While Don Misheff jokes that he’s been successful because he got lucky by marrying the right woman and the right firm, his true success can be attributed to more than what’s on his resume — it’s his character.
“Honesty, honesty, honesty — and integrity,” he says. “I tell my kids, ‘You only have one chance to lose it. You lose your trust, you don’t get it back. It’s the sacred thing you have to protect.’”
These aren’t attributes he simply preaches about and doesn’t do himself. They’ve been evident throughout his life in the choices he’s made. As a young man, his father died, and a year later, his mother suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed at age 51. He could have followed his dream of going away to school and playing basketball, but instead, he opted to attend the University of Akron, so he could help care for his mother back home in Canton. After he graduated, he was still helping his mom through rehabilitation, so he got a job with what was then Ernst & Ernst’s Akron office.
After working his way up the ranks over the past 30 years, Misheff is now Northeast Ohio managing partner for what has become the international accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP. In that role of leading three local offices, he has that same message for all of his 1,200 employees as he does for his kids — maintain your integrity by being honest.
“You’ve got to be honest with yourself, honest with your clients, honest with your peers,” Misheff says. “If you’re honest, you’ve got nothing to worry about because you don’t have to remember what you said. I don’t believe in covering up trails. Let’s be honest. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. We’ll fix it. If you’re willing to work and you’re honest, there’s no way in the world you can’t be successful.”
That same honesty and commitment has made Ernst & Young — not just locally but the $21.1 billion international firm as a whole — wildly successful, too. Among the accolades the entire Ernst & Young family have received are being named third on BusinessWeek’s Best Places to Launch a Career list last year and, this year, landing a spot on FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the 10th consecutive year.
The attributes that these honors embody, while collective across Ernst & Young firms, are evident in Misheff’s Northeast Ohio firms as he creates a great work environment, makes himself available to employees, builds trust with clients and makes his word as good as his handshake. By being honest and having integrity while focusing on these things has made him and the firm successful.
“Our people and client quality service are the most important things we do,” Misheff says. “This is not rocket science — you do those two things right and a lot of good things will happen.”
Create a strong culture
When one of Misheff’s long-time employees called him up and said he was thinking of taking a job elsewhere and would he meet with him to discuss it, Misheff jumped at the chance.
As they talked it through, Misheff became more confident that the man wouldn’t take the other job because there were too many benefits that Ernst & Young offered — mainly a flexible work environment. This man would be in at 6:15 in the morning, but if you went to his desk around 5 p.m., he was nowhere to be found. Instead, he was off watching his children in the activities they did, and that flexibility was important to him.
Offering a great work environment is crucial, not only for the happiness of your employees but also for your clients. If you have a great culture, it retains employees, and their experience and history with customers strengthens those client relationships.
Like his employee, one reason Misheff has stayed with the firm for three decades is because of the flexibility.
“My kids will tell you — I’ve been there,” he says. “I don’t miss anything. I would have left and found a different job if I couldn’t have. It’s too important to me.”
While some companies cling to old-school hours for employees, the more successful ones are changing with the times in that regard.
“You have to create an environment of flexibility in today’s world,” Misheff says. “The new generation coming up doesn’t have the same beliefs and behaviors as I do. A flexible work environment will provide an appropriate balance for that person and everybody’s different. Some people want more balance from work; some people want more balance from family.
“I’m a big believer in leading by example. That’s how I got here. I watched guys and how they were able to deal with their families and deal with issues, and I talked to them. A partner loves to do nothing more than mentor a young person. They love it, and it’s a badge of honor — they’re asking me how to do it. That means something to have people looking up to you.”
To keep building the culture, reward people for their successes. This comes in several forms, the first of which is additional responsibility.
“That continual growth upward allows the person to keep developing and growing because you give them new responsibilities, whether that’s more responsibility with the client or more supervisory responsibilities within,” Misheff says. “Those opportunities continually grow somebody.”
While opportunity grows employees, so does honestly addressing performance or character issues.
“You just have to sit down with someone and say, ‘Here was the expectation — let’s make sure you understand it. If not, that’s part of the problem, so let’s make sure you do, and here’s where your performance is today,’” Misheff says. “We do a good job of screening out perception versus reality because sometimes there are perception issues. At the same time, I think you deal with nonperformance or nonfitting upfront with candor and honesty, and you’re there to help them for those who want the help to get to the next level.”
