Case for the people Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

Robert D. Hays was thrilled when his employees defended their

flag football title this past season. While he was happy to see people at King & Spalding LLP having fun and building relationships

with each other, he wouldn’t have been so enthused if that was

done at the expense of the clients.

“It’s work hard and play hard, and when you’re a high-performing organization, that’s sometimes hard to do to remain both

high-performing and also have a collegial, collaborative, fun environment because there are businesses that are one or the other

but not both,” he says.

It’s this dual expectation that has gotten the law firm where it is

today — 2,000 employees across 10 global offices, which collaboratively earned around $600 million in revenue last year.

Everywhere he looks, success is obvious, but beyond the numbers, Hays often asks clients why they chose his firm when they

have so many options, and they consistently say it’s because of

the people.

“They often say it is because you will give us world-class legal

work, and we enjoyed the relationship, and we like your people, and we think you’re able to maintain perspective and a

sense of humor,” he says.

When clients are happy, they’ll continue coming back, so as

chairman and managing partner, Hays recognizes that the only

way for this to not only continue but also grow is to hire

increasingly better people and have those people build

stronger client relationships.

“They’re all personal relationships in this business,” he says.

“It’s people in the organization and interfacing with people outside the organization.

“It begins and ends with people — that’s all we are.”

Build relationships through


Relationships are built on solid communication and trust. To

make sure clients are happy with the work you are doing, get

their input by genuinely communicating that you want them to

be upfront and honest. But as simple as it sounds, it’s not easy.

Hays says you have to convince your customers that you are

sincere about getting honest feedback before you’ll get a true

picture of how well you are doing.

“You have to compel them to a place of candor with you — in

particular, when they’re talking to you about what you do or

what your firm does or what people who work for you do,”

Hays says.

“Explain your own commitment to responding to [feedback],

and credibly explain to them your own belief that their unvarnished candor is truly a great business value to you in the long

run. Once they see that and understand that you’re sincere,

that you’re unemotional and objective about the input, then

they, as people, are much more likely to be candid and objective in the discussion.”

Hays suggests not sending the person from your company

who is most involved with the client.

“Let’s say I am the person who does principle work for your company,” he says. “If you and I are friends, and I go up and ask you to

give me a candid review of what we’re doing and suggestions and

how you perceive us and people who work for me, even if you were candid — and you may not be — if it’s not flattering, it’s

something I don’t want to hear, I may delude myself about what

I’m hearing, and that information is not high quality and doesn’t do

us any good. People often hear what they want and then report it

even more favorably than they heard it.”

It’s also important to talk to several people at the company.

“You’re more likely to get the honest feedback,” he says. “...

What one person at the client may feel or know or see is quite

different than another one, but they’re both right because they

both represent a much larger enterprise, so you have to get

reports from all corners of that enterprise.”

Once you get feedback, you then have to determine what to

do with it.

“The world we live in is filled with opinions and advice and

often stated with great conviction in a way that would suggest

they’re never wrong, but they are,” Hays says. “There’s just a

lot of noise obviously in any business, and you have to be rigorous about your focus so that you block out a lot of that


Go through the information, and don’t discard anything without careful consideration.

“You can often get diametrically opposed opinions on the

very same issue from seemingly knowledgeable people, so you

have to do a great deal of sifting,” Hays says. “Part of that is to

take your time with it. You cannot make snap judgments.”

The key to sifting effectively is to push back on those conclusions, and Hays’ trial law background helps him do just that.

“In the courtroom, you always question all opinions because

everyone has one,” he says. “As I used to tell juries, opinions are

useless. The only things juries should listen to is reasons for opinions — what are the (bases) for those opinions? Then the people

on the jury make a determination based on the validity of the conclusion.

“That’s not dissimilar to what you have to do here, to a degree.

You have to probe constantly. Push to another level of analysis —

why do you believe that? What’s your basis? You keep pushing

and pushing. Often people are sincere in what they’re attempting

to convey, but they’re just imprecise of their expression of it. In

that kind of a dialogue, you often get to a better place than where

you began.”

And once you begin to get to the reasons behind opinions,

look for recurrences.

“Almost nothing will you get uniform agreement on, but you

can find patterns,” Hays says. “If there are clusters of similar

responses and similar input, be it favorable or unfavorable,

you better pay attention to it.”

