Managing A Multi-Office Team

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The multi-office group in its earliest stages may be perceived as being only for administrative purposes. You may face a subtle resistance from people toward true integration - the release of a preexisting local focus in favor of accepting regional or national leadership. People may even be concerned that their personal power and influence will now be diminished with the advent of this larger geographic configuration.

To build the proper foundation requires that you, as a practice coach, invest time both in meeting with individual people and then in providing an opportunity for the entire group to become more orientated to a geographically diverse, team culture. There are some fundamental actions that should be taken to build the proper foundation.

FIRST AMONG EQUALS: How to Manage a Group of Professionals, by Patrick McKenna & David Maister

Begin with "one-on-one" meetings between the practice coach and each and every member of the team.

This can be a time consuming and perhaps logistically challenging step. Ideally it will occur as practice coaches travel so they can be face to face with team members. Less ideally, but far better than nothing, some of these meetings would be by telephone. The nature of that meeting is the precursor to the first group meeting that you choose to conduct. Therefore, the one-on-one "rapport-building" and "trust-building" communications should precede any practice group sessions.

The purpose of these meetings is to get to know the members of your group; their individual career goals, personal interests, the client work they are currently preoccupied with, and the nature of the work that they find most stimulating. This is your opportunity to find out more about each person, their attitudes toward the practice group, what they believe they can contribute, what they want to get out of being a member of this particular team, and what it is that motivates this particular individual.

Provide the members of the group with a short orientation teleconference about your objectives as group leader, the purpose for having regular practice meetings, your need for input and suggestions, and to establish some protocol for ongoing communications.

This orientation meeting should provide the opportunity for introducing every member of the practice group to the others, with the bios of all team members being in the hands of each person. As practice coach, you may want to convey your objectives and describe how you see your "operating style” to assure them that you do not see your role as some means of providing "centralized control".

This initial orientation meeting is the occasion when group members begin to understand their respective capabilities (what they bring to the table), confirm their commitments, and decide the rules by which the group should operate. People must realize that they need to understand each other's differences before they can effectively come together and work at what they have in common.

To further the members' participation, counsel and individual buy-in, you might also at this time raise the issue of conducting regular meetings via the effective use of various technologies.

Facilitating a practice group meeting with multi-locations poses a formidable task for practice coaches. Most firms who conduct multi-office meetings do so with groups that have already been meeting together for some period of time, with a developed sense of rapport. In those cases, practice groups are "layering a communications medium" upon a group that already "functions as a unit". It is hard to do it the other way around, beginning with new communications tools before you have built your team.

Teleconferencing remains the most widely used medium for conducting a meeting amongst members of a practice group that are separated geographically. It can be challenging, however, when people are not trained or sensitive to the limitations of this or any technology. Only one person can speak at a time and it is always just a "voice" talking. Outside noises can easily cut out someone's response, and you never really know whether people have even physically left the room.

You could request the input of members as to how to make your teleconferencing more effective (given the inherent technological and social shortcomings), and what the most realistic alternatives to teleconferencing might be for certain communication needs.

Together as a group, you might establish some protocol for your teleconference meetings. You might want to discuss how as a group, you could ensure that:

  • The meetings in each office start at a specific time;
  • Any pertinent documents are circulated for review in advance of the meeting;
  • All comments are preceded by the "name" of the person speaking;
  • People are not talking over or interrupting one another; and
  • Every group member has a turn at making his or her specific comments.

Teleconferencing may handle the largest percentage of your group's real time interaction. But there is also a need to spend some time discussing the development of an e-mail protocol. While e-mail is necessary and beneficial, it's important to recognize that it is a medium that uses only text and needs some guidance among group members in order to minimize frustration and the chances of misunderstandings.

Therefore, many multi-office groups will spend some time defining:

  • Which topics are appropriate for using e-mail and which are not;
  • How frequently group members should use e-mail;
  • What constitutes a matter being urgent and how such matters should be responded to;
  • Whether every member of the practice group needs to be the recipient of every e-mail;
  • How group members demonstrate respect for each other and what kind of guidelines should exist regarding jokes, language, or personal intimacies; and
  • Whether there should be blackout periods where e-mail is neither sent nor received.

When there is a need for visuals during teleconferenced meetings, members receive e-mailed documents and look at the documents on their personal computers while participating in the conference call. This naturally offers people the opportunity to modify or edit group documents right there at the meeting.

Making the Most of Teleconferencing:

Many firms have followed in the steps of their large clients by investing in videoconferencing systems. While videoconferencing may seem to promise some obvious benefits, it can be an impediment to stimulating enthusiasm, energy and commitment on the part of the people involved.

According to Debra Engel, senior vice-president of 3Com, 3Com's global team members moved away somewhat from videoconferencing. “It wasn't as productive as telephones when you take into account the time to get people to their video-conferencing facilities. We also found that some of the video is actually distracting – the delay and extraneous visual effects detracted from the information.”

Teleconferences are so much a part of conducting everyday client business that it is easy to forget the basics of making these communications work effectively. In our travels, we have observed a couple of modifications to conventional teleconferencing that you might want to experiment with.

Decide carefully who should be attending the teleconference at each site. Minimizing the number of participants maximizes the visibility of each participant, the conversation flow and the overall human connection. The group should choose a teleconference facilitator and rotate that responsibility among different people in different locations. The practice coach's task remains to ensure that the group works as a team and isn't at the mercy of the most vocal people.

By rotating the facilitation responsibility you can sensitize all people to the skills required to effectively facilitate the group's deliberations, while at the same time, the need for polite and respectful participant behavior.

