Cultivating Connected and High-Performing Teams
By Katie Munroe
August 10, 2023 | 10-minute read
Attorney Talent Recruitment, Compensation, Professional Development and Retention Marketing Management and Leadership Management of Individual Personnel Department Management and Motivation Content Type Article Additional Options Content Level: Essential
With legal marketing departments continuously expanding, value is increasingly placed on the work and contributions of legal marketers within law firms — creating intense competition for recruiting and retaining the right talent. However, the work for department leadership doesn’t end once vacant roles have been filled. It’s critical for managers at all levels to invest in the process of retaining the right people by building and supporting healthy teams, developing and executing shared goals and fostering a culture of collaboration.
To gain insight into effective strategies for each of these efforts, we called upon a group of industry-leading marketing and business development chiefs and directors to share how they identify the right talent, ensure they’re properly integrated, invest in their employees’ engagement and performance and motivate their teams towards accomplishing shared goals.
What steps do you take to ensure you’re hiring the right team members?
Deirdre Christin, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer, Covington & Burling LLP (DC): There are two things our team does consistently to ensure we bring on great teammates. First, we ask questions in interviews to uncover more about an individual's specific experience and perspective. Often candidates will talk about a big project or initiative at their organization, and it really helps to ask something like, "Tell me more about your work for the role you played in that project," to better understand their experience. Regarding perspective, we ask candidates to tell us what they've learned about successfully working with lawyers. This helps us figure out if candidates understand the nuances of marketing in a law firm. We're listening for people to tell us about the importance of being detail-oriented, having excellent communication skills, using evidence to persuade, anticipating questions and all the other tactics that contribute to strong work product and building trust with lawyers and teammates.
The second thing we do is ask all candidates to complete a writing assignment as part of our hiring process. By asking questions about how they plan to be successful, we see if their expectations align with our own and we get to see their writing skills. You might be surprised how many people turn in writing samples with typos or grammatical errors!
Chris Hinze, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer, Steptoe & Johnson LLP (CH): I’ve hired for a number of new roles across both the business development (BD) and communications functions since becoming the CMO as we’ve sought to build a high-quality, collaborative post-pandemic team.
We’ve spent a lot of time on individual candidates, allowing other team members — including those from different marketing specialties and future peers and direct reports — to participate in the process. Everyone has an implied right of veto along the way. For senior partner-facing roles, I’ve also involved the relevant practice group leaders and shepherded that process through in managing expectations but also securing their engagement and buy-in so it is a collective decision-making process.
We are a relatively small team and making sure the people we bring onboard will fit in and contribute positively as genuine team players is critical.
Christie Cáceres, Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer, Sheppard Mullin (CC): I think it’s critical for direct reports to have “meet and greets” with their potential new managers. While they aren’t necessarily interviewing the person, these meetings can help to ensure that both parties click and could work alongside one another. It also generates goodwill on both sides — for the current employee and the new hire.
Tell us about your approach to effective on-boarding.
Deborah Ruffins, Chief Marketing Officer, Perkins Coie LLP (DR): My approach is to have a plan that involves the hiring manager, mentor and a single person who coordinates the onboarding program so everyone gets a consistent experience at the start. Onboarding plans should include standard, required programs, check-in surveys, checklists and conversation starters to support the effort.
In my prior role, we built a robust multi-stage onboarding approach with milestones at 30, 60, and 90 days as well as six, 12, and 18 months. We did a lot of work to build a best-in-class onboarding program designed to ensure connectivity to the firm with clear expectations for the new hire, manager, and mentor.
DC: The secret weapon for effective onboarding is time. We write a customized integration plan for each new member of our team, which covers what is expected of them at 30, 60 and 90 days. We arrange meetings for new teammates to meet colleagues, learn processes and build relationships. We also invest ample time in helping colleagues get up to speed, carefully handing over projects and responsibility. There is no substitute for investing the time to integrate someone into your department, have them fully understand their role and find their sense of belonging.
How do you continue to challenge naturally high performers?
Michael Zwerin, Director of Business Development, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (MZ): Assign high performers to projects that both align with their interests and give them the chance to stretch themselves and build new skills. These projects must be meaningful and supported by some aspect of firm leadership to ensure the high performer appreciates the opportunity. Projects must also be something the high performer can add to their resume and highlight in their self-assessment when it’s time for them to reflect on the things they’ve accomplished.
