Dispersed Teams and Distressed Times How to manage your team with compassion during a crisis

When we work from home, our idiosyncrasies are often laid bare. There is nowhere to hide from that nagging voice telling us we should be doing something else – research, networking, long-term projects– anything other than doing the dishes or barking into the wilderness on Twitter. If you’re the type of leader who likes to be described as “conscientious”, “productive” and “efficient”, managing a team from home during the coronavirus pandemic could test both your self-image and your reputation.

It’s normal for people to feel overwhelmed by change, regardless of how carefully it’s planned. This is the underlying reason why 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail.

As therapist and writer Lori Gottlieb wisely points out, change and loss travel together.

You have options to help your team adjust to the loss of business as usual. Many are common sense – be clear and consistent regarding expectations, streamline communication, but give employees options and choices to engage in their work, etc.. Some options, however, will require a new approach.

1. Avoid role-based assumptions – student, client, millennial, boomer. etc. Not every millennial prefers text communication or lives at home and not every boomer is opposed to new technology or financially secure.

Here’s an example: A former colleague of mine is an instructional designer at a college that offers trade programs. Most faculty were entirely unfamiliar with online learning platforms when in-person classes were cancelled in March. Within a week, the automotive services technician instructors moved course material online, created and uploaded video tutorials and organized exam criteria. A group that had resisted change embraced it. And they actually enjoyed it.

2. Think small. George Loewenstein, a behavioural economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University advises “people need to be given productive activities while they wait out uncertainty“. Otherwise, fear sets in, followed by paralysis. What daily operational needs need to be taken care of? How can your team take care of those needs and still feel like they’re being productive?

Even a small task is better than none at all, and your team will be able to maintain a sense of contribution.

3. Focus on facts. When speaking with an overwhelmed colleague, ask blanket questions that draw out facts. “What do you need?” is often the best way to start. As people formulate answers, you’ll get a sense of their priorities, expectations and perceived reality. And they will too. Facts focus on reality, taking our attention away from catastrophic and dramatic thinking.

Attention Filter

From all the facts in the world, our attention focuses on those that are the most dramatic.

4. Listen. We are dealing with a mass casualty incident. People are grieving. If you have the fortitude, try to see people as they are, feel as they feel. Active listening could help. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it entails hearing what the other person is saying and reflecting it back to them. That’s it. You might think it sounds phony, but it’s one of the best communications tools available, used in everything from hostage negotiations to psychotherapy.

5. Document as much as you can. Log daily communiqués. Write down your observations about team dynamics. Track the work that is completed in a central location. Note how it is being produced and how your priorities shift. There’s a good chance this won’t be the last pandemic we’ll face. Use the data to understand how your firm functions in a crisis, and what it reveals about your future capacity.

6. Follow through and follow up. Many of our vulnerabilities are being tested and brought to the surface. Your team needs to know that it’s acceptable to express that vulnerability and trust that they won’t be taken advantage of. It will take time to digest all of this uncertainty; keeping your word, referring back to something your colleague has said or checking in are small ways to show you care.

Almost everyone is managing unanticipated adjustments to their home lives, their job security and their financial well being, not to mention their health. Most will fit somewhere on the continuum between well-adjusted and equipped and falling apart at any given time in the next few months.

Espoused organizational values will be under a microscope for the next few months. Will your behaviour match your words? Your job as a leader is to make sense of what’s happening and to make good decisions that keep your firm healthy – financially, culturally and physically.

Stay Close to Clients Despite Social Distancing Five ways to show you care

If you’re working remotely during the Coronavirus pandemic, you might be tempted to hide under the blankets and wait for the situation to resolve. Between the 24/7 news cycle, the scramble to organize immediate work and disperse teams, life feels chaotic.

Don’t forget about your clients in the midst of the chaos. Clients – no matter where they’re located or what their business needs are – need comfort and caring in addition to professional expertise in times of uncertainty.

Five simple actions to take when business is anything but usual:

1. Manage your own state of mind. Fear, anxiety and catastrophic thinking will not help you or your clients. Be good to yourself – take a step back and observe how you’re feeling. Could you reframe the situation from a different perspective? How would someone you admire handle it? Above all, remember that you’re not alone.

