Typically, we may find that as we grow in experience, we collaborate with other members of the legal team on specialist projects, but when we take on greater levels of management responsibility, we are likely to be leading more people – both lawyers, and frequently, non-lawyers. How best, then, to keep the team engaged and inspired?
Working with your teamIt is often said that professionals – and particularly lawyers – are self-driven and independent, defining how they work, and achieving great satisfaction from a job well done. There is, of course, some truth in that, but what is it that engages them with your organisation, your team, and your leadership? Why do they come to work for you, and why do they stay? And what can you do about it?
The focus starts with you, rather than with your team – and in ways that may surprise you. You need to be able to understand the challenges and situations that you and your team face, and to re-focus them in a way that benefits the team as well as yourself. Does the legal work you do need to be done differently to manage the workload properly? Does the relationship with your organisation need to be improved so your team’s efforts are recognised? Changes such as these give you a head-start in gaining the respect of your team – and engaging them.
Equally, how do you relate to your team? Although organisations are increasingly flat in structure, you may be in a hierarchy – or be used to working in one in a law firm. You may have a job – or job title – which gives you power by your position. In reality, though, your leadership must be grounded on your ability to relate to your team – and your ability not just to engage, but to inspire. Much has been written to suggest that leaders need to be authentic and to ‘be yourself’ – which in our context means that you need to understand what is special and different about you which encourages others to follow you.
The fact that you are a good lawyer may help – but may also be something taken for granted in a team of good lawyers. How you understand the people who work with you is critical – and it’s important to note that they work with you, and not for you. Your range of first-hand experiences may help – have you worked in different organisations, or in non-legal environments as well as in the law? That may well enable you to notice the cues and opinions of your staff – even if they’re not openly expressed.
You may prefer a more formal, structured approach to learning about yourself. Many organisations now run 360-degree surveys, or training in assessment techniques such as Belbin or Myers Briggs, which can help you to understand how you operate, and the variety of personalities that contribute to an effective team. They can also help you to relate more effectively to personalities that may be quite different to your own. You may also find it helpful to use a mentor or personal coach to help you understand yourself – and in doing so, how you work with others.
Once you begin to know yourself, and how you operate, you can begin to think about how you may engage your team. You will have to know how to balance the need to be close to your team to empathise and to build relationships, together with the need to be sufficiently distant to focus on performance and corporate goals. At the most basic level, engagement can even start with whether you recognise – and speak to – team members when you see them. That may sound obvious, but in a large in-house department it doesn’t always happen.
Your organisation may well give you some tools to help engagement. For example, a formal programme of personal development reviews and personal development plans, remote-working discussions, or a schedule of regular monthly one-to-one meetings with direct reports. If used simply as a backwards-looking appraisal of how someone has performed these can be of mixed value – useful for identifying areas of improvement, but of limited value if they focus simply on things that have gone wrong and attract blame.
Used proactively, though, they can provide a powerful foundation for engagement. They can help to identify professional aspirations and development needs, as well as career options for the future. As importantly, they provide opportunities for you to get to know your team – and members of your team to get to know you. You may also want to decide how you can engage personally with more junior members of your team, even if they do not report directly to you. Can you arrange to meet them a few times a year? Can you have a coffee or informal lunch from time to time? Can you attend a project meeting on which they are working so you can see how they operate? All these things help you to get to know members of your team – and they you. They can also allow you to identify personal pressures on team members – health, family commitments, worries or concerns – which you may be able to accommodate if you know about them.
Of course, the pressures of time and work mean that you will also need to use other – less personal – tools to engage your team. You are looking for activities that build a sense of belonging and attachment by giving people greater insight and exposure to how the legal team and the broader organisation tick. Some of the options you might consider could be:
- Team meetings. Team meetings need to be well-managed – they can eat working time, go on for too long, and if too unstructured can be a real turn-off. Done well, though, they give a chance for people to get to know colleagues, to understand what others do, and to see the broader purpose of the team.
- Team blogs or newsletters. Blogs and newsletters can also be helpful and build a sense of community. If people take turns to edit or contribute to them, share their successes (and sometimes failures), their team news, details of new colleagues and law firm arrangements, they need not be onerous to put together and can be extremely rewarding.
- Engaging by sharing. In-house legal teams can be great at powering through the work and then moving on to the next task. We tend to be much less good at telling people – even one another – what we have done, let alone share that with the broader organisation. Using a team meeting or blog to report on a successful outcome, and to ensure that this is shared more widely across the organisation, can be very empowering. Have you worked as part of a broader organisational team that has achieved something? Tell the organisation – and ask your non-legal team members to come and talk to the lawyers too. They will enjoy the experience and will become part of your wider network.