Part of differentiating between perception and reality is talking to the people on that employee’s team to see what they say against what the employee says. This helps you not get lost in their emotion or false perceptions.
When you address negative issues instead of rewarding them, it sends a message to other employees of how they should operate with honesty and integrity.
“If someone came through the ranks that didn’t have those qualities, they wouldn’t make it as partner,” he says. “That’s how you keep ensuring that it’s spread throughout the whole organization.”
Promoting from within not only gives your employees career direction and incentive to work hard, but it helps the company, too.
“It helps build your culture — they’re homegrown,” Misheff says. It’s important to also give people raises and bonuses when they’re warranted and give formal awards to those that go beyond expectations. These could be for exceeding standards for the business or for exceeding cultural expectations. For example, when new employees come from a foreign country, Ernst & Young
employees work to make sure they’re not only getting the right clients but also getting around the city, getting invited to the parties and adapting to a new town. Helping these people in their personal lives makes them more confident as employees, so employees’ efforts for cultural inclusion are commended.
While there may not always be enough awards, money or promotions available to give everyone, sometimes the best way to build people up is through informally recognizing them.
“It’s also the day-to-day culture of walking down the hall and putting your hand on someone and saying, ‘Hey, thanks! You did a great job! Really — you were a big part of us winning this,’” Misheff says. “That type of culture means more than some of the more formal programs.
“I don’t care if it was the person doing the typing, the printing, the photocopying — we’re all a team here, and everyone has a role to play, and it’s important in a culture to recognize that everyone’s role leads to success and not just one person. When we all work like that, we’re very powerful.”
One day, as he walked down the hall, Misheff ran into a woman who had just returned from maternity leave, so he asked her how things were going and how she was balancing everything. She said she was doing well, but instead of just saying that’s great and going on with his day, he told her to get on his schedule for breakfast or lunch. The woman did, so they met for breakfast, and in further talking with her, he learned that she wanted to improve some of her technical skills, so he talked it through with her, and they developed a plan for her to do just that.
It’s just one way that Misheff shows his employees that his door is open. By doing things like this, it creates a sense of trust among employees and strengthens the culture you’ve established. But for this to be successful, it can’t just be when it’s convenient for you. He says to keep your door open even when you’re busy, and when someone comes knocking, you have to make time for him or her.
“Unless you have a client with you, you give them your attention,” Misheff says. “Put everything else aside, and you don’t answer the phone.”
When you continuously do this, people will begin to trust you and will come to you with questions and concerns.
“Lead by example,” Misheff says. “Others that have come in say, ‘No, he’s not BSing you — go see him. He’s there.’ My door is open enough that enough people have come in and used it that the word spreads.”
Sometimes, no matter how much you keep your door open and give people attention, some may still be shy, so you should give them a sounding board to express ideas and concerns. Ernst & Young has a People Advisory Board that is made up of nonpartner employees, who are elected by their peers. As a board, they address concerns and ideas people submit, and then they take them to Misheff.
“They’ll take me through what’s the real heartbeat of the office,” Misheff says. “I also feel good about the fact that there are enough people around here who aren’t afraid to say, ‘Hey, it’s not clicking. You got to do something about it.’”
By setting up a committee of nonmanagerial people, it also makes employees feel more comfortable contributing their concerns or ideas.
“They can go in and air out on something, and then bring it to the partners,” Misheff says. “Just because of titles, somebody may be intimidated to say something — that’s just the real world.”
It helps the senior people make sure that the company is doing everything it can for employees.
“You take somebody like me who’s been here over 30 years, and somebody who’s been here one or two years, we don’t necessarily think the same,” Misheff says. “These guys are a bridge between me or the partners to the new hires.”
Focus on customers
When the Enron scandal unfolded, in the snap of a finger, it and accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen ceased to exist, and those weren’t the only two companies affected.
“Even though we had nothing going on in the hopper at the time, it was very common for people to say, ‘Hey, is there anything at Ernst & Young we should be worried about?’” Misheff says. “There’s significant complexity when an indictment of that nature takes place.”
With that kind of anxiety in the industry, Misheff and his team wanted to be proactive in setting up meetings with clients to reassure them and answer questions. Proactivity is one way companies can be customer-focused, whether it’s reassuring clients who are nervous about industry scandals or taking the latest innovations to them for discussion.
