Building an effective in-house team - get the basics right

Shika SoniPrincipal Global Investors

Building an excellent in-house team goes beyond what is on a CV. Do you need a relationship person or a technician? Who do you deploy to deliver what news? Shika Soni, Principal Global Investors' regional head of legal for Europe and the Middle East, offers six tips towards creating the right mix of styles and skillsets you need.

Building an effective in-house team can be difficult to get right. While I’m still learning myself, here are some tips that I have picked up over the years which may seem obvious, but really work.

1. Understand your business

You won’t know what you need until you understand the business you are supporting. It is so helpful to get a glimpse of the strategy or the business plan, and even better if you participate in its design, so you understand the direction in which the business will be travelling.

If your role, time, and skill set permit, I find it is also helpful to spend some time doing the jobs for which you are building the team.

Get to know the personalities of the key stakeholders in the business and get a thorough understanding of who the team will be supporting. Understand their communication style, their key priorities, and their pressures.

There is no point hiring someone who communicates in a very detailed style to be paired with someone who only has five minutes on any given issue to understand the problem. 

2. Commit to make an investment

Whether you hire or inherit someone, I believe you are committing to make an investment in each team member. It is important to keep that in mind.

Anyone who has worked in an in-house environment will know that it is all-consuming, very demanding, and requires that you continually demonstrate value.

Our people are our product, and their activities and outlook reflect the value we as a function provide to the business. The principle is cyclical – if you let them down, they let the business down and, in turn, you are let down. The opposite is also true.

So, when you commit to hiring someone, be honest about the role, be honest about what you can and can’t do for them in that role, and pay attention to their development. If members of your team are respected and are doing well within your organisation, your function is already well on the way to demonstrating value.

3. Find strengths

StrengthsFinder exercises and personality tests are insightful and good fun at team away days. Often the biggest benefit of these exercises is providing the opportunity for self-reflection and the promotion of self-awareness. If we are all self-aware and open to feedback, we are willing to improve.

However, understanding strengths and weaknesses cannot be achieved in one day. It is a continuous and evolving process developed by observing, listening, and enquiring over time. It is crucial to take some time out of management responsibilities to implement a feedback loop to gain perspective on each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

This is so that the appropriate skills within the team can be deployed when the circumstances require.

By being aware of which team members are proficient at a technical aspect of the law or have a specific personality type suited for a task, you know with greater confidence who to turn to when the demand for that need arises.

For example, when you have a team member who is highly skilled at delivering complex projects under tight deadlines and can handle that pressure, you know who to turn to. If you do not take the time to understand the skills and strengths of the team, you will not know who to deploy.

4. Select diversely

To use an analogy, you cannot be an effective builder if you only have hammers in your toolkit!

We cannot be effective as a function when we have a homogenous group of people in the team. The benefits of team diversity are well-known, and it is nearly always beneficial to mix things up. The broader the skill set and experiences within the team, the more you can lean on when complex issues arise.

As a team leader, it can become a greater challenge to manage a diverse team, since the needs of each team member can be so different.

However, as the team’s leader, you need to be able to push the boundaries of your own comfort zone. For example, by expanding the types of candidates you interview to include people who may not be the obvious choice for the role, you could surround yourself with individuals who bring different perspectives and balance to the overall team’s offering and success. 

5. Inheriting a team

It may be the case that you don’t get the opportunity to build a team, and instead, you inherit one. Or, that you have a role open, but just cannot find the right candidate with all the required skills.  

In these situations, it pays to be flexible in both your thinking and approach. Widen the net and perhaps advertise for a person who may not have the right skills, but has the right attitude.

The need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team becomes acute: do a discrete 360-degree review, spend a little bit more time engaging with teammates or candidates, understand their development needs and weaknesses, and fill the gaps, whether by training or by providing opportunities for experience.

Ultimately, it is not the skill nor the experience that matters, but the attitude of the person. Anything is achievable if you have a person who is intelligent, has a positive attitude, a growth mindset, a team spirit, commitment and drive. 

6. Set the tone

Finally, it is crucial to set the tone for the right culture within the legal team. Being transparent, honest, and having the courage to provide unpopular feedback always, in the end, generates respect and is a crucial leadership skill.

As leaders, we must draw some boundaries (a skill that is natural to lawyers) about what we will and won’t tolerate. I have heard of the role of in-house lawyers being described as the conscience of a company, which makes the legal department a vital component in a company’s identity.

If something is just not working in the team or within the team dynamic, you must take the plunge and make a change, and this is where being self-aware is essential.

Seek feedback and have the courage to change yourself and adapt your thinking if need be. It is important to demonstrate this and lead by example. The tone is there for you to set to make a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.