As a leader of a law firm or legal department, it is your responsibility to always look for ways to improve the performance of your team. Improving performance is not an isolated task that can be addressed sporadically. Rather, it requires a constant focus on what areas for improvement remain and how best to address them. Without continuous improvement, your team will begin to lose a step and eventually fail to be a trusted resource for your internal and external clients.  Unfortunately, since many lawyers are not properly trained to manage teams, the challenge of improving performance is often not met. Improving performance comes down to three steps.  While these steps may appear simple at first glance, each requires patience, time, and most of all, humility. These steps are:

  1. Be willing to take the hit. True leaders are accountable for their teams. In other words, if your team members are not performing to your satisfaction, that’s on you. Please read that last sentence again and again until you internalize it as this is a nonnegotiable axiom of true leadership.  The buck will and should always stop with you because you have been entrusted with the responsibility and privilege of leading the team. Accordingly, if a mistake occurs, it should be you, not the person who made the mistake, issuing the apology and assuming responsibility to rectify whatever consequences arose from the team’s error or omission. By accepting the blame and “taking the hit,” you will demonstrate to your internal and external clients that you hold yourself to the highest standards of professionalism.  You will also demonstrate to your team that you have their back and that you will trust them not to make the same mistake again. Building this trust is essential to improving performance as your team will only want to meet your expectations and standards if they know that you appreciate them and are willing to empower them going forward with the power and responsibility to make decisions. More often than not, trust, forgiveness, and magnanimity will always lead to positive results.
  2. Improve your communication. If you notice members of your team failing to execute action items and tasks consistent with your direction or making decisions that are misaligned with the team’s goals, there may be a communication problem—yours. How are you communicating your expectations and goals to the team? Are you ‘hiding the ball’ or being ambiguous? Are you respecting that certain individuals process directions orally while others better comprehend when guidance is captured in a written document? If you require your team members to meet your expectations, each team member needs to understand and comprehend your expectations. It’s that simple! The best way to do so is convey your expectations in writing, reiterate orally, and confirm each individual team member’s understanding. By using different modes of communication, you ensure that each team member’s process of digesting information is respected, which will ensure the best outcome. Moreover, by confirming that each team member understands your guidance and expectations, you ensure cultural or linguistic differences will not adversely impact the team’s performance.  This is incredibly important as our teams become more generationally and culturally diverse.
  3. If all else fails, ask why. If a team member’s performance is still lacking after you’ve earned the trust of your team by taking the hits and made your instruction as clear as possible, you need to ask why. This will require a challenging, possibly uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary discussion. Sit down with the team member who is not executing at the level you hoped for and ask “what can I do to help?” This direct and straight forward question will hopefully generate steps that you can take as the team’s leader to help improve the team member’s performance. Are there resource constraints? Is office politics getting in the way?  Were your requests unclear? Are there challenges to executing that you haven’t considered? While the nonperforming team member’s answers may be all of over the place, it will be your job, as the leader, to pressure test each one. Furthermore, regardless if you feel the nonperforming team member’s answers are justified or not, it will be important to listen and offer assistance where possible. Your offer to help must be genuine, authentic, and without reservation. As importantly, after you describe the specific actions you will take to help your team member improve his or her performance, a follow-up question must be explicitly and unambiguously asked by you—“If I take these steps, are you confident your performance will improve?” This question is vital to improving performance as it demonstrates that you will accept the responsibility of helping the nonperforming team member if the team member is willing to assume responsibility to improve. After you’ve had this important dialogue with your nonperforming team member, document what was discussed, including your commitment to help and the team member’s pledge to improve, and use it as resource for future check-ins as the team member works to improve. Assuming both parties, including you, fulfill the pledges and commitments made during this meeting, it is highly likely the team member’s performance will begin to meet your expectations. If not, you may need to consider exiting the nonperforming team member as nothing is more corrosive and harmful to a team’s performance and improvement than a member who is unwilling to adjust and get better, especially if they’ve been given all the resources and support to do so.

Andrew C. Gratz currently serves as an associate general counsel of LyondellBasell Industries. LyondellBasell is a publicly traded manufacturing petrochemical company, with over 19,000 employees located across 32 countries. In this role, Gratz is responsible for managing the legal team that supports all of LyondellBasell’s mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, and other strategic transactions; sales arrangements and capital projects in the Americas; and government relations and public affairs groups.