October 23, 2012

Learning to Lead: Practical Steps for High-Performance Team Leadership

Law Practice Magazine

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Taking Ownership

Practice Building Strategies for New Partners

Thinking like an Owner.

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July/August 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 5 | Page 43

Transistions: Becoming a Partner

Learning to Lead: Practical Steps for High-Performance Team Leadership

What is the one thing that law firm leaders need to be effective? Team members who are inspired and willing to commit their energy and loyalty to the team and its goals. Understanding the dynamics of teams will help you inspire others.

Whether you are called on to form a client-specific team, aspire to lead your practice group or ultimately want to manage the firm, as a partner you must learn to lead. What is the one thing that leaders absolutely must have to be effective? Team members who are inspired and willing to commit their energy—and their loyalty—to the team and its goals. Develop leadership skills that will inspire others, and you’ll be miles ahead.

Teams in law firms are essential because they engage and leverage the skills, abilities and collaboration of lawyers and staff members in ways that improve client service and satisfaction and, in turn, bring in much more business. Law firms build teams around functional practice areas, specific cases, marketing initiatives and other projects, with client relationship teams increasingly being added to the mix as well. As a result, many individuals find themselves on multiple teams, often with colleagues from different practice areas, perhaps even from different offices. And since every team needs a leader, new partners can expect to assume team leadership roles as part of their transition to greater levels of responsibility within the firm.

So how will you achieve that “absolutely must have” in your teams? How can you develop the leadership skills that inspire others to commit their energy and loyalty to high performance? To begin, you will want to know a few things about leadership theory and practice, teamwork and the dynamics of teams.

Classic Leadership Models: Theory X and Theory Y

In describing human behavior in the workplace in 1960, social psychologist Douglas McGregor proposed contrasting leadership models that continue to be relevant today: Theory X (authoritarian or autocratic) and Theory Y (participative).

  • Theory X presupposes that the average person dislikes work and will avoid it if he or she can and that most people prefer to follow orders rather than make decisions. Many leaders gravitate toward Theory X and generally get poor to mediocre results.
  • Theory Y asserts that the expenditure of effort is as natural at work as it is at play and that people want to achieve, and further, that people have the capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organizational problems. Leaders who follow Theory Y generally produce better performance and results, thus also enabling people to grow and develop.

As McGregor also proposed, management practices stem from managers’ personal theories about the basic nature of human beings. Thus, the team leader’s attitudes will influence the extent to which members of the team are willing to commit their energy, loyalty and efforts. We believe you get the point about the type of perspective you need to develop, so let’s move on to the next principle.

The Tuckman Stages: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

A team is organic, like a person, and has needs that must be satisfied if it is to survive and thrive. And like a person, teams go through distinct stages of development, and most law firm teams will likely be no different. A popular and useful model that describes the stages of team development was first developed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965 and continues to this day to be a valuable tool for teams and their leaders. The stages of team development observed by Tuckman are forming, storming, norming and performing.

Here, broken out into the four stages, is what leaders and their teams can generally expect over the life cycle of the team.

Forming. During team formation, behaviors are polite and superficial. People are wondering how they and everyone else fits in and whom they can trust. They are testing for compatibility. They want to know whether they will be accepted and valued as team members and temporarily tend to give up their individuality. The group’s goal is establishing basic criteria for membership, including the skills and competencies needed to accomplish the team’s mission. The group is dependent on the leader for guidance.

Storming. As people become more comfortable in the team setting, they tend to become more assertive. Bids for power and influence by teammates, and even by the leader, may be attacked. This stage is unpleasant but should not and, indeed, cannot be skipped. Experience has shown that teams cannot move to higher performance unless they struggle with and successfully move through this stage. Many teams become stuck in the storming stage—the implication of which is that team performance never reaches its full potential. (See the “ Maintenance Behaviors” sidebar for tips on getting unstuck.)

Norming. Here, the team finally begins pulling together and acting as a cohesive group. Roles and processes are negotiated and agreed on. Team members begin working interdependently, providing needed mutual support. The team is ready to tackle its goals and reaches agreement on how team decisions are to be made. Depending on the circumstances, decision-making authority should be distributed by the team leader to members as much as possible, consistent with the leader’s own authority and responsibilities.

Performing. All the hard work of creating the team and moving it through the earlier stages of team development pays off in this final stage. Meaningful functional relationships have developed between individuals. Trust and respect among teammates has grown considerably. Leadership issues are resolved by working them through with others, interdependently. The group now has an identity of its own and focuses on achieving agreed-on goals as effectively and efficiently as possible. Truly cohesive teams are obvious to an outside observer, who will notice that members interact in these important ways:

  • They trust one another.
  • They engage in unfiltered and productive conflict around ideas.
  • They commit to decisions and plans of actions.
  • They hold themselves and one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  • They focus on the achievement of collective results.

It is important to note that although these four stages of team development would appear to occur one at a time, in actual practice it is possible—and even usual—for two or more stages to be in progress at the same time. For example, even after a team emerges into the norming and performing stages, should new team members join, the challenges of the forming and storming stages can arise again until the new members are fully integrated into the team. Team leaders who understand these dynamics will see to it that new members are integrated in a systematic and sensitive way that is designed to build trust and commitment between and among them and the existing team members.

