience for them. That’s infectious and that makes us want to work together. I think that helps breed a successful relationship.”

One cautionary point: Too often we hear outside counsel deciding what the client will do, say or think without asking. Having a zest for extraordinary client service, which is often characterized as “understanding me and my business,” doesn’t mean deciding what the client should do without asking the client.

These days, being an intelligent, competent attorney (or marketing professional, for that matter) isn’t enough. There are plenty of people that fit that category, and you’ve got to distinguish yourself. Zest is one way to do that.

People who achieve outstanding success—from Steve Jobs to Oprah—are often intelligent and motivated. But the most likely indicator of success might be grit, or single-minded devotion to accomplishing your task. As part of the research that eventually led to these seven character traits, University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth created a simple 12-question “Grit Scale” and found it to be highly predictive of success in a variety of groups. (See Duckworth give a great lecture on grit at a TEDx conference here.)

What this means for client relationship management is that clients will recognize and greatly value a determined attorney. In one interview, a client mentioned that her outside counsel had made efforts to build a relationship with her after meeting at a conference for four years before she hired him on anything. He kept her informed on legal updates and industry news, which made her feel “plugged into the industry.” She now considers him a valued advisor and one of her primary legal service providers.

In another example, a general counsel expressed gratitude for his outside counsel’s extreme dedication to keeping him on track. He said, “[My outside counsel] will call me four times to keep me on task, and I need it.”

Another attorney deeply impressed a client by submitting a proposal and then, when the proposal was not accepted, asking for specific feedback in order to submit a better one in the future. The client hired the attorney on the spot for an unrelated piece of work. We’ve also heard multiple clients praise those attorneys who doggedly take steps to keep learning the client’s business, even if they’ve worked together for years already.

Displaying grit, whether it’s in pursuit of new business or consistent pursuit of client goals, will make a big difference in your client relationships and requires resilience and a willingness to seek feedback and act on it.

Having a high level of self-control can affect everything from how well you control your temper to how well you meet deadlines. Unsurprisingly, it plays a huge part in the management of your client relationships.

Keeping emotions in check and avoiding outbursts demonstrates that you are professional and sends signals about your ability to handle serious situations. As the authors of the book Primal Leadership write, “A hallmark of self-control is the leader who stays calm and clear-headed under high stress or during a crisis—or who remains unflappable even when confronted by a trying situation.”

Self-control is also about managing your more nuanced interactions. One bank client told WPG that he was frustrated by his attorney’s tendency to get caught up in the speed of doing business. The client said, “[The attorneys] have such zeal to please the bank that they often rush ahead with edits and comments on a deal without considering what the end goal should be and how to best get to that goal.” Another talked about how annoyed he was when he and his team, along with his lead attorney, traveled out of state for a meeting on a major case. He watched the lead attorney sit on his Blackberry the whole afternoon and not give the situation the attention it needed.

Clients also greatly appreciate the attorneys who demonstrate self-control by admitting that someone else may be better suited or skilled to handle a certain matter and recommend another attorney. Take a minute and think about what you are saying to your clients in how you control your attitudes and emotions as well as your actions.


In the coming weeks, we will share more on the remaining four characteristics: Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Optimism and Curiosity.