DR: I love naturally high performers. You can throw something at them and step back and see what happens. While it’s wonderful to stay out of their way and see what they do with an opportunity, I also try to provide clear expectations and check in periodically to make sure things are on track. Specifically, I will a) make sure I understand their goals, b) identify opportunities for them, c) look to them when there is something new or different the firm needs to get done, and d) listen when they recommend something. I try to balance guidance, support and getting out of the way.
What tips might you have for fostering teamwork across the department?
MZ: I think highly of the Golden Rule, but the “Empathy Rule” is my preferred approach to teamwork (and life in general). Get to know your teammates and what drives them so when you act, you’re doing so in a way that takes their needs and wants into consideration. It’s been my experience that this fosters an extremely tight, productive, trusting and fun team culture.
CC: It's important to find opportunities for team members across disciplines to work together. Cross-functional team members with different skill sets (graphics, data analyst, events, BD, etc.) are not always given the chance to work on out-of-the-box projects. When you find those opportunities and bring the right people together, it can form a bond and allow people to learn from one another in ways they hadn't before.
How do you encourage your team to maintain focus on shared goals?
CH: When I took on the global head of communications role at Hogan Lovells and when coming in as the CMO for Steptoe, one of the first things I did was ask the team itself to identify what wasn’t working. We called this an “irritants list,” and it was all the low-level daily grind items that just made life unnecessarily difficult and often reflected ancient practices or things that hadn’t been examined properly in years. Documenting these irritants, putting in place an action plan and using clear responsibilities, deadlines and accountability for agenda items in team meetings gave everyone some stake in what was being done. It also created a sense of direction, ownership, and the ability to influence their working environment for the better.
DR: This takes focus, lots of communication and processes to support the effort. As a chief, I have to build followers and lead through leaders, which means getting the leadership team on board for the vision and helping them figure out their team’s contribution to the goal — including how they can structure people and programs to align, then working with them to communicate and nurture alignment. Sometimes, I will engage a project manager to keep the effort on track, others a small project team is assigned. I engage my leaders in the development of those goals so they have skin in the game.
High-performing teams rely on the contributions of individuals, but individuals can only do so much when they’re not at their best. How do you coach a team member going through a difficult time?
CH: By being candid with team members about what is going on, exploring with them what is creating the bad situation, and finding different ways of dealing with it, including creating a roadmap with them of what needs to happen.
I can only help if I know what the issues are. Sometimes, they have managed to convince themselves that – for example – a partner has it in for them. But the reality may be that the partner was having a bad couple of days and my team member was on the receiving end of it. They need to know and hear that.
There may also be personal issues having an impact, in which case what support can be put in place to help them. I’ve been there myself and having access to independent counseling was really valuable and helped me get some perspective.
Are there things which they can let go of (a challenge in itself sometimes) which will help give them more room and more time? Who else in the team can step up and provide that cover which takes some of the pressure off? I had one team member who was having a very tough time and we seconded them to a different office in order to give them some more room to breathe and straighten themselves out. In other situations, the position may be that they have simply run out of road at the firm, in which case how can we support them in exiting on the best terms and in a way which is beneficial to their personal development and their career.
CC: I continually tell my team that this is a job and that their happiness in life comes first. They need to take care of themselves and ensure when they have those bad days – which we all have – to take a walk. Step away. Give themselves some time to refresh and reboot. We aren’t helping anyone, or ourselves, when we are at a breaking point. So give yourself permission to take a break. And take your vacation! It’s so important to be able to unplug. When members of my team accept a meeting invite when they are scheduled to be on vacation, I tell them they are not attending. They are on vacation and can catch up later. I think we need to really enforce having time away and being able to take care of ourselves.
DR: This is the grittiest leadership challenge. You have to use all of the skills – active listening, appreciative inquiry, surfacing blind spots, overcoming resistance, and radical candor. It helps to have trust in the relationship. Problems don’t get better with time. An effective leader actually cares about their people’s success and so doesn’t hide from the hard conversations. Instead, the leader approaches them with care, positive intent, and a desire to find a way for that person to succeed. This does not always mean in the role they are currently in. It can be scary to face the fact that the job is no longer a match but you don’t do anyone a favor by delaying the inevitable. Handled deftly, these conversations can have a tremendous positive impact on people.