Building a culture of teamwork across the company can be a powerful mobilizing vision. But what if not everyone wants to play ball? This can be particularly challenging in a partnership, where each member acts as a distinct profit center and may not be eager to break out of their silo and support the cohesive ideal. So, how to move forward?

Any time key figures in a company won’t go with the flow, it is imperative to make every effort to bring them along. This is right and necessary (often legally so), and consultation and compromise are positive values. But it can also be unsatisfactory if the underlying issue is, in fact, obstinance. Spending too much effort to accommodate negative voices can demoralize the group and bog down the entire effort.

To create a strong team, sometimes you need to change the team and part company with those who just won’t come on board with the plan. This may seem harsh. But the departure of obstinate colleagues, however unfortunate, can liberate and energize those who remain, clearing away ongoing tensions and enabling the rest to pursue the new vision with a full heart and fresh energy.

“Our culture is driven by consensus, collegiality, and community,” says Sblend Sblendorio, a partner of the 46-lawyer, multi-service firm Hoge Fenton, based in San Jose, California. “Our attorneys put the firm first and work together across functional practice areas so that we deliver a client experience that is much stronger than the sum of our parts. This culture has taken decades to build, and we’ve had to make some difficult decisions along the way to create and preserve it.”

Enforcing Teamwork

When a company grows to midsized, teamwork goes from optional to mandatory, but the journey takes effort. A new culture needs to be nurtured and leadership must show the way. A starting point is to define, elaborate and communicate the shift – that is, prioritizing a team over a self-focused, competitive approach.

The concept is best outlined by business strategist and author Patrick Lencioni, building vulnerability-based trust by acknowledging one’s own weaknesses, learning from each other’s mistakes and sharing ideas. This establishes strong bonds across the team, forging deeper relationships and unleashing practices of cooperation and risk-taking that can really drive the company forward.

Openness and sharing should not be mistaken as weakness and self-centered players must not be allowed to exploit or undermine the culture. Leadership must underline that the shift in tone and practice is imperative, not optional. Talking up a great aspirational culture but not enforcing it makes the leadership a hypocrite.

The approach should be given momentum through any new recruitment, making the corporate values explicit, and testing them through a disciplined interview, onboarding and review processes. This will ensure that new members support and actively contribute to the fresh culture of teamwork.

For personnel who do resist change, steps should be put in place to bring them along – consulting on ideas to spread ownership of the concept, providing training, communications platforms and constructive forums to make the idea happen, and highlighting successes to show that it works.

Yet ultimately, those who refuse to get on board have to go. No matter how productive a staff member or even a partner may be, if they are more focused on themselves than on their team or the company, they must go. For a midsized firm to progress, there is no other way.

Culture of Compassion

Hoge Fenton was founded in 1952, known especially for trial advocacy. As it evolved into a midsized practice, it committed to an ethos of teamwork and compassion. This represented the firm’s values, but it was also a conscious business strategy. Leveraging expertise across the firm enables Hoge Fenton to offer “one stop” support for diverse needs, helping to build and maintain their client base.

While most partners fully backed the strategy, for years a few partners resisted, unafraid to display their self-interest and putting a big damper on the culture of teamwork. As a result, the firm’s vision remained stuck only as an aspiration.

One partner always voted against new ideas, without giving a real reason. “We never understood why,” Sblendorio says. “His arguments just didn’t make sense, and it meant he was always on the outside.”

A second partner kept demanding more pay, though not justified by his billable hours. “In fact, he was clearly slowing down, but wouldn’t admit it,” Sblendorio says.

A third partner put in the hours, but only seemed interested in her own advancement. “She would bill, bill, bill, and she did make a lot of money,” Sblendorio says. “But she abused people, screamed and shouted at staff and associates.”

Once these partners left the firm, the culture became healthy and strong, complemented by careful hiring to get the right kind of people.

After the departures, the fresh feeling took about a year to settle into the culture. Cooperation among partners increased and the firm was able to promote the full range of its expertise to existing and new clients. A few years ago, Hoge Fenton was selected to join the Mackrell International global network of law firms, as the representative for Northern California.

In addition to teamwork and professional results, the firm also became more community minded, encouraging employees to take part in charitable organizations and buying tables or even providing business or legal advice and other support for causes its employees care about.

“If you are passionate about it and it helps the community, then go for it, and we’ll help you figure out how to make it work,” says Sblendorio. Touchstones encouraging this culture of giving back are highlighted on poster boards in the firm’s learning and breakout rooms.

None of this happened while the firm had employees who were out for themselves, maintaining an aggressive and competitive tone. “They colored things for the rest of us,” Sblendorio says. “But once they left, our truer feelings were able to be more prominent and the rest of the team was able to express their compassionate nature.”