Great teams need great leaders

Many partners think it takes years to build a strong team of high performers.

Others think that if they just ‘found the right people’ and HR did a better job of recruitment, then team culture, drive and performance will just fall into place.

Both types of partners are reluctant to use short term lawyers because they are afraid of upsetting a delicate balance – but both types of partners are wrong.

Great leaders use all the options available to them to build successful teams and the best leaders build the best teams, no matter how little time they have.


Well, the US Marines build teams of people who are closer than family in 3 months. Each participant is a highly competitive, elite stranger who, at the end of their training, will put their bodies on the line to protect and serve their fellow Marines. They will face death just to carry the body of a fellow soldier home. Almost overnight, the Marines are able to build the deepest possible bonds of trust between humans.

Lawyers like to think what we do is important but I think most of us would agree that we shouldn’t need a Marine bootcamp to build a great place to work. However, if we borrow from the Marines (and Simon Sinek) we learn that what we need is true leadership; trust in the people we have; and a clearly expressed and unifying sense of purpose. When a team or an organisation has these three things, they can welcome newcomers without any risk to team cohesion. In fact, newcomers can strengthen the team right from the get-go.

Partners who aren’t afraid of short term and contract lawyers know this innately. Those of us who have worked in different teams know this too, especially once we take the time to reflect on our experiences.

My experience with leaders

I have worked in a long-standing team with individually high performing members, some of whom had up to 30 years’ service. It was dysfunctional, unpleasant, lacking any innovation and with a strong fear of change. At times it felt like the organisation was pecking new members to death as though they were chickens.

The age of a team is not, by itself, an indication of health.

I have also worked in a team of head-hunted A-players, made up of the best of the best from every field, handpicked from all over the world and paid premium salaries to work on a nation-building, internationally known project for household-name owners. The kind of team most bosses dream of having the resources and mandate to create. However, without true leadership and a clear sense of purpose, the A-players never became the A-Team. This was a group of individualists determined ‘to be the best’ but only in their specific deliverable and heaven help anyone (especially from within their own company) who got in their way. No one cared about whether any of the ‘perfect parts’ they were building would truly fit together with all the other parts that were being worked on by other teams. The project dissolved into blame-shifting and in-fighting… and. Never. Got. Built.

Deep pockets and high status will not guarantee success and high performance.

I have also worked on a relatively small and only mildly prestigious project with a limited budget and below market salaries – in a team handpicked by a single project manager who had a powerful vision and a deep sense of empathy. He spent 2 hours with me when I interviewed and it was a conversation, not an interrogation. We talked about everything from politics to family to travel to the task at hand. When he offered me the role, I accepted despite the pay cut because I loved the subject matter and because he had already shown me that there was a chance he was going to provide the best form of leadership – a clear and unifying purpose, trust in me, and genuine concern for others. When I started, I learned that every one of the 20 core team members were new to each other with barely a pre-existing relationship. And guess what? In this team of strangers, I had the most enjoyable and meaningful experience of my employee life.

That project manager told us and taught us everything that he knew, he trusted us completely, and I was never afraid to admit to him that I didn’t know something, or to fight him hard for something I believed in. We could go toe to toe over any issue, each as passionate and articulate as the other, and he was never angry that I challenged him and never intimidated by my law degree. More often than not he would find a flaw in my proposal and I loved him for it as it meant I could go back and make it better. Then we’d pick up where we left off and keep refining until the idea was perfect.

For the first time in my life I was my whole self at work. I didn’t have to ‘manage’ him or create a more acceptable persona of myself or find ways to delicately point out problems without making him think I was being critical. It was liberating, intoxicating, and I was happy. I could write an entire article about the power of his leadership and how he was not only the perfect boss for me (and I am someone who is generally considered a largely ungovernable individual), he was also the perfect boss for every other person on that team. Even after he was forced out by those who didn’t understand the beauty of his methods and the perfection of his leadership, his team remained loyal to him and many sacrificed their own interests to stay on and complete the project that he had loved – just because he asked them to.

That was my US Marines experience, and it didn’t need mud or shouting or sleep deprivation or bullets.

Challenging existing beliefs one team at a time.

It is confronting to challenge our existing beliefs about what makes a good team. We find it hard to admit that high turnover, poor culture, low job satisfaction, burnout, overwork, stress, poor performance and a lack of loyalty are caused by the leaders in an organisation, not by the failures and inadequacy of the individuals. Only rarely is the problem truly with the individual team members instead of the team in general and the leader specifically (even if the main problem is a failure of good recruitment).

Strong, well led teams can incorporate new players quickly and successfully. In strong teams, the culture is clear, what is expected is clear, and new people feel trusted and safe so they quickly and easily give their best.

Partners don’t need to fear new team members and short term players. In fact, using fixed term lawyers is the ideal way to improve the workplace by relieving overwork and proving to the existing team that they are valued. Using a perfect-fit contract lawyer demonstrates that the partners genuinely want to protect the team from overwork and burn out. It ensures that no new competitors for partnership are introduced to undermine the long term sacrifices already made by existing team members who are working towards that goal, while at the same time ensuring that there are enough senior lawyers to get the work done. It brings in lawyers of equal calibre to match the quality of the existing team. And it lets partners focus their energies on nurturing and developing their core team members instead of managing a revolving door of lawyers who were permanent hires because they were ‘the least worst option’ in the face of overwhelming work volume.

Once you have been truly happy and truly valued and truly safe and truly trusted in your workplace, you can more clearly understand why you were unhappy elsewhere. And once we open ourselves to the possibility that workplaces can be fixed through true leadership (as defined by Simon Sinek in his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’), we don’t have to be afraid of doing things differently.

What looks like risk, isn’t risk at all, when teams are stable and secure and leaders are confident in themselves and the people who work for them.


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