Those patterns tell you what things you need to address and

what things to keep doing. Without that feedback, you would

have no idea if what you’re doing is effective, and without that

knowledge, you can’t effectively improve and grow.

“We don’t produce widgets,” Hays says. “We are only the people, so that really involves two buckets of people — one are

the people internally here, who we hire and work together for

the clients, and the other are the people at the clients. You constantly have to be connected and listen to input from both

groups, and it changes, and it will continue to change.”

Build relationships with talent

Strong relationships with clients will help you build toward

long-term success, but you also need a top team to keep growing.

Hays says to find quality people, you have to know your company and not lower your standards.

For example, data shows that, in general, lawyers tend to be

type A personalities who are skeptical, less resilient than most

of the population, afraid of failure and less risk-oriented. To

make sure his firm stays ahead of the competition, he targets

people who don’t necessarily fit that profile.

“I’m a big believer that good is the enemy of the great,” Hays

says. “Good is not good enough. You have to have great people

— and to do that, you have to insist on greatness and have high

standards across the board.”

Getting great people starts in the interview process, and

whether you’re hiring senior people or entry-level folks, the

principles always apply.

“You need to have in these interview processes some skeptics —

some people whose jobs are to ask hard questions because you

want people to appear to be desirable — that will be the instinct,”

Hays says. “When you get into recruiting mode, it’s a groupthink

mentality that takes over, and marry that with what if the people

you’re interviewing are just telling you what you want to hear, and

the next thing you know, you don’t really have the kind of rigor that

you need to have to make quality decisions to grow that’s consistent with high performance.”

You may have a team member who’s naturally skeptical, but

if you don’t, then you need to appoint someone else or deal

with it yourself. Hays remembers one situation in which he

was interviewing a small group of people that looked great on

paper, but he doubted whether or not the candidates were

committed to the high-performance aspect of the firm’s culture, so he asked them some further questions.

He says that if they liked the line of questioning, they would

be fine with the culture, but if they didn’t like it, they probably

wouldn’t work out.

“I asked them, and it turns out they didn’t like it,” he says.

“That, to me, was a win-win all the way around. They learned

something, we learned something, and we didn’t go forward

with it.”

The way you ask questions is also critical. To avoid having people tell you what they think you want to hear, Hays says to have

multiple teams of people ask questions to get historical data and

reduce some of the doubt in the hiring process.

“You ask people to prove that rather than state it,” he says. “What

is it about what you’ve done to date that demonstrates that you’re

committed to these values?”

While you’re asking a lot of questions, you also need to have

some honest conversation by laying out expectations to avoid

surprises later.

“You have to tell people that this is what’s expected,” Hays says.

“If you don’t, they won’t get there on their own, and they will

engage in mental gymnastics to avoid that conclusion if it’s convenient for them.”

You also need to make sure you’re not trying to sell the position to

them. Instead, clearly articulate the mission and let them decide if it’s

suited for them. For Hays, it’s about the balance between high performance and a fun culture that is most important.

“If you can’t look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m truly committed to

both of those things,’ that they’re not in tension with each other,

then it’s the wrong place,” Hays says. “If you build on that and

insist on that on a day-to-day basis, then you’re likely to develop a

culture and pass along an ethos within your organization that

attracts other people that are committed to the same value system,

and then it feeds on itself.”

On top of everything, you have to be patient and resist the

pressure to just fill a position.

“Just hiring good people will solve short-term immediate

needs, but it’s a mistake long-term, frankly.” Hays says. “No

one’s immune from having done that before, but you learn the

hard way.”

Hays says the easy way is almost always the wrong way, so

just say no, which is easier if you keep your standards at the


“The firm has to constantly increase its standards — not only

keep them where they are but increase them,” he says. “If

you’re committed to constantly increasing your standards at all

levels, then that’s an antidote to the seductive temptation to

making the short-term immediate decisions of hiring people

who might be good enough.”

Your people shape your culture, and that has to match up to

your clients if you want to succeed.

“Our culture is important to our business because if it was not consistent with what we heard from our clients or if we were not committed to aligning our culture with our business model, then I don’t

think we would ultimately be successful, as we are.”

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