Elite sport and military teams lead on dealing with change

High Performance Team Work in a Fast Changing Environment

John Hall

John Hall, Director of Operations, Europe and North America

Charles Antelme

Written by: Charles Antelme, Managing Partner

Change requires focused teams that are operating to their full potential. Sticking to the basics of strategy implementation can test the best.

Technological and sociological shifts are impacting the traditional model of the law firm. M&A activity is high tempo and is set to continue. One consequence is that law firms will need to form and sustain high performance teams at an unprecedented level.  We can learn about sustained success from elite teams. Our Skarbek associates who have made the move from the top levels of sport and the military to commercial success are testament to the concepts that follow.

Communicate the Strategy

A clear understanding of the strategy, aim or mission is crucial to success. The leader must impart what is to be done, why it is being done and what results are expected. This is the guiding light to follow through the inevitable fog and friction of any endeavour. Clarity of strategy and the alignment of multiple stakeholders ensure a higher degree of realisation when significant changes loom.

Get the Right People

Elite teams function with a combination of talent, core-competence, a code of conduct and relentless application but they must also have the right people. Selection for the UK Special Forces is a gruelling six-month interview. The All-Blacks have an unbending ethos – a talented player with a poor attitude won’t make the cut. They insist their players leave the shirt in a better place. Not every team has top to toe superstars but training and development can make a huge difference to unlock potential if the attitude is strong.

From Individuals to a Team

Leading lawyers has been likened to herding cats and imposing rigid hierarchical reporting structures tends to fail. Fortunately, lawyers are not cats and people have some distinct predilections that help to direct their efforts in support of overarching goals.

Humans have a fundamental need to belong to groups. When people take on group identities (football club supporters) they use them to favourably compare themselves to other groups (other clubs’ supporters). We switch identities as we move environments. In each context, we divide the world into ‘them and us’ and enhance our self-image via the status of the groups we belong to. When we wear our group identities, group interests tend to overtake self-interest.

Social identity leadership theory is an approach that describes which individuals have the most influence over groups. From politics to the sportsground, it is not necessarily the appointed leader who is the most influential, but the one that is most prototypical of that group.

What is the secret of being the key influencer?  Would-be leaders need to pay close attention to the ‘3 Rs’. Reflect by observing and listening to the group and its norms. Represent the group by visibly demonstrating the norms and aspirations of the group. Realise by delivering meaningful progress for that group, thus elevating their status, and putting in place the rituals that cement their identity.  Understanding the necessary common identity and gelling the team around this is an exercise well worth undertaking.

A Workable Plan

Even with the big idea and strategy understood by all, a team of brilliant, motivated and good people ready to go, a high standard of performance is not guaranteed. Taking the strategy and executing it with clarity and control, whilst leaving enough freedom for initiative and opportunity is one of the leader’s greatest challenges. Planning, process and practice are key steps towards positive results. Challenging and testing the plan saves a good deal of pain down the line.

Keep Learning and Adapting

Any high-performance team has to be self-critical. This is a sign of confidence that feeds an ever-developing cycle of excellence. Our experience of helping with all of the above is that unpacking complex problems and getting motivated teams to tackle them one step at a time will bring enduring success.