2. Practice radical empathy. The people who “get ahead of the situation” aren’t necessarily the smartest or most technologically proficient. They’re the most empathetic. Ask clients “What do you need to get through the next few weeks?” and work at understanding their answers.

This is a time to listen with your ears, your brain and your heart.

3. Be human. Ask your contacts how their families are. Maybe they have aging parents who live alone or they’re suddenly home-schooling children. Maybe their spouse is a health care worker coping with exhaustion. I’m surprised by how many professionals know absolutely nothing about their clients’ personal lives, despite professing to care about them. Client care means more than caring about clients’ legal budgets.

4. Take initiative. My dad was a criminal defence lawyer in a small prairie city. After he’d  visit clients in jail, he’d usually call or visit someone in their family to let them know how the person was doing and to ask how everyone was coping. As a child, I was often beside him when he did this. I witnessed elders sobbing, heard siblings express deep worries and felt gratitude that someone with the power to do something helpful actually followed through. It was a small gesture that made a big impact. If my dad could do it, you can do it.

If you can help, now is the time to do so. Buy grocery gift cards for their staff, purchase something from their business or offer a discount on your services (as I’ve done for my current clients).

5. Follow up. COVID-19 will impact every part of our economic, technological and social infrastructure for a long, long time. I have no scientific backing for this statement; I’m basing it on my observations of the stock market, economic policy and the reduced hours so many businesses are being forced to adopt.

Your clients will need personal and regular communication as they navigate the uncertainty. Brief email bulletins and social media updates convey your efficiency, but a phone call to inquire about someone’s well being will speak volumes about your character.

I wish you, your families and your businesses well as we all face the crisis. Stay calm if you can and stay healthy. If you need help, know that you are welcome to reach out at any time. I’ve always offered phone consultations free of charge; I don’t plan on changing that policy anytime soon.

Managing Change from the Front Lines When an improvement feels like an aggravation

In response to a change in your firm, have you ever:
• Kept quiet about your doubts?
• Implemented a “work-around” to avoid new processes?
• Started looking for another job?

Successful organizational change requires effective, active support across a firm. When plans stall or disappoint, it’s normal for front-line employees to feel frustrated.

You might believe you’re stuck with a less than perfect solution, but you do have options to improve the situation.

1. Try an anthropological approach.
What was the manager or firm trying to achieve with the change? How does it relate to long-term goals? Observe how people answer the question and listen to the language they use. The organizational view will reveal the context for why certain decisions were made. This will help you make sense of your role in the “big picture”. It will also identify what you might need to prepare for down the road.

2. Speak the truth of your day-to-day work.
If you have a trusting relationship with your direct supervisor, describe how the change impacts your work. Be specific – which systems, teams and people are involved? What are the biggest roadblocks? Focus on facts, not opinions.

Sometimes, when you quantify what’s happening, you’ll realize that the impact isn’t as big as you thought even though your feelings about it are strong.

Also, your supervisor might be genuinely unaware of the consequences of the change.

By communicating your perspective, you’ll also help executive decision makers see how their vision is (or is not) being fulfilled by highlighting reality, rather than rationale. For example, what were the milestones and metrics of success? And what really happened?

According to Prosci (pronounced pro-sigh), the largest research and training organization involved in the “people side of change”, only 44% of organizations measure whether change is occurring at an individual level.

3. Get involved.
If a change implementation plan was created, ask your manager if you can review it. Offer a post-mortem to explain how the reality of your experience differs from what was intended and what could be considered next time.

Organizational change is usually an iterative process. You might be able to join a user-testing or advisory group in planning the next phase of a roll-out.

When front-line employees don’t know why a change was made, or if they don’t believe in the ultimate goal, they often disengage from activities that support it. Apathy, learned helplessness and cynicism (the three horsemen of the organizational culture apocalypse) are often the result. Individuals can help improve the situation, but it takes courage to speak up and try a different approach than usual.

ACMP Vancouver Member Profile Natasha Chetty featured in December Newsletter

The Association of Change Management BC Chapter (ACMP) interviewed Bellwether Strategies principal Natasha Chetty for its December member newsletter.

