One often hears partners or legal leaders mention ‘silos’ as an issue in their firm. Mostly, firms struggle to deal with this insidious threat that can, by stealth, undermine much of what is good about a firm and over time, cause extensive damage or block progress.

Also, once they are embedded in the culture and way of doing business of a firm, they are hard to eradicate. Often they arise due to simple failings around fundamental matters such as communication, consultation, trust and respect or lack thereof. Addressing them requires a direct interest and commitment from senior leadership. Failing this, nothing changes.

Silos are insidious; they can develop by stealth both vertically and horizontally and once embedded in your culture and way of doing business, can be difficult to dislodge. Left to mature they can be hugely damaging. The best bet is to recognise the danger, assess your position and start tackling the problem (Sean Larkan graphic – Edge International)

These silos, or what I have termed ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ silos, even rear their heads in the most successful of firms. Only last week while on assignment in New Zealand a senior partner in a blue-chip corporate firm commented in regard to horizontal silos, ‘it is an issue which seems to have crept up on us – too many of our younger lawyers mix and share very well amongst themselves, but mainly within their levels or hierarchies, not above or below. This holds them back and impacts the effectiveness of the group in servicing clients. The problem is that management don’t seem to recognise this and get defensive if it is raised’.

They can even arise in the smallest of firms – I encountered such silos in a highly leveraged and successful south-eastern Asian two-partner firm!

Firstly, Vertical Silos; what do we mean by them? Essentially a body of people within the firm that, notwithstanding position, role or seniority, tend to work somewhat alone and isolated from others. They do their own thing and are characterised by a lack of sharing and communication. This may apply to practice or industry sector groups, partner teams, offices or even floors within offices. We have all seen them and experienced them at some time or another.

Secondly, horizontal silos; these can develop when there is a lack of communication, sharing or interaction between groups defined by role or seniority. The most obvious examples here are when salaried partners say are not treated as ‘partners’ but as ‘glorified employees’ which causes resentment, a lack of sharing, under-performance, lack of recognition and file or client hogging.

In both cases there will be examples that I have not listed or thought of.

What makes vertical and horizontal silos a challenge?

  1. they are not always that easy to pin-point and may not occur uniformly;
  2. even when you can and do, it is not always easy to convince others of the problem, particularly those causing it, nor to get key leaders and managers committed and actively involved in addressing it;
  3. it is not always easy to think of practical, simple ways of addressing them. Most firms will say something about them but that, too often, goes in one ear and out the other;
  4. because they become embedded in culture even recognising them and communicating a strategy to counter them does not always get immediate results. It takes time and strong, firm leadership from senior leadership but also from support service managers and partners in leadership roles.

What should leaders do about silos?

  1. be very aware of the issue;
  2. do a stock-take from time to time and get an accurate assessment of the true position. Be aware that in some quarters defensiveness may get in the way;
  3. recognise the damage that can flow;
  4. find practical ways to address the issues and tell everyone about the issue and what is being done about it – ask for ideas and inputs on this – get as many partners and senior staff involved as possible;
  5. while it is important to talk about it and communicate around these issues, it is more important to find practical ways of breaking down barriers. Last year I was consulted by a firm which could not understand why salaried partners as a group were under-performing and seemed de-motivated. It quickly became apparent that a well-established horizontal silo existed and over time had become so entrenched that serious resentment existed between the equity and salaried partner groups. Fortunately we were able to address this by convincing equity partners of the issue, communicating and consulting with salaried partners, building trust and respect, and taking steps to break down unnecessary barriers.

Of course there are many other steps which may need to be taken and each will depend on the nature of the ‘silo’ and its seriousness. I hope I have prompted you to think seriously about this issue and determine and decide if it is an issue that requires attention in your own firm. If it is it could be causing some real harm and should not be left to ‘go away’. Silos tend not to and need proactive leadership and management.

Sean Larkan, partner, Edge International –  +61 2 6566 1806