We're delighted to have collaborated on this piece with Pierre Landy, executive mentor to legal leaders and ex-GC at Yahoo, Ledger, and The Walt Disney Company. To learn more about Pierre, check out his Legal Spotlight here.
“How do you build a successful legal department?” - a question I hear on a regular basis. There are several key factors when it comes to building a high-performing legal team. One key factor is team dynamics!
Today, I’d like to share with you a book that I find incredibly helpful when it comes to building a successful legal team. The book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, written by Patrick Lencioni, presents a pyramid of five steps that correspond to the different levels of the maturity of a team.
We climb each level one after the other and if we haven't successfully passed a level, the team won’t be able to progress and becomes dysfunctional as a result. Personally, I like to visualize this as a video game; to reach Level 5 (spoiler alert: the level just before success), you must succeed in each previous level.
So, let’s explore the levels.
Level 1: knowing how to trust each other
Okay, so this one is hardly a surprise. Of course, you can't build a team without trust! It is the foundation of a strong team.
The team members must first have confidence in themselves and then also trust each other. The most successful legal teams are transparent about who they are; they share their strengths and their vulnerabilities. This means sharing the aspects of work that they’re very good at but also the areas where they could use some support (without hiding their vulnerabilities!).
A team that knows how to trust and listen to each other will know how to give and receive positive and constructive feedback, as well as how to help one another progress.
This means you shouldn’t hide your mistakes, weaknesses, or anything else that we’re brainwashed to be ‘ashamed’ of. These are simply learning opportunities. Once you have gained this level of trust within the team, you can move on to the next level.
Level 2: learn how to manage conflict in a healthy way
Level 2 is all about not being afraid to deal with conflict. In any business, in any team, there will always be times when conflicts or disagreements arise. First thing’s first, accept that this is not a big deal.
As mentioned, to get here, the team must first have successfully passed level 1: trust. Without trust, when there is a conflict, people won’t openly talk to one another. In fact, they’ll go as far as avoiding each other.
The team may give the impression of apparent harmony but it will soon be revealed to be a facade! Unresolved problems and unspoken words will accumulate until they create an unbearable atmosphere. This should be avoided at all costs.
On the other hand, a team that trusts each other and knows how to express itself will be able to talk openly about its conflicts, removing tension rapidly so they can move forward. These teams will be able to explain themselves calmly and will try to understand one another using a non-aggressive approach. They will ask each other questions and will put the difficult topics on the table until it can be resolved.
This is what I like to call, “put your fish on the table”. Why? Well, in this scenario, the difficult subject is symbolized by a fish. Imagine that you put your fish under the table where you didn’t have to deal with it. One day, you don’t really notice it, nothing serious happens, but after a week… eek! The fish starts to smell really, really bad!
I’m sure you get the picture. It’s far better to put the tough stuff on the table so you can deal with it before it becomes unbearable. High-performing legal teams solve problems and move forward together.
The same is said when a decision is made. It must be accepted by all to ensure the decision has a chance of success. All stakeholders must be convinced by the validity of the decision. This takes us nicely onto the third level…
Level 3: committing together
So, we now trust each other and know how to manage conflicts. We understand how to have frank discussions and how to agree on a decision. Next up, it’s essential that once a decision has been made, the team is fully involved in putting the plan into action. For this to work, it’s necessary that everyone stands behind the decision - commitment is key!
If there are false acceptances and no real commitment to a decision, we are heading towards failure! How does this manifest itself? Well, team members make ambiguous decisions without explaining their logic to their colleagues, making it difficult for others to have confidence in the direction of travel.
What can we do instead? Just like a video game, we can go back to the previous level. We learn to lead the discussion, explaining our decision and, if necessary, managing conflicts as a team. With this, we can reach a situation where we have the genuine commitment of the team.
This approach means we leave meetings with concrete actions on how to move forward together. Everyone understands their part to play in achieving the common goal. Once you’ve achieved this, you’re ready to move to the next level.
Level 4: taking responsibility together
This level is reached when every member of the team is responsible for the actions that have been decided upon and committed to. Each member can count on the others to move forward. Everyone takes charge and assumes their own responsibilities to progress. All team members do everything they can to avoid letting their peers down.
In addition, as we move towards a common objective, we’re also ready to come to the rescue of any members of the team who may still be having difficulties or require support. Being open and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable results in a faster support response!
Lastly, everyone is responsible for the collective success of the team! It is a joint effort. This is the next and final level.
Level 5: focus on team, not individual, results
If you take responsibility as a team, you should focus on collective objectives.
What should you watch out for? Some may want to put their personal goals ahead of the team's goals. Obviously, this is not the right thing to do. You shouldn’t let your own work, your own career, or your own aspirations jeopardize the success of the team.
On the contrary, there are team members even willing, if necessary, to accept personal sacrifices for the well-being and success of the team! (For inspiration, see Tony Stark in EndGame!). In this scenario, team members don’t constantly try to put themselves first but instead continually seek to put the team's work first.
Have you achieved that? Well done! You have reached and completed the final level!
You have confidence, you know how to manage conflicts, you are a committed team, and everyone is involved in the delivery of decisions. You adhere to the notion of collective responsibility and you have collective success in mind.
Congrats - your legal team is now set up for success!