The Dysfunctional Team – A Problem with Leadership

A few years ago I received a call from a former colleague.  He was calling to seek advice on how to develop leadership skills in his executive team.  It seems he had recently been elected to the position of managing partner in an accounting firm of approximately 100 professionals.  As a partner with his own practice, my friend had not been in a position to observe how the other partners managed their practices.  Now that he had overall responsibility for the growth of the office, he had become aware of some glaring leadership problems.  We agreed to meet to talk through the situation.

When we met my friend described his dilemma.  There were eight partners in the firm. Each partner was responsible for building and maintaining business and a team of professionals to deliver services in their specific practice.  He explained that while three of the partners behaved like leaders, he had serious concerns about the other four.  Apparently promotion to partner was based primarily upon technical expertise or seniority.  It seems that these characteristics are frequently used as a basis for promotion to positions of leadership. 

My friend proceeded to describe the behaviours of the four partners in question.

Partner number one was known for his expertise in tax law.  Although he was very skilled at saving his clients large sums of money, he found it difficult to train and develop his staff.  He arrived at the office early each morning, filled his coffee cup and proceeded to shut himself in his office.  He stayed in his office all day, coming out only to hand work to a member of his staff.  Although he had a loyal client base, he was uncomfortable meeting and engaging new clients.

Partner number two was a social butterfly.  He was personable and outgoing to a fault.  He spent the better part of his day moving from one office to another, each visit lasting 30 minutes to an hour.  My friend told me how he tried to avoid this partner, as a casual comment would turn into an hour long monologue.  Once seated in an office, he talked non-stop, ignoring any attempts to end the conversation.

Partner number three had started strong in his role as a partner, but before his first year was out some family problems developed.  His family problems required him to miss a day or two of work each week.  At times this partner would not come into the office for three or four days.  Initially, everyone was concerned about this partner’s family issues.  As time wore on, resentment began to build against this man who took home a large pay check but worked only a fraction of the time.  As the partners in this firm prided themselves in their “family” atmosphere and their emphasis on a balanced life, this behaviour was clearly creating problems at all levels.

The fourth partner was a young woman who had recently been promoted to partner.  She was considered a good manager, was highly respected for her technical skills, and was known for building strong relationships with her staff and her clients.  Although there were high hopes for her, it appeared that she found it difficult to engage in new business development activities.

Our discussion moved on to solutions.  I convinced my friend that the first step was to educate everyone in the office on leadership fundamentals and the characteristics of high performing leaders.  My friend and I agreed that most people and many organizations never talk about leadership.  Most organizations assume that leadership is something which is only important to the person at the top of the organization chart, and rarely spend time developing leadership skills in their management teams.  An ongoing program to educate people on the value of leadership, and how to lead, is something that delivers value to any organization.

Step two for my friend would be to help each partner translate generic leadership principals into what was expected of leaders in their organization.  It is common for people to understand leadership, but not be able to see how they could change their behaviour to become more effective leaders.

The final step would be for each partner and senior manager to develop a personalized plan to develop their leadership skills, and put leadership principals into practice.  Many organizations also find it helpful to find professional coaches to help their leaders develop plans and be held accountable for executing their plan, and measuring results.

Is this approach likely to work?

Many would argue that it is very difficult for people to change their behaviour, and therefore a program of education and coaching cannot transform people into leaders if they do not already possess leadership traits.  It is true that it is hard to change people, but it is also true that most organizations never discuss leadership because they either do not understand it, they are afraid of it, or they believe too many of the leadership myths that have been around for centuries.

People can change their behaviours, but they cannot change if they do not know what they need to change to.  I have seen people make remarkable transformations once they became aware of which behaviours were unacceptable and which behaviours were preferred.

I can guarantee that if you never take steps to upgrade your leadership skills, and never take the time to let your people know that you expect them to be leaders, you will never develop the leadership you need to reach your goals.

Leadership Excellence

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