- Special projects. Most organisations have cross-team projects from time to time – dealing with operational or strategic changes, the implementation of new laws or regulations, requiring a range of professional input. This can be a real opportunity for team members to learn about the organisation, build relationships with peers – and hone their organisational and relationship skills in a different environment.
- Mentoring or coaching arrangements. Legal skills are passed on by a combination of learning, study, experience and training, but building a one-to-one relationship in a safe context with a more senior person in the organisation, whether from the legal team or elsewhere, can give a sounding board for the questions someone wouldn’t ask their manager, an insight into how the organisation operates, and a valuable ally at senior level. Mentoring or coaching arrangements with someone outside the organisation can also be helpful.
- Organisational development arrangements. Many organisations have internal development and leadership programmes, often with competitive entrance requirements. They can give team members the chance to learn new leadership skills, gain visibility in the organisation and build engagement and the reputation of the legal team.
- Innovation, process design and quality assurance. Increasingly, legal teams are adopting innovative solutions, process design techniques and quality assurance programmes such as Lexcel or BS9001 for their operations. The skills involved in these projects allow team members to build a better understanding of the team and the organisation and giving someone a chance to lead or participate in such a project can be a real opportunity.
- Legal Operations projects. Similarly, with the rise of legal operations specialisms, many teams are engaged in various legal operations projects, ranging from legal tech to process design, panel arrangements and law firm management.
- Shadowing and swaps. A final option might be to use work shadowing or job swaps to allow people to broaden their understanding of the way the organisation works, or others conduct their roles.
It can be seen that there is no single answer to engaging your team – there is a range of tools and techniques you can think about, but often it is good simply to use these as a catalyst for your thinking to determine what is possible, appropriate and achievable in your organisation. Different techniques will engage different people, and it can be most effective to think about what solution works for a particular person.
Your engagement activities aim to build a sense of belonging and attachment, but is that enough? If you are to get the best from members of the team, you need to go further – perhaps much further – to lift peoples’ aspirations. If engagement might be said to lift someone’s eyes from the immediate day-to-day tasks in hand, through inspiration you are seeking to help them to start to see what they can achieve, where their career can take them in the future.
So how might you inspire your people?
- Starting with you. The best person to inspire your team is you. It’s often said that people work for people first, and organisations second. If you have recruited them, they are likely to have joined as much for what they thought of you when you met, as they did for what you told them about the organisation. At the beginning of this article, we suggested that you learnt about yourself before thinking about how you engage others, and the same applies to how you might inspire others. Like it or not, people will look to you for the example you set, the way you deal with them, and the way you deal with others.
- What is the job really for? Many in-house lawyers join their organisation not just for the job at hand, but because they believe in what their organisation does – and how it does it. Can you help people to understand what that is? Do its products help people recover from illness? Do they improve quality of life? Do they influence the future? Equally is the organisation a force for good through its ESG activities? All these things matter.
- Show and tell. Bringing in people at the top of their game – whether in the law, your sector, or beyond – can be inspiring and can give people the opportunity to think about what their role can achieve. Can you get such people to come to speak at a legal team meeting or conference, or sponsor team members to attend an event where such people may inspire them?
- Crossover learning. In thinking about ‘show and tell’ sessions, you do not need to be confined to legal matters, or your sector. You may find learning from hugely different areas can deliver the spark of inspiration – perhaps from volunteering or the charity sectors, from innovation, music or sports coaching or training, or from others who have gone above and beyond in their chosen field.
- Meet the aliens… And finally, do not forget the leaders of your organisation. Sometimes they can be quite distant from professional teams such as legal, and your team members might regard them as quite alien. Can you find a reason for them to come and tell the team what is going on, what is their vision for the organisation, and how they see the value of what the legal team does? Whether it is a team meeting, a legal conference or simply an online session, seeing who is in charge, and how they relate to you, can be really helpful.
and inspiring your team can seem daunting, but it is an important part of the role. There is no single route-map to success, and the key can often be to use a variety of tools, but remember, it is a constant and integral part of the job, and is something that needs to be revisited regularly to ensure that you are holding the magic you have created. If you can manage it, you will be rewarded with a loyal and high-performing team which makes your job easier.
Some further reading
Why should anyone be led by you? What it takes to be an authentic leader. Rob Goffey and Gareth Jones. Harvard Business School Press 2006
Belbin High Performing Teams
Coaching and Mentoring for In-House Lawyers
Building a legal team’s people function