Patrick Niemann discovered the value of being able to work with others early in life. As the 10th of 11 children, he really didn’t have a choice.
“I recognize that in a large group, you may not have unanimity,” says Niemann, managing partner of Greater Los Angeles for EY. “But you work things out, you strive toward a goal and together, you will accomplish more than you can as an individual.”
Fortunately for Niemann, the big family he was born into was also a very strong family, with parents that worked hard to teach their children lessons that would help them later in life.
“Not only did I have two wonderful parents, but my brothers and sisters raised me in a very real way,” Niemann says. “They have all had really successful and meaningful careers even though of the 11, we’ve all done different things and taken different paths. Success means different things to us and to our spouses.”
Niemann grew up in a big family, and today, he leads a big organization. There are about 1,400 people who work for EY in Los Angeles, serving more than 1,000 clients in a variety of industries. Keeping track of where everybody is and what they are doing is not always easy.
But Niemann prefers not to view it in such grand terms.
“I believe in developing relationships with people one person at a time,” he says. “It’s the most important part of my job, whether I’m connecting with a client, a CEO, a CFO or a college student we recruit into our firm. I still think it’s one person at a time. While that’s a challenge, and it takes longer to do it that way, that’s my approach and my style.”
Don’t be a hero
The idea of staying true to who you are sounds great and is easy to do when everything is on schedule and transpiring as expected. But what happens when the unexpected occurs and you fall behind and find yourself scrambling to meet your obligations?
“For me, when a lot is coming at me at one time and it’s high priority, that’s a pretty typical day for me,” Niemann says. “What I tend to do is take a deep breath and try to step back from the situation.
“I try to evaluate what is the most important thing for me to deal with right now or today or this week — what are the things I’m best suited to address and deal with versus what are the things my partners, fellow executives and other colleagues are best suited to deal with?”
It sounds simple, but it often makes perfect sense. The problem occurs when leaders try to do too much, don’t trust their colleagues and lose confidence in their ability to manage difficult situations.
“For me, it’s just understanding and stepping back from a situation and knowing I can’t deal with everything that might be coming my way,” Niemann says. “I know I have to find the right people to deal with different situations.”
Companies invest a great deal of time and money to find the right people to fill slots in their business. If you don’t let them perform those duties and maximize their talents for the betterment of your organization, then all that effort was a waste.
“When individuals are fulfilled, motivated and finding meaning in their career and inside our firm, we as a firm collectively are so much more productive,” Niemann says. “We can accomplish so much more for our clients and for our people in their careers.”
When you let people put their skills to use and when you show genuine appreciation for the value that your people bring to your firm, you can’t help but produce a strong, healthy work environment.
“We work hard to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work,” Niemann says. “We all have different strengths that help us collectively to work together as high-performing teams that deliver exceptional client service.”
Offer support when needed
Part of functioning as a strong team is also being able to help members of that team who are going through difficult situations. It could be a tough client or a situation involving the employee’s family. In some cases, it can involve a problem with someone else on the team.
“One of our colleagues was going through a really tough time individually,” Niemann says. “There was tension. I would describe it as tension between her and some teammates she works with on a daily basis. To be productive, they have to function as a team. I was trying to help her through that and think through the best solution.”
It can often be useful to think about situations from your own past when you faced a similar problem. The key is to work with the individual and find a way to resolve the problem.
“It doesn’t matter who is causing the tension or even what the tension is,” Niemann says. “But being able to work together to serve our clients is so important. So it’s tackling the issues head on, having direct but constructive conversations that ultimately help that colleague through that situation. But perhaps most important is having genuine empathy for the situation because we’ve all been through it.”
In these uncertain economic times, many companies face more pressure than in the past as they try to do more with fewer resources. That kind of environment raises stress and creates an even greater need for leaders to support people when they need it.
“Even little things like looking out for people and making sure we’re giving them a break,” Niemann says. “‘Let’s go take a coffee break. We’re working really hard with this client; let’s go take a coffee break and maybe we bring the client along.’
“It gives people an opportunity to take a deep breath and realize how much they enjoy each other on our EY team, as well as enjoy interacting with the client. That’s especially true when you can put your work down for a few minutes and go grab a cup of coffee or a meal.”
When it comes to taking that break, you as the leader need to set the tone and show that it’s OK.
“If you’re telling people to take advantage of flexibility, we as leaders need to take advantage of that flexibility, monitor our own habits and work styles and understand that our people are watching us,” Niemann says. “If we don’t put forth the right example and serve as true role models, it might get reduced to just words or just talking the talk and not walking the walk. That’s part of being authentic.”
Think about your team
The development of a strong team begins with an effective hiring process, and Niemann says he’s found one thing to be particularly revealing when it comes to determining cultural fit.
“One of the most insightful, thoughtful questions I’ve received over time that told me about the person was when they asked about our firm’s values,” Niemann says. “We know about our values and we hold them as really important. But when someone who is considering a career at EY cares enough to ask about our values, that tells me a lot about the person and their priorities.”
When you take the time to get to know people who you’re thinking about hiring and you make a connection that prompts the person to ask you about your values and the things that your company stands for, it’s a great indication that you’ve found a good candidate.
“We take that lifelong relationship very seriously,” Niemann says. “We want to make sure we get to know people even before they join our firm and make sure they have an opportunity to really know us and see what we’re all about. We want them to have access to all the people they feel they need in order to make the best and most informed decisions for their career.”
At the end of the day, you need a team that can provide great service to your clients. Your ability to do that begins with hiring, but it continues with the way you work with those people and the way you support them so they can do their work effectively.
It’s all about building strong relationships at every level.
“What we aspire to do is build a better working world,” Niemann says. “That value says so much. It’s so important in what we do every day, and it drives how we serve clients. It drives how we look after people and their careers. I think about it as a partner, as a colleague, as a friend, a father or a husband. To me, if I’m building relationships based on doing the right thing, I’m going to be successful in this firm and in life.” ●
- Focus on one person at a time.
- Show your people that you care.
- Help your team achieve its potential.
The Niemann File
Name: Patrick Niemann
Title: Managing Partner, Greater Los Angeles
Born: Kirkwood, Mo.
Education: University of Southern California Marshall School of Business
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? I’m really fortunate to have been exposed to many great business people, leaders and mentors not just during my career, but throughout my life. But it started with my parents, both of whom had exceptionally rewarding careers: my mom in real estate and my dad as a partner at EY, who retired a few years before I started with our firm. Beyond my mom and dad, my 10 brothers and sisters and many of their spouses have also had a lot of success in many different career fields, and I’ve gleaned lots of lessons from them.
If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? President Ronald Reagan. He was such a charismatic leader who used his talent, skill and his position not to divide, but to bring people together and find common ground and even compromise. In the real world and in the business world, whether you’re growing up in a big family or working at a firm like EY, there is such a high priority put on teaming in order to provide exceptional client service.
You don’t need unanimity, but you do need to find a path and common ground. I’d love to talk to President Reagan about that. But I also feel I’ve learned a lot observing his public life. I think we can all learn a lot from what President Reagan taught us.
How to reach: EY Greater Los Angeles, (213) 977-3200 or www.ey.com