“By being proactive, you bring solutions and ideas to clients to enhance their business,” Misheff says. “Plus, I think it’s our responsibility ... to understand the subject matter and know our client well enough to say, ‘There’s something new coming down the pipeline that you should be aware of.’”
In order to really know your clients, you have to be proactive in getting out to meet with them.
“If we sat back waiting for our phone to ring, it would be a problem,” Misheff says. “If I’m walking around the halls and auditors are at their workstation, that worries me. They should be at their clients. I’d rather [not] see people at the offices because that means they’re out at their clients, they’re being proactive, and they’re engaged.”
When people are engaged in the business, that means they’re communicating with clients, and, for Misheff, that doesn’t happen using today’s fine and fancy technologies.
“You have to understand a client’s business as well as their concerns or problems, and that doesn’t happen by phone or e-mail,” Misheff says. “I’m not a big advocate of everything done by e-mail. It’s still a people business, and you should do it face to face.”
That face-to-face communication is another attribute of client-centric companies, but it has to extend beyond the boardroom, as well.
“You need to know them outside the business environment, whether it’s a friendly dinner or a social or golf or going to the theater, but you need to know them beyond sitting across the desk,” he says.
For example, Misheff serves on several boards across the city, and he knows that when he goes to United Way cabinet meetings, that he can touch base with some of his clients and ask how they’re doing outside of the typical business-client relationship, and this helps strengthen their professional relationship.
In your efforts to focus on clients, you also have to be mindful that you’re not setting false expectations, which is a form of lying and weakens your integrity.
“Don’t oversell them,” Misheff says. “Tell them what you can really deliver and go ahead and deliver it. It’s that whole thing about being candid and trustful in everything you do, and then you deliver on it.”
Part of that is knowing what your customers expect as quality service as opposed to what you think quality service is, as that can differ from company to company. For many, timeliness, accuracy and a fair price are important, but you can’t be certain, so ask.
“You always have to make sure you understand — we can’t always define quality service,” Misheff says. “Before you begin the project, our clients are very good at defining what they would define as quality service and what they want, so meeting the client’s expectation is more important than anything else.”
As your relationships with clients progress, their expectations may change, so be sure to bring it up periodically to make sure you’re still delivering the quality they expect.
Be as good as your handshake
As you build client relationships, it’s also important that people not only trust you as a businessperson but also simply as a person in life.
“I was raised in a family where my dad gave you his handshake, and that’s all you needed,” Misheff says. “I hope I operate that way, and that’s the way people think of me. In today’s world, everybody has engagement letters and all the technicalities that you have to have, but I still believe that my handshake is as good as I am.”
This was evident when Misheff recently met with someone he had known for a long time but was a potential new client. At the end of the meeting, the client told him that his handshake was all he needed because he trusted that Misheff was good to his word.
Part of building this type of trust is being a strong communicator. “You have to be an open communicator in dealing with the good or the bad,” Misheff says. “Communication is very critical to success.”
Address your client’s problems quickly and efficiently, even if you were the one who screwed up.
“If there is a problem, you put it on the table,” Misheff says. “Don’t cover it. Don’t ignore it. Let’s deal with it and see how we fix it. I like to keep an open-door philosophy. If there is an issue, we can’t fix it if we don’t know about it, so let’s put it out there and do everything we can to fix it in a mutually agreeable way.”
While Misheff does all of these things to put the customer first, he can’t carry the torch by himself. Customer trust and success depends on the entire organization embracing this approach.
“It begins at the top and works its way through me,” Misheff says. “To say I can assure all 1,200, I’d be kidding myself, but you lead by example. The people in these offices know that if I tell them I’m going to get something done, and I give them my word, it’s good. Our clients know that. You lead by example every day of the week.”
When your clients trust you because you’re honest and provide excellent service, it affects your business and, ultimately, your people.
“By providing high-quality service to your clients, there will always be additional growth opportunities — whether it’s a new company you pick up as a client or expanded services with an existing client, it goes back to that relationship of trust. You become a trusted business adviser, and a lot of good things happen as a result of that, which allows our younger people to get involved in new and fresh things.”
HOW TO REACH: Ernst & Young LLP, (216) 861-5000 or www.ey.com