It was especially bad when a deadline loomed, my team frustrated me, the computers failed, and the client asked too many questions.
Back then, I seized control—I kicked everyone out—and I knew I was the only person on the planet who could fix whatever problem I was dealing with.
I had to do it all by myself because I was sure that was the only way to get it done. So I pushed everyone away, often with an obnoxious, alienating, mean-spirited outburst that would later come back to haunt me.
My response to high-pressure circumstances was rarely elegant.
Apparently, most people don’t see temper tantrums as team-building. Who knew?
It took me a long time to hide my asshole-ish-ness in those situations. It would be great if I could solve the problem, but hiding it seems to be as far as I can go. (I didn’t play any team sports as a kid. In retrospect, I can see the benefit of learning to cooperate with others early on. Sadly, I don’t think Little League tryouts are open to people in their 50s who have finally seen the light.)
I realized along the way that seizing control of situations and indulging my desire to fix everything myself isn’t a realistic solution.
You can’t solve all the problems. There isn’t enough time in the day. There isn’t enough money in the world. There isn’t enough oxygen in the room.
Maybe other people can do it all themselves, but…
You can’t do it all.
I certainly understand the desire to do it yourself.
You want to fix the problem and put it behind you. You want to control it so you know it’s being handled properly. You want to maintain control over it until you decide the time is right to let go.
But so many things can go wrong…
- The pleading gets filed late, costing your client her claim.
- The software eats the data, costing you days’ worth of work.
- The client’s check bounces, which disrupts payroll and your team’s paychecks.
- The upset client posts a nasty 1-star review on Google, Avvo, and Yelp.
- The courthouse clerk loses the order you promised you’d have to your client in time to prevent a disaster.
- The tiny typo turns into an expensive problem.
- The judgment is discharged in bankruptcy, the offer is withdrawn, or the promise is broken.
Some days are so bad that we want to get back in bed, pull the covers over our head, and go back to sleep. Some days we feel that way before lunchtime.
When it happens, you will reflexively want to fix everything yourself. Don’t do it. This is when you need help and when your investment in a solid team pays off.
These are the moments you need to turn to your people.
The team solves many problems and prevents others
There’s a lot you can do to build your business other than investing in your people.
You can prevent many problems by building solid systems documentation for your standard procedures.
You can purchase, create, and customize technology to execute on those systems.
You can create a philosophy around your approach to solving problems that’s consistent with your values and beliefs, and use those ideas to reinforce your systems and technology.
But all the value statements, documentation, and technology in the world can’t help if your people aren’t capable of dealing with unanticipated problems and pressures.
Sure, Starbucks or McDonald’s can use a formula to solve most of their problems. But even they run into issues when they’re forced to deal with complex and unanticipated situations.
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Unfortunately, much of what happens in a law firm is complex and unanticipated.
By building systems and implementing technology, you elevate the performance of your team. You give them a floor to stand on. You lift them higher.
But your systems will encounter a ceiling. There will always be systems left to build because there will always be unexpected problems.
When the unknown rears its head and the unexpected arrives, it’s time to abandon the system and turn to your people.
In those moments, you need a collection of talented people who can rise to the occasion. Your team needs to be able to go beyond the systems, beyond the technology, and use the firm’s mission, values, and their intellect to solve the current problem.
You need great people capable of solving unexpected problems of great magnitude.
Assembling the team falls on you
It’s your responsibility to assemble a great team. That’s one of the primary roles of leaders.
The hiring process is always challenging. The right people can propel your business forward, but the wrong ones can set you back. Plus, recruiting the best people is competitive.
Here are some tips for hiring the right people and pushing them in the right direction.
1. Get specific with their roles
You don’t need a team made entirely of employees. In fact, it’s rare for a law firm to manage all of its work through employees.
Most of us use outside accountants, marketing consultants, technology experts, and others. Some go further and build their entire team out of outsourced specialists, assembled on a project-by-project basis.
This doesn’t mean you should pigeonhole everyone into a fixed role. Diversify your arrangements to use the right tools for the job.
You can even mix it up within categories. There’s no reason you can’t delegate some legal work to employees and then bring in contractors for particular projects and tasks.
Specificity lets you expand and distribute tasks based on workload and the types of projects you undertake.
2. Curate the right people
If you can recruit quickly and easily, you aren’t doing it right.
