Alex Shumate thrives by working with others to help Columbus grow

 

Alex Shumate is not a man who likes to wait for things to happen. Whether he’s acting as managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs’ Columbus office or as a trustee at The Ohio State University, Shumate strives for action, growth and innovation. And he is eager to get others involved in his work.

“That’s extremely important in today’s world. So, I’ve worked extensively on perfecting collaboration skills, as well as being someone who tries to stay creative and on the cutting edge of innovative ideas and concepts,” he says.

Shumate applies this mindset of continuous improvement to his many roles in and around the Columbus community. He remembers a law professor talking about how the study of law both broadens and narrows you. It can expand your legal knowledge and your awareness of legal principles and concepts, but it can also narrow your ability to see other points of view.

By embracing his roles as board member, lawyer, business leader or just interested community member, Shumate helps himself and his ability to contribute as much as he helps those around him.

“Hopefully I’m giving as much as I’m receiving, but certainly, they help me to avoid the pitfall of becoming too narrow in my viewpoints,” Shumate says, even if it means not getting as much sleep as he’d like at times. “Leadership is not just what you say, but what you do and how you do it.”

Global reach; world-class talent

Shumate has been the Columbus managing partner of Squire Patton Boggs for 25 years. He joined the firm five years before that when it had about 300 lawyers and four offices. Today, Squire Patton Boggs, which started in Cleveland, is a global firm with 1,700 attorneys. It has 45 offices, and 27 of those are in other countries.

“We have focused on building our global platform. We believe that to remain competitive and to strengthen our position in the legal industry that means having a global platform that’s able to meet the client’s needs wherever the client is conducting business. And certainly, as you look at Columbus specifically, and Ohio in general, more and more of our corporations and businesses are doing business internationally,” he says.

Shumate says the firm followed a thoughtful plan to grow into an international organization. It knew what gaps needed to be filled.

“It’s really important to know who you are and where you want to go before you really engage in expansion efforts, in my opinion,” he says.

Not only has Squire Patton Boggs acquired other law firms to expand its global platform, Shumate’s Columbus office and other offices spend a significant amount of time recruiting, developing and retaining talent.

“I firmly believe that you have to have world-class talent and legal skills, as well as strong client relationships,” he says.

Shumate’s team does its due diligence before hiring, learning about job candidates. It’s a matter of each side getting to know each other, so both go into it with eyes wide open, he says.

Talent remains important when integrating other firms as well. Shumate says one of the most important aspects of a successful combination is to make sure there’s a similar culture, which requires strong integration teams. But even then, it requires time to assimilate the new attorneys into the culture of Squire Patton Boggs, while still being open to taking on the positive aspects of the outside firm’s culture.

The goal is always to set up a framework for a culture that gets your team focused on positive results more than who gets the credit. Once that is established, you have to keep reminding yourself of that and modeling it for others, he says.

The most successful teams that Shumate has either helped build or been a part of thrived when people came together to work and left their egos at the door. Shumate’s guiding principle for collaboration is to seek to understand as well as be understood, while also remaining sensitive to timing. He says sometimes you need to slow down and allow things to percolate with other people, before moving forward.

Listen well and ask good questions

In addition to running a law firm, Shumate’s mindset of continuous improvement is aided by his involvement with other organizations.

He’s serving his third term on The Ohio State University’s board of trustees, currently as the chair. He has been part of The Columbus Partnership for more than a decade, a civic engagement that has broadened his scope, perspective and interests. He also serves on the board of directors for The J.M. Smucker Co. and Dallas-based CyrusOne.

“Alex creates an atmosphere of openness, encourages discussion and debate, and knows how to graciously bring the discussions to a close while seeking the right conclusions and recommendations. His affable demeanor puts his peers and colleagues at ease and thus encourages discussion.”
Timothy P. Smucker, chairman emeritus, The J.M. Smucker Co.; board of trustees, The Ohio State University

Shumate says as a board member, it’s important to remember you’re not there for management or operations.

“It’s challenging for some people to change hats, but successful board members understand the difference and actively remind themselves of the role they play,” he says.

The most important thing, though, is to listen.