ACMP is dedicated to advancing the discipline and the profession of change management, while supporting its members in developing individual and organizational change capabilities.

Read the interview below and learn more about ACMP by visiting their website or attending one of their events.

MEMBERSHIP PROFILE – NATASHA CHETTY

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I started in marketing and communications and gradually realized that most of my work involves change management, from strategic planning to internal communications to branding and reputation management. Many of my clients are trying to honour unique workplace cultures, but they realize they need to embrace change if they want those cultures to remain successful. The principles of change management offer a credible path forward.
Why did you decide to join ACMP Vancouver?
I joined for the camaraderie and to learn from others in the field. I also appreciate the resources that ACMP offers – webinars, networking events, etc.
What are you working on?
I’ve been working with a national law firm on a rebranding project. It was exciting to get involved at the early stage and see how deeply they’ve been able to implement changes. I’ve also been helping one of my smaller accounting clients merge with a larger firm; it’s gratifying to know that the reputation building program we worked on over several years created real equity in their organization.
Do you have any recommended change management books/resources to share?
Humble Consulting by Edgar Schein. He reinforces the need for consultants to recognize the messy, human aspects of change management and to be more concerned with being perceived as practical and helpful, rather than being impressive.
How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
Travelling, running and eating (not necessarily in that order). I’ve also been trying to make jewellery and expand my culinary skills to varying degrees of success. My partner and I spent six weeks in Africa in 2016; we enjoyed it so much we’re planning a return trip next year.

 

Influencing Organizational Culture through Office Design How changes to a workspace create changes to a workplace

“I must be on the wrong floor.” When I walked into the new Vancouver office of Miller Thomson LLP, I thought I’d pressed the wrong elevator button and ended up in a high tech firm. Two receptionists were perched on barstools at a circular, high-top station, rather than behind a long desk. I could see past them into an open-office area where lawyers and staff were working side by side. The whole floor was filled with sunlight. To my relief, I spied the wall of bound legal texts and realized that I had indeed arrived at my destination.

Office design speaks volumes about firm culture and brand.

The reception area of Miller Thomson’s Vancouver office.

Employees, clients, business colleagues and anyone else visiting an office will interpret the signals sent by its design as indicators of firm culture. The symbolism isn’t much different from a dress code or logo.

Some spaces seem rigid and uninviting. Some make people feel comfortable the moment they arrive. And others, still, challenge notions of identity and image traditionally associated with a profession.

According to branding experts and business professors Majken Schultz and Mary Jo Hatch, “the added value of symbolism rests on a brand’s ability to create or avail itself of a common understanding among stakeholders and the opportunity it gives individuals to participate in sustaining or changing that understanding….it translates to economic value when stakeholders support the company because of the meaning the brand conveys.”

I hadn’t visited the previous Miller Thomson office, so I asked its managing partner, Mike Walker and his fellow partner, Karen Dickson, what they intended to achieve with the new design and how it is actually being used now that they’ve moved in.

Were you worried that lawyers would insist on having a traditional office? How do you accommodate different work styles?

Dickson: We tried to create options. More than 30 lawyers opted for offices. Everyone else opted for the open-space concept. We have different seating areas where people can take their laptops or phones. There are banquettes for people who’d like to have coffee and sit across from each other, an atrium that provides natural light and a “forum” space that is popular for reading and traditional desks.

What about privacy? There is a lot of open space and the common gathering spot seems to be in the middle of the floor plan.

Dickson: Glassed-in “quiet spaces” with doors are interspersed throughout the office. When we need to call someone or have a confidential conversation, we usually use those.

How does so much open space foster employee engagement?

The “forum” at Miller Thomson’s Vancouver office

Dickson: We wanted to reduce silos between people and practice areas. We also wanted to improve internal communication generally by getting lawyers out of their offices. People see each other more often now; the increase in transparency is literal, figurative and tangible.

Does the design relate to a firm-wide strategy?

