GOING FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on assembling new leadership teams

Spring is the season for starting over: when financial dials are reset to zero, partnerships parade their new growth, and management boards are joined at the table by new faces. This Viewpoint considers the challenge of assembling new leadership teams: how to find a formula that lets you play to each other’s strengths, rather than just relying on your own.

One of the often-overlooked features of legal practice is how individualised tasks have become. We might talk a lot about teamwork on client files, but it is almost always a matter of coordinating individual contributions rather than of groups collaborating on a shared task. This can be poor preparation for dealing with business around a board table and can lead to unhealthy dynamics.

 

Distractions from the task

It is true of teams as much as it is of individuals that the main enemy of progress is often ourselves – boards get in their own way by becoming distracted from their three main task areas: taking decisions that align business activity with purpose; maintaining respectful relations that work with and for diverse people and opinions; and planning for the future without becoming disconnected from present realities.

Boards encounter stalemate when they shy away from decisions, often becoming preoccupied with process, rules or past events. They become polarised when, rather than accommodating the views of others, individual members withdraw into themselves or hide behind tribal loyalties. They embrace dogma when the task of planning is so uncertain or complicated that simplistic solutions seem preferable to the slog of thinking. All boards (and, we note, Parliaments too) have the potential to fall into one or more of these traps, and can only get out of them if they spot the cul-de-sac and hit reverse gear.

 

Situational awareness

One way to understand problematic team dynamics is to view the key players as asserting their strengths in a way that, unintentionally, inhibits the strengths of others. So an individual’s strength can be their team’s weakness: more often than we might like to admit, the usefulness of what we have to offer is situation-dependent.

The objective, then, for members of a newly-constituted management board, should be to learn to play as an orchestra, not as an assortment of soloists. There is little point banging the drum for your own insights if you are consistently drowned out by the brass section.

 

The perils of feedback

We often expect to learn what colleagues consider to be our strengths from ‘feedback’ delivered through the performance evaluation system. But there is a growing recognition that the focus, in common forms of feedback, on what the reviewee should do better actually dampens their learning about what they do well[1]. Furthermore, the individualised nature of the legal task system limits lawyers’ exposure to each other, resulting in feedback based on a small sample size and a large degree of subjectivity.

At Tyler Wilson, one of the models we follow seeks to understand each person’s strengths, not whether they are recognised by others. A focus on strengths is endorsed by evidence from neuroscience that positive messages are a more reliable stimulant of high performance: negativity triggers the recipient’s sympathetic nervous system into fight/flight responses, while a focus on what they can do stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, causing (amongst other good things) greater cognitive, emotional and perceptual openness. The upshot is being more energised, productive and creative when you’re allowed to feel valued for what you bring to the table.

We use a market-proven ‘strengths-finder’ tool that has rationalised the panoply of human character attributes into 34 themes. These are grouped in four quadrants reflecting Strategic Thinking, Influencing, Relationship Building and Executing.

The ‘Top 5’ strengths of the ideal team would comprise a relatively even distribution across the four quadrants; teams with a relative imbalance might work more effectively by recognising their area of relative deficit.

 

Different roles need different strengths

Our observation, taking our work with them as a single, representative sample, is that the dominant strengths of law firm leaders are in the Executing and Strategic Thinking quadrants. This supports the notion that leaders are chosen for their individual excellence as lawyers, demonstrated in roles that perhaps offer less opportunity for them to develop – or gain recognition for – their interpersonal strengths (those grouped under Influencing and Relationship Building). Without wishing to perpetuate stereotypes, any firm committed to gender diversity might wish to investigate this further.

For similar reasons, many of the team-building assignments that we work on focus on harnessing strengths in the two less dominant quadrants. Very often, team members will give greater weight to minority strengths once they recognise them and can see their relevance to the issue. It is a peculiarity of legal practice, rather than of practitioners themselves, that these collaborative lights stay hidden under a bushel.

 

Unlocking value from your team

So what might your leadership team learn from an audit of its strengths? First, it will accelerate the ‘getting-to-know-you’ process that holds back new groups from being fully productive. Secondly, it will reassure less vocal members that their capabilities are recognised, however tentatively they might be ventured. Thirdly, it will provide an opportunity (which might otherwise be hard to engineer) to convince dominant members that there are occasions when they should dial down their contributions. Finally, it will create space for the group to conduct a gap analysis of itself, identifying areas where it lacks strength and where special efforts may be needed to achieve a balanced outcome.

The best teams inevitably comprise individuals who excel in different-but-complementary ways, rather than ‘all-rounders’ who are closer to the median in everything. When trying to get new players to perform something approaching jazz, the first challenge is to encourage improvisation without losing syncopation; the second is to get a sound that blends without swamping the melodic minors.

 

 

© Tyler Wilson Limited 2019

 

[1] For an excellent critique of the pitfalls of feedback, see The Feedback Fallacy by Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall in HBR April 2019