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 of the 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, but 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. Your job as a leader is to understand this and make good decisions that keep your firm healthy – financially, culturally and physically.

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.

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.

Delivering Feedback Fairly and Constructively

In my last blog post, I discussed how professionals can constructively process tough feedback they have received and the consequences of avoiding colleagues who deliver it.

But what if you’re the messenger? Leaders can’t avoid difficult conversations. Those who do it well build firm cultures where people feel safe to speak up and feel motivated to improve, all for the sake of their clients.

Before delivering the feedback…

  • Check your bias. We’re often drawn to evidence that confirms what we might already believe, such as generalizations about the employee’s age ( boomers or millennials) or past experience. We also tend to be tougher on others than we are on ourselves.
  • Confirm facts without creating drama. What happened and what was the consequence? People might construct their own narrative, extrapolate or anchor their opinions unless you emphasize that this is a situation that can – and should – be overcome.
  • Gather background information. Does the feedback align with any management systems, such as performance reviews or productivity metrics?
  • Set up a meeting with your colleague, but don’t cause unnecessary alarm. Tough criticism is best delivered face to face, in a well-considered conversation.

As you speak…

  • Ask, don’t tell. Yes, it’s important that the mistake(s) be corrected, but it’s also important to draw out defensiveness by learning the employee’s perspective, checking assumptions and building trust. Collaborating to find a path forward will feel a lot safer for everyone.
  • Look for small ways to improve that could deliver long-term results, and determine how meaningful they are to everyone involved.
  • Check for understanding. Your colleague might not be able to articulate his interpretation of the feedback in the moment, either because you’ve observed a behaviour or attitude he may have thought he was masking or because he is embarrassed. Can he acknowledge someone else’s interpretation of the situation being discussed? It indicates empathy, if not understanding.

Afterwards…

  • Follow up. Don’t dust your hands off and walk away, thinking your job is done. It isn’t. Leaders earn a lot more respect if they ask the employee what his or her perspective is on the feedback after some time has passed, and if both you and the employee can implement strategies to prevent a similar situation in the future.

There are as many management resources on providing feedback as there are situations that require it. If you’d like to learn more, two of the best I’ve found are Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, a Seattle based consultant who has worked with CEOs and executives at major corporations for several decades.

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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5 Ways to Make a Fast Decision

Time and money almost always need to be balanced with quality in professional work. When you’re faced with increasing project pressures, the ability to make good decisions quickly becomes especially important.

Decisiveness requires the type of confidence that comes from taking action, rather than accumulating theoretical knowledge. You might not make the best choice. You might even offend. But you’ll move things forward.

  1. Seek disconfirmation of assumptions. Ask “Is this wrong?” instead of “Am I right?”. And get the opinion of someone with relevant experience.
  2. If you’re working in a team, understand your role and the decisions you are expected to make.
  3. Speak up in team meetings. Verbalizing the rationale behind your decision is a quick way to test its plausibility. Staying quiet can lead to delays or cumbersome approval communications.
  4. Challenge yourself to beat constraints by making decisions that will help meet milestones early or within the budget.
  5. Believe in yourself. If you make a mistake, you have a choice to learn from it or dwell on it. Learning leads to agility. Dwelling leads to fragility. Your confidence will grow as you apply your experience to future decisions.

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Life Beyond Law: Tech Entrepreneur Greg Smith

When entrepreneur Greg Smith quit practicing law to start a tech company, he quickly learned that following his dream was going to take more hard work and a lot more risk than anything he’d encountered before.

Many lawyers are enticed to join the business world beyond their law firms. I recently asked Greg how his legal experience has influenced his foray into the entrepreneurial realm.

Q. What spurred you to leave the comforts of a big law firm and start a tech company?

Greg Smith, Co-Founder of Thinkific

Greg Smith, Co-Founder of Thinkific

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E-learning for Lawyers, Explained

Online courses, webinars and other digital media open up a wide range of convenient, cost-effective training options for busy professionals. But there are a lot of options. Myriad combinations of technology, platforms, content and classrooms sometimes make the selection of a course as challenging as learning new subject matter.

Holly MacDonald of Spark + Co.

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Women, Wisdom & Wall Street

What’s it like to be the only woman in the room during corporate board meetings? Or the first woman to chair a financial regulation authority in the midst of an economic crisis? Last week, I  attended a panel discussion where three groundbreaking leaders – all lawyers by training – talk about their experiences as women affecting change in a male dominated industry.

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