Dickson: This type of design makes sense on the west coast. It fits the clientele of our office here and the way we work. That said, a lot of visitors from our other offices see the value in it. It’s also nice to see associates have opportunities to learn from partners just through the casual conversations that seem to happen more often now.

Walker: A lot of our clients are information workers. We visited their offices and tried to learn what worked for them and what was happening in their sectors. Innovation in firm culture or strategy doesn’t come naturally to a lot of lawyers; we had to find a way to innovate rapidly, because – let’s be honest – the pace of change in the practice of law is demanding that we get with the program sooner rather than later. We wanted clients, lawyers and staff to receive a clear signal that our firm is open to change and open to trying something different.

As I left the office, I was reminded of organizational psychologist Ron Friedman’s recommendations to increase employee engagement: “provide opportunities for them to experience autonomy, competence and relatedness on a daily basis. Autonomy can be grown by providing options on where to do their work…[competence can be fostered by creating] a workplace that provides them with immediate feedback…and [relatedness can be supported by] creating communal workspaces that allow coworkers to bond.”

Open office design rarely pleases everyone. Background noise distracts. Clients worry about privacy. Extroverts feel judged and introverts feel irritated. I suspect that more law firms will take the opportunity to move in this direction, despite resistance. It is encouraging to see the change.

(Full disclosure for the record: I do not consult to Miller Thomson LLP or any of its entities.)

To Succeed Where Others Fail Planning a strong start to your firm’s transformation

Almost 70 percent of organizational change initiatives fail. At that rate, you might wonder why professional firms – which are notoriously change resistant – would try at all. But they do. And some even succeed, thanks to a disciplined design process.

Change can evoke pain, loss and uncertainty. All too often, change initiatives are communicated in a way that causes people to feel defensive, rather than inspired.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taxonomy; “transformation” or “evolution” might be better descriptions of the adjustments that many firms need to undertake to improve performance and profit.

Regardless of how your initiatives are labelled, Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson, authors of The Change Leaders Roadmap, say that true breakthroughs require attention to three critical and interdependent areas:

  1. Content: clarifying what must change in your firm in terms of strategy, business structures, etc.
  2. People: understanding the human dynamics of resistance to change, mindsets, politics, motivational factors, skills training, culture, etc.
  3. Process: how the change is governed, designed, paced and course-corrected.”

Most of us spend too much on focused on content and not enough on people or process, which sets good ideas up for failure (Anderson et. al., 2010).

It’s much less messy to plot out a flow chart of an improved staffing strategy or software implementation, than it is to engage people in conversations about adjusting attitudes and letting go of long-held beliefs.

All stakeholders should be involved in designing and implementing changes, albeit at different levels.

Don’t fool yourself into presenting your brilliant vision at a staff meeting and thinking that it will be meaningful to people hearing it for the first time. They won’t execute a plan just because it looks good on paper.

Principles for a successful transformation strategy:

  • Design a disciplined process that checks assumptions and engages potential resisters right from the start so they can avoid the victim’s narrative of being cut out of the discussions.
  • Bring in a cross section of associates, staff, administrative leaders, clients and others as you design your initiative. They might not have power within the traditional sense of firm politics, but they are on the front lines. They know things partners don’t know.
  • Map out the consequences on your operating structure, systems and relationships. Create scenario models and validate them with the people who would be involved, adjusting your process according to their feedback.
  • Create a compelling rationale that appeals to emotion and logic. If it doesn’t resonate with every individual from the mailroom to the managing partner, reframe it or reconsider it.
  • Acknowledge anxiety. Your soothsayer powers are limited when it comes to determining how clients, regulators, courts and financial markets will evolve in the next year. People will be nervous about what lies ahead and mournful of the past, but they will also provide insight if you give them a chance.
  • Walk the talk. Ask what you need to do in order to be seen as credible in your leadership of the initiative, even though the answer could be scary.
  • Implement a strong communications plan. Change initiatives require leaders to receive at least as much as they transmit, to publicize successes and failures and to help people learn to make the most of the transformation.
  • Re-examine incentives. Are you compensating people for taking smart risks acquiring skills and persevering, or are you compensating them for doing the same old thing?

