by Patrick J. McKenna
and David H. Maister

As a practice group leader, you must be ever vigilant when communicating to your people that having a strong team can impact your collective fortunes in building competitive superiority in two critical areas - competition for clients and for talent.

Obviously the group with a dozen people working in a specific area is likely to be better equipped to handle client problems than a group with just a few. Its very size indicates a degree of success. After all, no one person is likely to possess all of the necessary experience to handle many of today's more complex matters.

Winning the war for talent (recruitment and retention) may ultimately determine marketplace success. We once asked a firm leader, "Do you sense that you are losing your best young talent from those groups that you would consider to be your best organized, or from those groups that are slightly dysfunctional?" This person paused for all of two seconds, looked at us and said, "You know, I think you're on to something there!"

We have, since, posed that same question to at least 50 firm leaders from various professions, and without exception, elicited a similar response. Their reactions suggest that having dysfunctional groups is costing firms large amounts of money.

What develops is a virtuous circle. A firm develops a strong group and, as a direct result, that group gains a market profile, that profile attracts the better client work, and the better client work then attracts the more talented players in the market.

As a group leader, your initial organizing task is to help educate and guide your people in a direction that is in the best interests of their personal careers, as well as your group's future. Loosely organized individuals who are accountable only for their own performance are less likely to succeed in the marketplace than would a well-managed team engaging in collective activities with collective responsibilities.

But before you can make your group work, you need to determine together: "Why does our group exist?"

In some cases, there is a general understanding of the group's purpose, but this is insufficient. All too often, group members sit around asking, "What are we supposed to be doing at this meeting? Why are we here?"

We suggest that you pose the following question and follow-up suggestion to your group:

"What benefits should we expect to get (not: are we getting) from practicing (working) with a group of like-minded individuals, pursuing a common purpose that we could not get if we were each practicing (working) on our own?" Let's make our list together and see what it suggests."
The most common responses are likely to include:

  • Improving value to clients by delivering to them the collective wisdom and skills and accumulated knowledge of the group.
  • Making business development efforts more effective through pooling and coordination of individual efforts.
  • Better utilization and development of junior professionals through collective decisions on staffing of client work, allocation of resources and mentoring.
  • Collective development of tools, templates, databases and other practice aids to benefit everyone.
  • More rapid and effective dissemination of expertise and skills among the group
  • Better client service through greater ability to put the right people on the right job.
  • Better market image through development of a collective reputation, not just the sum of individual reputations.
  • The comfort of belonging to a small group rather than being lost as one of a very large number of people (applies both to the successful retention of senior as well as junior people).
  • Informal coaching on a one-to-one basis acting as a source of help for personal growth, rather than relying on firm-wide annual, bureaucratic performance appraisals.
  • Improved profitability from focusing as a group on ways to enhance performance.
  • Creation of a critical mass of time and resources to develop innovative service offerings, which no individual could afford to do alone.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. But responses like these encourage your people to think through and identify the benefits of working together. After adding your own objectives, you might want to examine this list by asking the members of your group:

  • Which of these benefits will be easiest to obtain? Which are the hardest?
  • Which will be the quickest to obtain? The slowest?
  • Which disrupts your culture least? Most?
  • Which represents the biggest impact on your success? Smallest?
  • Which requires the most change in behavior? Least?
  • Which requires the most activist role for the leader? The least?

Your answers will determine the shared objectives under which you will operate. A group becomes a team only when people can collectively determine the benefits of working together.

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