Setting an example Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Bob Riley says that before you can lead, you need to understand your employees.

“You have to understand the values of those you are trying to lead,” says the chairman and partner of Schiff Hardin LLP. “You have to understand what they aspire to and what they’re concerned about.”

Riley learns things about his 850 employees at the law firm through meetings and by communicating openly with them. Once you have that understanding, you can then develop a vision around those things you’ve learned, making it easier for employees to buy in to it because the vision will be based on the things they want to accomplish.

Understanding his employees has helped Riley grow the Chicago-based firm — which also has offices in Atlanta, Boston, Lake Forest, New York City, San Francisco and Washington D.C. — to 2007 revenue of $234.3 million.

Smart Business spoke with Riley about how to gain a better understanding of your employees through open communication, listening to their input and leading by example.

Keep the lines of communication open and listen to what people are saying.
It’s honesty. You have to be prepared to be candid, and you have to create an atmosphere where people are comfortable being candid with you.

It’s difficult doing your job if the people in your organization aren’t willing and comfortable having an honest exchange. And that means both listening to honest views and offering them back in response.

Those develop in the course of doing the hard work day in and day out. The exchange of views, sometimes on the fly, may be more important. The trick is to find the time amid busy work and travel schedules.

We try to keep the lines of communication open through various formal methods. All of the meetings in the world will not matter, however, if we do not do the work of developing trusting relationships among our team members.

That happens in the work-place in the same way that it happens in the rest of life. It requires mutual respect and openness to hearing the views of others, even when there are disagreements. It may be the responsibility of management to decide important issues, but that does not mean that only the views of management count.

Every once in awhile, you have to stop talking and start listening. I am learning that there are times when I am a much more effective leader if I just listen for a while. If I just let the process play out, I always learn something of value that I don’t know.

Lead by example.
It’s about communication; it’s about listening. It’s about reaching out to people and being willing to hear somebody say, ‘You know, I think you’re wrong.’

It doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree you’re wrong, but it’s good to hear it every once in awhile and be willing to have a discussion about that. Demonstrating how you have incorporated that responsibility into your own day is the most powerful thing you can do.

Make that a topic of discussion, and make it something that is presented as a priority every opportunity that you can. What you talk about matters. It’s a signal, and the things that you spend your time talking about tend to be the things that people focus their energies on.

You want to make sure that your own leadership by example is consistent with what you’re saying is a priority.

Develop a vision consistent with employee values.
The vision has to reflect the aspirations of the people who you lead, their capabilities and professional values. The vision, the strategic direction, isn’t just something that gets dictated from the top down. We don’t, as an executive committee, sit around, think great thoughts, write them down, deliver them down and expect people to embrace them. It’s a bottom-up process.

You can synthesize it, sift through all the ideas, see the commonalities, start to put together a plan that’s cohesive — but the raw material with which you’re working comes from the firm and what they’re able to achieve. And then you have to add in what clients need going forward.

Then you move over into implementation, because the greatest plan in the world doesn’t mean anything unless you’re effective at implementing. You need to be committed, you certainly need to be disciplined about it, but you also need to be agile.

Nothing ever goes as precisely as planned — client needs will shift, market conditions will shift — and you need to be able to adjust as you go. A client and a good friend of mine taught me a long time ago, ‘Look, if you’ve got a problem, do something, and as a matter of fact, do more than one thing. The things that work well, do more of those. And the things that don’t work so well, you might want to stop those.’

That’s what I mean by agility. You can be the greatest planner in the world, but there’s always going to be contingencies that develop that you can’t fully anticipate, and you may need to make adjustments. The real test of leadership is understanding where it’s appropriate to make an adjustment and where it’s not. And if you’re going to make an adjustment, what kind and how far do you go?

There is no strategic holy grail. A strategic vision needs to fit the organization’s professional value structure and capabilities. What works for us probably would not work for other law firms — at least not as well.

There is little reason to believe that in order to be successful we have to mirror the paths of others.

HOW TO REACH: Schiff Hardin LLP, (312) 258-5500 or