Harvey Wallace keeps his staff at Brown Smith Wallace in the know

Brown Smith Wallace LLC made decisions in 2009 that many companies probably can’t say they replicated. The accounting and business consulting firm didn’t have large layoffs, it didn’t cut back contributions to employee 401(k) plans, and it didn’t renege on employee raises.

That doesn’t mean the firm didn’t face a year filled with difficult choices. Many changes were made as the company worked to keep revenue steady at $26.4 million. Regardless of whether your company is facing good or bad times, there are essential elements of leadership you must maintain, says Harvey Wallace, co-founder and managing member. You must keep employees engaged and informed, perhaps even more so during financially tough times.

“You need to work a lot harder in down times than you do in good times to get the message out there,” he says.

Wallace stays connected with his 212 employees through multiple streams of communication and setting a context for how the firm is performing financially.

Smart Business spoke with Wallace about how to keep employees engaged.

Communicate to engage. It starts by being out front with employees and communicating what your vision is, letting them know what the expectations are. Our vision is to be recognized as the premier firm in our chosen market as demonstrated by the pride of those associated with us, our people and our clients. It’s setting expectations, communicating with people and continuing to work to move the organization forward.

No one wants to be with an organization that is either stagnant or moving backward, and so 2009 was one of those years where it was incumbent upon leaders that they keep that mood in place. Negativity is not something you can afford to share with your people.

Stay in front of employees. The word that we all like to talk about is communication, and it comes in many forms. At one of our firm meetings in late 2008, we, as most other companies, did realize there was a recession. It was either there or it was about to arrive. At our firm meeting, we addressed that head on, and our words were, ‘We choose not to participate.’ It gave the message to employees that we’re going to continue to keep heading in a positive direction and we understand that it may be difficult, but, as I said, we choose not to participate. That’s just an example. E-mail messages from me as managing partner, trying to update people on things that are going on, communicating any major changes in the organization.

It needs to be something that comes through not just the top management, but I think it needs to come through different levels of management. For example, in our firm, we have five different operating units and each of those operating units has a partner who is responsible for that practice. It certainly is coming from me as the managing member, but as we go down through the organization, it needs to come from direct supervisors of people in different practice areas so that they’re getting a consistent message that is communicated through technology, through e-mail, because that is how we all communicate these days, but [also] on a one-to-one basis so that the message is constant, it’s repeated and you avoid mixed messages.

It is important to make clear to the managers what our goals are and how we’re going to achieve it so that they are knowledgeable and can share that message with the people who report to them. That’s my job to make sure that our managers are informed and a part of the decision-making process and keeping everybody positive. I can’t repeat that enough. You have to continue to keep people positive because a culture that has been built over 30-something years in business can easily come tumbling down. We spent 37 years building our culture and building our firm, and we couldn’t — and no business should — allow one bad year to change the direction and the message.