A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

Experts in Silos: They might be essential but are they killing your firm?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

By Graham Winter, Executive Director Think One Team

A well-known and very successful biotech entrepreneur once told me that his advice to every leadership team was:
‘Find the bottlenecks and then open them to unlock value.’

This strategy has worked time and time again, and he happily offers a second suggestion to anyone who isn’t sure where to start: 
‘Find the experts in silos and you’ll find the bottlenecks!' 

Do you have an ‘Expert Culture’?

In biotech the ‘experts in silos’ are often the scientists or brand specialists, whereas in professional firms they are just about everywhere. The reason my colleague calls them ‘experts in silos’ is simple - they think and work from the mindset of their speciality, not from a whole-of-business perspective. 

Like the individual ‘star’ in a football team they meet all their KPI’s (lots of billable hours, large clients, strong personal brand), but in football teams and in competitive markets that’s not enough.

In football the ‘star’ can be dangerous if they undermine team culture and the structures that are essential to winning under the pressure of the big games. 

Twenty years ago the star got away with being the maverick who didn’t have to modify their behaviour. Not anymore. The leaders in the team simply won’t allow it.  The star can still be the star, but only if they fit the whole-of-team game plan. Anything less and they’ll be traded because they diminish more value than they create.

And so…… that brings us to legal (and other professional) firms and to two important questions:  

  • Do you have a culture where unity and strength of leadership enables the firm to leverage the whole of the firm’s brand, client base and assets?  

  • Or, do you find yourself stuck in an expert culture where individual partners and specialists act more like individual stars?

Check the warning signs

Three warning signs signal that your firm could be underperforming (and at risk) due to your experts playing to their own game plan.

1. Missed opportunities

Have you regretted missed chances because two or more parts of the firm couldn’t get their act together to make it happen? 

2. Relationship breakdown

Is there friction (or stand-offs) between partners and / or other professionals?  

3. Delays

Are you frustrated at the speed with which the firm pursues new opportunities or implements new systems and processes?

Are you making the problem worse?

A lot of firms reinforce this culture of experts in silos. An easy way to check if that’s happening is to ask three questions:     

  • Do we ‘hunt as a pack’ or as individuals?  

  • Do we reward individual behaviour over team behaviour?   

  • Do partners and senior specialists co-create solutions to the big challenges, or are some people happy to see these as someone else’s problem? 

If experts have strategies, then what’s yours?

The root cause of delays, overruns, missed opportunities and relationship breakdowns lie in three practices that are typically adopted (with little awareness) by our well-intentioned experts. You need a strategy for each of these:

Strategy 1: Protect your own turf

Experts quite reasonably have strong egos and a sense of ownership, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a well-known professional firm recently missed out on millions of dollars in fees when a partner and two senior staffers played ‘protect your own turf’ by keeping their colleagues in the dark about a client’s plans for a huge merger.  Why? Because they would have lost ‘control’ over their piece of the pie.

There are many issues here, however one is what Wharton School Professor, Adam Grant, refers to as the ‘Give or Take’ culture.

In a ‘Take’ culture people protect their own turf through competitive actions like withholding information, keeping budget hidden and seeking resources and other assistance without giving anything in return. 

In a ‘Give’ culture people share ideas, help each other and form connections and relationships without expecting anything in return. Sadly that’s not the norm in many professional firms.

Is it time to address the whole approach to collaboration and partnering in your firm to create more of a ‘give culture’?

Strategy 2:  Avoid and deny

This sounds a bit Machiavellian, however many firms create a culture that discourages openness and honesty.  By all means our experts will support the notion of robust conversations, but in reality they shun two-way feedback across specialities, functions and hierarchy.

Think again about the football team and the regular and intensive debriefing that just doesn’t allow the star to get away with basking in the glory of scoring goals, when they don’t play their part in team defence.

Strategy 3: Play ‘We win, you lose’

In firms where people identify more with their own team or unit than with the whole organisation, the risk of the ‘smartest team in the building’ mentality is high.

People then attribute success to their own brilliance or hard work, and failure to things external to the team. This sort of culture often rears its head in monthly Partner meetings when the default strategy is to blame other people or departments (often those with least status / power) for anything and everything.

The big cost here, apart from the obvious relationship breakdown, is the loss of lessons learned. When people protect and defend their own patch, they close the window to the single most important capability to embed in any firm that aspires to be agile and adaptive: the ability to learn.

What’s your action?

The current business conditions demand that every firm be as nimble and adaptive as possible. There are literally thousands of pieces of advice on what leaders can do to address this challenge.

Amongst all that noise, perhaps we could ask an entrepreneur who has made more than one fortune buying, merging and growing successful businesses. My guess is that he’d say: 

Find the bottlenecks and break them open to unlock the value.’ 

Editor's Note:  

ALPMA's Leading Your Firm program
Graham Winter is the presenter at ALPMA's next Leading Your Firm program livestreamed event, discussing how "United Leadership" can help law firms achieve breakthroughs in individual, team and organisational productivity and performance on Wednesday March 4, 2015.  Register now to attend this event held in Adelaide, online or at one of 18 regional hub events across Australia and New Zealand.  

ALPMA's Leading Your Firm program is generously supported by Principal Partners, BigHand & Thomson Reuters, and Regional Partners, BOAB IT, CommArc and LexisNexis

About our Guest Blogger

Graham Winter
Graham is an Australian psychologist and management consultant and works with professional firms locally, nationally and internationally on advising partners and management teams seeking to achieve greater success in their business. Graham spent six years as exclusive designer and developer of High Performance Leadership Programs for PwC Consulting in the Asia Pacific.
He is the author of the best seller "Think One Team", the international book "High Performance Leadership", and the recently published "First Be Nimble".

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