Putting Theory into Action

So now that you know how teams and their leaders are supposed to work, what can you do to ensure that your team evolves to its full potential? Here are practical tips and strategies for achieving and maintaining cohesiveness and high performance.

Establish goals and roles. When teams first form, especially in settings where people do not know each other well, you must take time for members to meet and become comfortable with each other. Then lead a discussion about the goals, roles and processes going forward. Obtain input from each team member. Ask for agreement. Get commitments. Establish collaborative rules or guidelines for how the team will operate. One action at an early meeting could be for all members to state what strengths and competencies they believe they bring to the team and for this information to be recorded, maintained and expanded as the life of the team progresses.

Observe the flow of conversations. As the team meets from time to time, pay attention to how the conversations between members unfold. Is anyone dominating meetings or having a negative impact? If so, have a private one-on-one discussion to get that person on board with more collaborative and sensitive behavior.

Create an open environment. Is anyone not openly participating? Bear in mind that people often do not speak up because they are afraid of being judged and would rather wait until they feel safe before speaking. A leader can set the tone for encouraging ideas to be put on the table by asking that judgment be suspended until all ideas are fully aired and considered. Also, if the leader models his or her own willingness to be vulnerable, it will send the message that it is okay not to be perfect or right all the time.

Get relationship issues on the table. What is the quality of the relationships between team members? What kinds of conflicts exist? Are there assumptions people hold about each other that are destructive or unrealistic? Are there hidden agendas or sacred cows that are not being addressed? It is crucial to surface these matters and discuss them in mature, respectful ways. Teams that are able to move past sensitive issues are on their way to creating the trust that is necessary for high performance. One way to surface issues during a team meeting is to have people anonymously fill out index cards with the issues they want addressed and then have the leader or a designated member read the cards to the group.

Be aware of gossip and “triangles.” Gossip and triangles between members are poisonous and tend to perpetuate conflict and low performance. Let’s consider an example: Arnold has an issue with fellow team member Beth over something Beth has said or done. Rather than confronting Beth with the intent of resolving the conflict in a productive manner, Arnold chooses instead to tell team member Charles and expresses his disappointment and resentment. What Charles does next with this information is crucial for the health of the team. He has several choices, and all but one is likely to perpetuate the conflict between Arnold and Beth.

Charles could just listen and say nothing. This is not helpful, but is probably the least harmful. Or, Charles could listen and join with Arnold in his condemnation of Beth. This not only reinforces Arnold’s anger and resentment, it makes the situation worse as Arnold becomes even surer that his reactions are correct. Another thing Charles might do is tell team members David or Ellen, thereby spreading the story around so the entire organization suffers from the venom. But if Charles wants to be helpful, he can encourage Arnold to speak directly with Beth in an effort to resolve the conflict. If Charles possesses sufficient skills, he might also counsel his teammate to help ensure that Arnold’s meeting with Beth has the greatest likelihood of a positive outcome. The bottom line is that it is in the best interest of the team and all its members to avoid gossip and triangles and to support the resolution of interpersonal conflicts.

As a team, define “trust” and associated expectations. Trust is the glue that will hold the team together, especially during times of high stress. Trust is often thought of as a simple, easily defined concept, but in reality it encompasses at least four concepts, as illustrated by the following questions one might have about a teammate:

  • Are you honest and open and will you always tell me the full truth?
  • Are you competent to actually accomplish what you undertake to do?
  • Will you follow through and keep your promises in a timely way?
  • Do you care enough about me that you will represent my interests when I am not in the room?

If behaviors occur that create trust issues, one of your responsibilities as team leader is to make sure the issues are openly addressed as soon as possible. Do not let trust issues fester. Once trust is broken, it is difficult to mend.

Utilize strengths and create opportunities. Be sure to use team members for the strengths they bring to the effort. At the same time, be sensitive to their individual desires to develop new competencies. Provide opportunities for them to learn and develop additional skills and knowledge as the team project moves forward by assigning responsibilities that will require them to stretch—and also by providing needed support while they are learning.

Lead by example and obtain feedback. Remember, leadership by example is a powerful way to influence others. Remember also that leaders cannot choose not to lead by example. Whatever the leader does (or does not do) sets an example for team members, whether or not intended. This means it is essential for a leader to be self-aware and choose his or her behaviors carefully so that a positive message is continually sent to the team. One thing leaders must do to assure their example is productive is obtain as much feedback from colleagues and team members as possible and then modify their own behaviors accordingly.

Where High Performance Meets Long-Term Goals

As a new partner transitioning to greater levels of leadership responsibility, you will be well served to foster a participative leadership style and build your knowledge of team dynamics. By being on the leading edge of high-performing, high-functioning teams, you will serve your firm in creating greater client satisfaction and more opportunities to obtain new business. Moreover, you will find that competencies and skills in this area are critical in demonstrating true ownership in the firm and further ascending in the firm’s leadership structure. You will also come to know that being an effective leader is easier than you feared—and, undoubtedly, worth the effort.

About the Authors

Richard S. Cohen and Valorie E. Jennings are organization effectiveness consultants having expertise in leadership development and workplace coaching. With backgrounds as practicing attorneys, they both now work to improve the practice of law through applied behavioral science.