Leading distributed teams – especially if they’re global

Experienced rainmakers know that managing any large team is complicated, but when members are distributed across offices – especially international ones — significant coordination costs arise: projects delayed due to incompatible schedules; cultural or linguistic misunderstandings on cross-border work; technology failures causing missed deadlines.  International matters are particularly challenging because each partner may be working with different assumptions and ways of engaging the client.

A French lawyer working on an international, Paris-headquartered client felt pressure by his co-account leaders in the US and Asia to drive for faster growth.  He countered, “I understand that I need to be very active, but in the French culture one cannot be quite so aggressive as elsewhere.  For Paris clients, you need to be pushy without seeming to be pushy.  It’s a delicate equilibrium that outsiders don’t grasp.”

One of the things that makes working at a distance so complicated is that it affects both the way we feel and think – and any viable solutions have to address both.  A colleague from INSEAD, Prof. Mark Mortensen, is an expert in making virtual collaboration smoother, and we’ve teamed up to publish forthcoming a piece in Harvard Business Review (I’ll tweet the link and post it here when available).

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Focus on commonalities, especially your shared goal of exceptional client service, in order to overcome the “us and them” thinking that is typical of distributed teams.
  • Arrange regular touchpoints – ideally by video, but phone is still much better than email for sharing task-related information. If you only do this on an “as needed” basis, it’ll probably fall through the cracks because we often don’t recognize when distant colleagues need our knowledge. Beyond the obvious benefit of coordinating the actual work, regular communications help keep team members engaged and accountable to the client team.
  • Take time to share the personal updates, even though it feels like a luxury. The resulting trust and familiarity are vital when a true crisis erupts.

What are your best and worst experiences of working in distributed client service teams? What actions have worked especially well (or poorly!) to motivate and align members?  How do you sustain the momentum?  Do you use any of those techniques with clients?  What technology or platforms best support collaboration among far-flung team members?


As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

Mandatory pairings – helpful or dangerous?

Some firms mandate that partners can’t go on a client pitch unless they pair with a colleague for the meeting.  So far my research suggests that this approach may do less than expected to spur true, valuable collaboration – and may even be dangerous unless the process is very carefully managed.

On the positive side, mandatory pairings send a strong signal that lone wolf behavior is not tolerated.  When implementing the new policy, one firm leader basically said, “You don’t have to take a colleague with you, but you’ll never get more than 50% credit for originating business.  So if you go alone, you have to split credit with the house.”  Mandatory pairings also ensure that at least two brains are tackling each problem; ideally, the pair includes professionals with complementary expertise so that they really do bring diverse problem solving perspectives, not just greater firepower.  A third benefit of mandatory pairings is that partners build camaraderie, trust, and a mutual respect for each other’s expertise and client development skills. Finally, mandatory pairings help to mitigate the risk associated with a single partner having the only set of eyes on an account.

On the flip side, however, a mandatory pairs policy can be gamed.  In one firm, I’ve observed lots of horse-trading and backroom deals, along the lines of “I’ll list you as the 2IC [second-in-charge] this time, and you list me next time,” often with a bit of a wink that meant “…even if neither 2IC does anything substantive for the client.”  If mandatory pairings is treated like a box-ticking exercise that merely allows partners to move past the initial screen on the client-intake system, then it breeds cynicism and can undermine serious efforts to instill collaboration.

Even worse, mandatory pairings can force a partner to foist an unwanted service onto a client. Rather than inquiring about a client’s most pressing issues and then lining up the right team to deliver it, a mandatory pairings policy makes a partner guess in advance about a client’s needs and then push that angle to matter what issues emerge.  (For a longer rant on this point, see the last post “Collaboration versus cross-selling: ‘No, I don’t want fries!’”).

Careful management of this policy would include clarifying expectations, holding partners accountable for doing it in the spirit of true value-added collaboration, and equipping professionals to have the in-depth, inquisitive business development conversations that reveal collaboration opportunities that clients value.

What are your observations or experiences with mandatory pairings?  What other aspects of management are necessary to give it teeth?  To ensure that it has the intended effects of building trust – amongst partners, and between them and clients?

If you’re a client: how do you view this policy – and do you know which firms have it in place?  Does it help or hinder value-add?  

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

Collaboration versus cross-selling: “No, I don’t want fries!”

Let’s clear up some confusion between “collaboration” and “cross-selling”.  One reason that smart professionals resist collaborating is that they are getting mixed messages.  Firm leaders are often pushing partners to “cross-sell,” but partners have surely heard what CXOs uniformly report to me: Clients hate to be cross-sold.  Specifically, they hate when their adviser who handles one domain “offers” introductions to other partners in the firm who can provide service in their own narrow domain – for instance, the tax expert who proposes his real estate colleague to do strictly real estate work.  It’s the professional equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?”  This sort of traditional cross-selling risks appearing more self-serving that value-add for the client.  If you give the clients the impression that you are more interested in generating incremental revenues for your firm than actually solving the problem that keeps them up at night, their suspicions about you will seep into other aspects of your relationship: how closely they think they need to monitor the bills, for example.

Instead, what clients want is for their advisers to understand their issues deeply enough to offer sophisticated advice and to line up the right team to deliver it – no matter where in the firm the needed experts reside.  This form of integrated client service that often crosses practice groups and other siloes is what we mean by collaboration.   It demands that partners have a genuine curiosity about their client’s business, along with the confidence and capabilities to walk into a meeting with a one-question agenda: “What keeps you up at night?”.  Partners are often astonished at how much their clients are willing to reveal, and these deep insights are the required foundation for adding value through collaboration.

What do you think?  When *is* pure cross-selling viable and valued by clients?  What angles are we missing?  As I push forward with client interviews, what questions would you want answered on this topic? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.