A man of the people Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

For Tim Ochsenhirt, there’s more to running a business than the bottom line.

Just a few years ago, for example, the chairman and CEO of Roetzel & Andress fired a group of his best attorneys because they weren’t contributing to the firm’s team-based culture.

“We need people that are not only partners, but they actually conduct their lives like they’re a partner,” he says.

Although he does keep his eye on financials — the firm posted 2007 revenue of $88 million — Ochsenhirt is more concerned with fostering relationships among his 486 employees, and he and his wife have been traveling to each of the firm’s 10 offices to better understand the people who work at them.

“My wife and I are going around and staying at each office for around three weeks,” he says. “We actually live (in each city,) and I get up and go to work every day there.”

Smart Business spoke with Ochsenhirt about the importance of building relationships and how to fight through the gossip and egotism that often stand in their way.

Develop relationships. Humans and the relationships between and among humans are very important. When people know you better, they feel like they’re part of the mission.

I go out to lunch with a couple of the associates — two to three — throughout the given month that I’m there. Some of them I know. Some of them I don’t know.

I don’t sit there and talk to them about a case or a memo or something like that. I talk to them about their life, their aspirations, what they would like to do and how they’re finding the route so far.

What my wife and I do is, depending on how many associates there are in an office, we invite them to the house. They come to dinner, and I want them to bring their guest or their spouse or whatever the situation might be and meet my wife at the same time.

At that time, I don’t really expect any of us to talk about business. We just talk about whatever people talk about. You learn about people.

By having a relationship and having people know that you care about them and you understand them and you want their direction, it’s easier to affect your decisions, and it’s easier to get consensus behind your decision. It’s just more of a team effort like that.

Eradicate gossip. Just ask everybody to keep their doors open. There shouldn’t be all kinds of secrets around this place.

I say this knowing that some of these personnel issues can obviously be confidential. Personnel decisions are different than just talking about somebody. If you’re talking about them with a view toward making a decision, fine.

If your intention is to hurt feelings, you’re not allowed to talk at all. But if your intention is just to say something for the betterment of the firm that some people might not like, then go for it.

That takes work by everybody in your organization. That does not happen naturally, and it doesn’t happen just because I ask them to.

I might set a good example, but everybody’s got to do it. They just need a little encouragement to head in that direction.

Elicit ideas from the individual. As a rule, I don’t really like committees or committee decisions. I don’t think committees have the backbone to make a hard decision that individuals do.

Usually, when a committee meeting breaks up, the only thing I’m sure of is that the majority of the committee is going to like the decision. Whether or not it’s good for the organization, we’ll see.

I care about the best decision for the firm. Everybody’s got good ideas. Some are expected to have them. Some might not be expected to have them.

When you hear any, you’ve got to say, ‘Thank you,’ and if it’s a good idea, you do something about it.

If people feel that you have listened and considered it and that you’re doing something, it makes them feel better about themselves and their opinions. It encourages them to think about more things.

Pop overinflated egos. To me, the ego’s sort of like a coat. You put on this coat, and you ... act really important. If you think you need an ego to conduct those activities, fine.

Just when you get into this office, take that coat off. You do not wear that coat of ego around this office.

Cockiness and confidence are almost the same. The only thing separating them is the Grand Canyon. Sometimes, people do it because they think they should. It’s sort of a defense mechanism. It’s almost like you’re out in the jungle and you’ve got to act and look tough.

I tell people, ‘You don’t have to be omnipotent. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to do everything. You’re allowed to make mistakes. I don’t care about mistakes. We’re all allowed to make mistakes.’

When your ego gets involved, the biggest thing isn’t not making a mistake; it’s not admitting you’ve made a mistake.

Don’t sell your principles. I make some decisions based on money, but I make many decisions based on principles. It makes me sleep better at night.

You should know who you are and then act like who you are. Don’t let it be compromised all the time. You’ve got to stick by your guns.

Having principles also makes life easier because you know who and what you are. If your principles get eroded, pretty soon you’re not exactly sure what you are.

HOW TO REACH: Roetzel & Andress, (330) 376-2700 or www.ralaw.com