Ditching Teamwork for a More Tribal Approach

With Labor Day behind us, I can’t help but think about how quickly rest of the year will go. For me, fall is a time to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t, and to adjust as needed to finish the year strong and start off next year on the right foot.

Much of the work I do with law firm involves Client Teams. I attended an event recently that has me rethinking my emphasis on team dynamics. The program, Helping People Win at Work, featured Garry Ridge, President of WD-40.

Two points resonated:

1. For people to be successful, they need to know what success looks like in a specific way. A manager should not just assign responsibilities. The manager should define what success looks like and provide the tools/support to help them be successful (Ridge’s mantra is “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A”).

2. Organizations shouldn’t work in teams, they should work in tribes. In a tribe, there is a chief and a circle of senior elders. The chief leads the elders and the elders lead the functional managers and so on down the chain. The chief’s job is to help make the elders successful in doing their jobs. In this way, the chief will be more successful than a captain trying to lead a group of functional equivalents.

This paradigm shift from team to tribe got me thinking about law firms. Partnerships often struggle with organizational dynamics and decision making because of the flat hierarchical structure. Firm leaders often lack the authority to act on the best interest of the firm because, titles aside, they are still partners. As a result, most law firm leaders spend a lot of time trying to build consensus, taking a team-oriented approach.

Although most law firms have yet to fully recover from the economic downturn, there remain incredible opportunities to transform their business model and take advantage of new ways to generate revenue. The challenge is prioritizing them and getting those ideas to action. And, once those priorities are set, communicating them and providing the partnership the tools they need to be successful.

It’s time for law firms to think tribal. Partnerships need to give their leaders — their chiefs — the authority to make hard decisions and to define the expectations of the practice group and office leaders — their elders. The chiefs then need to help the elders get an “A” as they work to implement the firm’s strategic plan. This is the only way firms will be able to make real change in the way they do business.

Posted on September 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

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