Successful transformations ask people to think differently and behave differently. It isn’t enough to say that you’re open to change; you have to actually experiment with it and coach your team through the steps. There is no other way to prompt innovation. Done well, change initiatives can energize your firm and propel it forward. You might never look back, except to say “what took us so long?”.

Why Face Time Matters More than Ever

No, not the Face Time app on your iPhone, “face time” as in one-on-one meetings with direct reports and others in your organization.

As firms relentlessly pursue efficiency by automating processes, collecting loads of data and creating “lean” teams, more of us are deliberately disengaging from our work.

And we often blame management when things don’t improve. Bad management, to be exact. A 2014 Gallup poll shows that companies fail to hire proper management 82% of the time. Ouch.

What exactly makes a “good” manager? Harvard Business Review recently published a summary of research done in studies of knowledge-based businesses. The researchers found that effective managers:

  • Lead by example when it comes to working hours
  • Ensure even allocation of work among team members
  • Maintain large networks across the firm
  • Prioritize one-on-one meetings with direct reports
  • Are engaged with their own work

Of all these practices, more frequent one-on-one meetings with direct reports could be the easiest way to improve management. They are time consuming and relatively expensive, but they could also be the most rewarding.

Whether you’re a managing partner, practice group leader or administrator responsible for getting work done through others, you can find creative ways to prioritize conversations with direct reports. Schedule meetings with standing agendas. Connect the agendas to operational plans and firm values. Gather feedback and listen for what your reports are and aren’t saying.

This is what will help you make the most out of data and process improvements (including automation).  Facilitate conversations to uncover and connect  insights, and then leverage them into value that you can communicate to clients and propel your team forward. It cannot be done any other way in a professional firm.

Some corporate clients now refuse to pay outside counsel for time spent in conversation with firm colleagues regarding their legal matters. And some lawyers are using this as an excuse to bow out of important internal conversations.

On a simplistic level, this might be a mistake. It doesn’t just inhibit strong firm management; it inhibits strong matter management by limiting growth of the collective intellectual capital that comprises a firm’s competitive advantage (presumably why the firm is hired to begin with). It it doesn’t encourage delegation where appropriate, either, which often costs clients more in the end.

Prioritizing one-on-one or in person meetings is a good idea, regardless of whether your clients will compensate you directly for it or whether you’ll receive any external recognition for it.  It could also make your firm management happier too:  visible leaders are often perceived as more credible leaders. When your firm is ready to launch development initiatives, you’ll have an easier time convincing people to cooperate.

An abbreviated version of this post was published on the Canadian legal blog slaw.ca on December 28, 2016.

The Bellwether Interview: Three Questions for Derek Lacroix, QC

Derek Lacroix, QC has been at the helm of the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia (LAPBC) since December, 1996. LAPBC provides confidential outreach, education, support and referrals to distressed members of the bar. Their clients and volunteers include judges, lawyers, articling students, paralegals, legal assistants, support staff and other members of the legal community.

  1. How have the stresses, issues or crises that LAPBC assists with changed in recent years?

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Highlights from the 2016 LMA P3 Conference

The Legal Marketing Association recently hosted its annual conference on project management, process improvement and pricing (P3) in Chicago. Billed as a forum where innovative practice management approaches are shared, the event continues to showcase progressive ideas and practical experiences from firms transforming how they do business.

It’s wise to take any presentation of best practices with a proverbial grain of salt; no firm wants to reveal its daily struggles. But you also have to give credit to those who proactively invest in new ideas and risk failure. That’s something we don’t see enough of in law.

Here are some of the ideas heard at this year’s P3 conference.

The Chicken or the Egg?

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How to Master Complex, Unfamiliar Tasks

If you’re about to tackle a complex issue or task in an unfamiliar area, how should you prioritize your first steps? New research shows that you’ll be off to a better start if you focus on learning rather than results. This is especially true if the matter context is unpredictable or dynamic.Dr. Meredith Woodwark

I interviewed Dr. Meredith Woodwark – whose research uncovered these findings – to learn more. Woodwark teaches organizational behavior and leadership at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on motivation, learning goals and employee engagement.

Q. How is your research relevant to professionals?

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