I meet lawyers who brag about hiring new team members in a week. Inevitably, they hire weak players who don’t have many other options. Some people are available instantly because no one else wants them.
Qualified, talented people are hard to find.
Focus on picking carefully and finding the right person for the right role. Don’t operate in a pressured environment where you’re forced to choose from among who’s available instead of who’s best.
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Recruit constantly. Interview all the time, whether you have a position or not. Use your network to stay connected to talent so you know who you want before you have the need.
3. Train them well
Training is essential. It needs to happen whether you drive it or your team members drive it themselves.
Don’t expect your team to improve just through their experience. Ongoing education is critical for growth.
Those in your firm who handle management, marketing, and sales need ongoing training in management, marketing, and sales. Lawyers need ongoing legal education. Technology folks need to stay current. Accounting people need continuing education. Everyone needs to keep learning in order to keep growing.
There’s a temptation to limit your education only to what’s required to maintain your license. That’s sufficient–if you don’t want to grow. If you’re looking to move higher, you and your team need to make learning a priority.
As you recruit, look for candidates with an interest in learning and advancement.
Employees who take on learning new skills with the same enthusiasm they would show for a week of traffic school are not assets to your business.
4. Manage them appropriately
The team–whether they’re employees, contractors, or vendors–needs management.
They need a well-managed approach to delegation, feedback, and coaching. They need clarity around what’s supposed to be done, how it’s going, and how to improve to meet your standards.
How you manage each team member will vary depending on their experience and their relationship with your firm. But everyone needs some level of feedback about how they’re doing and how they can improve.
Your role in that process depends on your role in the business. You may not be directly involved with the bulk of the team members, but you’ll still need to manage the managers.
The need for feedback never subsides.
5. Keep them informed
Your team can’t read your mind. They can’t do their job if they don’t understand your requirements. They need to understand the mission, your principles, the process, and the specifics of the current project.
If you want a specific outcome, you need a coordinated, aligned team working in unison. That can only happen if you communicate with everyone constantly. Everybody needs constant updates and information so they can move forward together.
Communication only works if it’s consistent, coordinated, and frequent. Strong, effective teams employ technology (tools like Slack), coupled with a rhythm of regular, frequent communication according to a system.
Different cultures employ different approaches, but regular daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings keep everyone moving in the same direction.
Your team doesn’t know what you expect unless you communicate it over and over. The need to communicate never ends.
6. Help them connect
Your team needs to be connected to one another, but that doesn’t happen by osmosis or accident. It happens through your deliberate effort to connect people.
Connection is more than just communication. It happens when people open themselves to one another and build trust.
Trust falls and ropes courses may not be right for your business, but your team needs some way of getting to know one another. Different businesses build connections among their team members differently, depending on their culture and the nature of their work.
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If you devote time and attention to helping your team build trust–if you give them the tools they need–they’ll learn to understand and rely upon one another.
One-to-one meetings between managers and team members are a powerful way to build connections and trust. There may be other approaches that are equally effective, but I haven’t discovered them yet.
7. Trust them
The point of putting all of this effort into building a strong team is so you can rely on them when challenges arise. You want to be able to trust your team in the moment when you are least comfortable trusting anyone.
When the pressure builds, the deadlines approach, and the stress piles on, that’s the time to trust the investment you’ve made in your team.
You won’t want to trust them–especially at first.
But trusting people builds more trust–in both directions. They’ll notice when you step back and let them step up. They’ll come to trust you, trust each other, and be proud of their growth and improvement.
Your team will get stronger when you get out of their way and let them do their job.
Let the magic happen
Challenging moments are just around the corner. The next crisis is not far in the future.
Once you’ve built a solid team, keep building and trusting. Let them solve problems. Don’t try to do it all yourself. Don’t fall into the “I’m the only one who can fix it” trap.
Your team will rise to the occasion if you let them. Trust them to do what you’ve built the team to do.
I remember those days when I thought I had to do it all. I remember the lonely times when I kicked everyone out and sat alone, overwhelmed by the problems I believed only I could solve.
Those were tough times I don’t want to repeat.
Nowadays when I face a challenging obstacle, I don’t even think about doing it alone. I know there is someone who can help.
In fact, I know they can do more than help. They can do it without me.
When the deadline looms and the pressure mounts, it’s comforting to know you have a solid team behind you. That’s when building a strong team pays off.