“I’ve got a day job and it’s not being the professor at Ohio State or the president of one of the divisions of Smucker,” Shumate says. “So, one of the most important skills is to be a good listener and then to ask good questions.”

However, today’s board members need to invest more time than was the case before the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It’s a more demanding commitment because of the fiscal responsibilities and focus on shareholder value, he says.

For example, Shumate might spend his weekend reading to get ready for a Smucker’s board meeting — digesting and analyzing the material that’s going to be presented. He has to look at not just the financial aspects, but also the strategic aspect of what’s going on with customers and other initiatives.

Timothy P. Smucker knows Shumate as both the chairman emeritus of Smucker Co. and as a fellow Ohio State trustee.

“Alex’s qualities of inclusion and listening are hallmarks of his contributions,” Smucker says. “He clearly understands the role of a trustee or a member of a board of directors is to focus on strategy, management development and succession planning. In his listening ability, he senses the importance of key issues and is able to determine what to focus on, when it is appropriate to include others and who should be brought into the decision-making process.”

Smucker has noticed that Shumate is eager to get to know all constituents in the university and/or business, which gives him a thorough understanding of the talents and cultures of the respective organizations with which he works.

“This approachable mannerism encourages deep and broad relationships within the community and thus he is known as someone who will provide leadership and ‘get things done,’” he says.

No time to sit back

Alex Fischer, president and CEO of The Columbus Partnership, sees Shumate as a powerful connector between the community and Ohio State, bridging the town and gown relationship and leveraging both to make everyone stronger. He says Shumate knows the value of long-term relationships.

“He is always available, always present and most importantly, highly engaged in our discussions and strategies,” Fischer says.

“Alex has this affable, engaging personality. He goes out of his way to seek and understand other people’s perspective on issues. I think that kind of approach puts people at ease, and people who can put others at ease end up being good connectors and relationship people.”
Alex Fischer, president and CEO, The Columbus Partnership

Shumate and his firm were also a key part of the creation of Columbus 2020, helping the partnership put the organization together.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in Columbus who wouldn’t have a good thing to say about Alex. He’s universally respected by Democrats and Republicans and leaders at the State House and City Hall and business leaders throughout the community,” Fischer says.

But while Columbus is doing well in terms of economic development and downtown development, Shumate isn’t ready to sit back.

“Sometimes you can start thinking you can rest on your laurels. But again, being thoughtful about your strategy and not being complacent I think is something that we’re focused on,” he says.

That’s especially important in a city like Columbus, Shumate says. It has a very active business community that understands how the quality of life is important to the business environment.

Shumate sees great momentum right now at Squire Patton Boggs, Ohio State and with the Columbus business climate.

“The key is to continue to do those things that have created that momentum and not to become complacent — and to be open to innovation and collaboration and teamwork,” he says. “I’m a very strong believer of client service teams for the law firm; strategic planning teams for the university; and for partnering with community organizations.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Avoid complacency; keep doing what created momentum in the first place.
  • Teams are the most effective when the mission comes first.
  • Seek to understand as well as be understood when collaborating.

 

The Shumate File:

Name: Alex Shumate
Title: Managing Partner, Columbus
Company: Squire Patton Boggs

Born: DeKalb, Mississippi, but I grew up in Sandusky
Education: Bachelor’s in political science from Ohio Wesleyan University and a law degree from the University of Akron

Did you have much business training or did you learn more on the job? Believe it or not, for several years, I taught a business law course at Franklin University here in Central Ohio. So, I spent a lot of time reading and getting prepared for that. I also took a number of business and economic courses in undergrad and business organization in law school tracks, etc.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? My first job would have been cutting grass for my neighborhood. I think I learned the value of hard work. I also worked at Cedar Point, which I enjoyed. When you’re going from cutting grass and sweating like mad in people’s yards, working on a roller coaster is fun.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received? There’s this expression Les Wexner said that: ‘the main thing is the main thing.’ What he means by that is — as I’ve interpreted it — really figure out what’s important and spend the majority of your time focusing on that. Remember that the main thing is the main thing.

When you’re not working, serving on boards or doing things in the community, what else do you like to do? I am a weekend warrior tennis player. I love to play tennis.