The group should decide ahead of time how long conference would be. Some groups have found it productive to conduct the first part of their meeting only in the local office and then commence the teleconferenced portion at the point at which all offices have agree to engage in some collective brainstorming of action alternatives.

For example, the group might be getting together for lunch, each in their respective offices. Each office might have been provided with a summary report on the assigned topic to stimulate the group's collective thinking. The report could be in a written, audio, or even video format, but each office would be given the first twenty minutes of their respective meeting to review and discuss the report.

At an agreed time, the various offices would then engage in a teleconferenced discussion to brainstorm ideas. Each office would take their turn going around the boardroom table to get one idea from each person. Someone in each office would capture those ideas on a flipchart, so that the group in each location could see the totality of all of the ideas generated. This brainstorming process would continue, office to office, for a predetermined length of time.

To equalize participation, take turns deliberately, going from meeting site to meeting site. For example, "Let's hear from the Atlanta group for the next five minutes." Or you might rotate among sites for one brief contribution each. Each office would then conclude by once again taking their turn at going around the table to see which person was prepared to devote some modest amount of time to working on one of the ideas generated.

An obvious alternative to this process would be to have the brainstorming and highly interactive portions of some meetings being conducted in the separate locations with reports sent back from spokespersons in each office. These reports would then be compiled and circulated to all offices.

Some agenda topics may not be conducive to using either of these processes, and indeed may require an actual meeting of the total practice group. There is no substitute for personal, high-touch contact. In all of our work with firms on marketing issues, we have been constantly reminded that groups don't cross sell each other, people do – and they do only to the extent that they have come to know and trust each other and their people' respective capabilities. A couple of full day meetings of all practice group members each year would provide the means by which people would come to know each other better.

Practice coaches should meet together on a regular basis to share experiences and benefit from what they learn in working with, coaching, and leading their teams. Firms should convene, at least quarterly, a meeting of all practice coaches to discuss their respective group's strategy and the logistics for handling group meetings. It also proves productive when practice coaches make themselves available to participate in some other group's teleconferenced meetings. Thus the practice coach of the Health Care Group, located in Seattle, would sit in, observe, and help facilitate the meeting of the E-commerce Group, where the practice coach happened to be located in San Francisco. That practice coach would then reciprocate and sit in on the meeting of the Health Care Group and help out from his or her San Francisco presence.

It is always productive for the practice coach, at each regular meeting of the group, to try to be in one of the other offices when the meeting is convened. As the practice coach, you might want to schedule your individual travel such that you are always in a different office on the occasion of the next meeting.

No matter which alternative you choose to experiment with, some person should be responsible for preparing a brief recap of the main points of the teleconference, the action log identifying who is going to do what specific project, by what date, and distribute this written report following the call.

Many practice groups have learned the behaviors that make teleconferencing more productive: speaking louder and more clearly, having extensions of the phone speakers, being adept at describing the materials that people are discussing, and making sure that they ask for people's opinions – whether they are physically present or not.

The other services that many groups use include:

  • Muting (i.e., muting all other lines so only the practice coach is speaking);
  • Sub-conferencing;
  • Structured Q&A;
  • Polling (attendees indicate their responses over a touch tone keypad);
  • Conference transcriptions (a written copy of an audio call); and
  • Tape-recording of a conference that's digitally stored for replay.

It is essential that you discuss the results of a teleconferencing session with each participant. Thank them for their participation and review their responses. Listen as much as possible and ask questions about their underlying views. Don't be concerned about the similarity of responses. Each person's views will give you an insight into that team member. In essence, the one-on-one process is never complete. Remember that you are always seeking to build your people's trust.

As one practice coach reported, “it's easy to get overwhelmed by this new stuff. But just because the technology is there doesn't mean it's the best way to go. There's not yet a system for our group that's easier than faxing or e-mailing something back in real time.” Today, your firm may have advanced technology to help make multi-office groups a reality, but we've discovered that all the wiring in the world won't be enough if you haven't started from a solid foundation. The core issue here is how to deal with people effectively, not technology.

Patrick J. McKenna is a partner in Edge International where since 1983 he has worked exclusively serving professional service firms worldwide. Mr. McKenna did his MBA graduate work at the Canadian School of Management, is an alumnus of Harvard University's Leadership in Professional Service Firms program, and has professional certifications in both accounting and management.

He is the author of Building Business Abroad and co-author of Practice Development: Creating A Marketing Mindset a text published by Butterworths, distributed in five countries, and recognized by an international journal as "one of the top ten books that any professional services marketer should have on their bookcase." His most recent publications include Herding Cats: A handbook for managing partners and practice leaders (1995); and beyond KNOWING: 16 Cage-Rattling Questions To Jump-Start Your Practice Team (2000), both of which achieved recognition on the Canadian Management Top 10 bestsellers list.

David H. Maister is widely acknowledged as the world's leading authority on the management of professional service firms. In 2002, he was named one of the top 40 business thinkers in the world in the book Business Minds (by Tom Brown and Des Dearlove.)

For two decades he has advised firms in a broad spectrum of professions, covering all strategic and managerial issues, building an impressive global practice that finds him spending about 40% of his time in North America, 30% in western Europe, and 30% in the rest of the world. In 1985, Maister left academia to establish his full-time (solo) consulting practice. His first book on professional services, Managing the Professional Service Firm, published in 1993, collected many of his best short articles written over the previous decade. It was followed in 1997 by True Professionalism, and in 2000 by The Trusted Advisor, written with Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford. His 2001 book, Practice What You Preach, hit the Wall Street Journal business bestseller list.

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