Kathy Downey leads by example to get employee buy-in at Plante & Moran Featured

6:23am EDT July 14, 2010

For a company to be successful, you need to have some structure, says Kathy M. Downey. Although, the managing partner of Plante & Moran PLLC’s Northwest Chicago office says the amount of structure depends on the size of your organization.

“If you’re very small, you can have fewer rules because there are fewer places the train can get off the tracks as you grow,” says Downey, who oversees more than 60 employees at the accounting and business advisory firm. “You need to start adding structure, but, I think for transparency, starting simple is important.

Smart Business spoke with Downey about how to have a structured company.

What is a key to being a good leader?

Having a system to get feedback to people about their performance is one of the key ways that you can create a culture of development because it’s an expected part of everyday work life. ‘I’m going to do something. I’m going to get evaluated on it. I’m going to get feedback. I can get it verbally right away, I can get it in writing afterward, and I get other periodic evaluations.’ We would call it now, the modern business speak is performance management. But you could do it very simply.

I think that’s how you really foster the culture of development — having a good understanding on educating people about the importance of development. So we can have all these things in place, (but) people have to really buy in to ‘Why should I take time to develop all these people around me?’ It’s really to give yourself and them more opportunities because if you want to change what you are doing next year from what you are doing today, you are going to have to teach somebody what you are doing right now. Because, if you don’t, you’re going to be doing it for the next 40 years.

If you are OK with that, that is probably fine, but most people like change and they like to do other things. And teaching younger people around you is how you do it. It’s you either keep doing it or you teach them. So I think showing people what the development does for them is a good way to get them interested in it. I think the performance management is the mechanism that you’d use to get the feedback going.

How do you get buy-in for development and that type of culture?

It’s all about communication and having the message, repeating the message, having the message be simple. It’s not branding, but it reminds me of branding in a way. So let’s say our mission is development. If you really want to drive it, you’ve got to talk about it, you have to have a system for it. It can be complicated or simple. And you as a leader also have to do it. So we haven’t talked about practice what you preach, but there is a huge element of that. I can tell you to go out and develop the staff and get me evaluations and all this great stuff, but when it’s time for me to give you your evaluations, if I don’t do it for you, I’ve probably gone two steps forward and 27 steps back. So, leading by example is critically important in driving any initiative.

Are there challenges in leading by example?

Let’s use performance management as an example. It’s time-consuming, and you have to be disciplined and sit down and do it. So, is it hard to lead by example? Yes, because the phone always rings and there’s always something else that has to be done. There’s always a client that needs something. So, the discipline of doing that is very important and is it difficult at times? Yes.

I think in other ways when I think about leading by example that’s maybe a detailed example. I think treating people the way you want to be treated, being fair, kind of the other things we talked about, making principle-based decisions when you make decisions. Those are things I like to think I’m good at because that really gets down to the fabric of the entire culture of the organization. If someone sees a leader who isn’t what they perceived to be fair, who isn’t open, who doesn’t act with integrity, then your leadership is really impaired I think. Because they’re not going to follow you because you’re not someone who they view as someone worthy of being followed.

How do you handle an employee who doesn’t buy in?

It’s a matter of degree. So, if you’re asking me in a severe situation is that somebody who is a good producer who really mistreats the staff? I don’t even know what the words would be to be a big violator of our culture. I would tell you that they probably would not end up being here in the final analysis because we would place a very high value on behaving the right way and in following the principles that our firm has relative to behavior, how you treat clients, how you treat others around you. So we’d take a fairly hard line on that.

There are others things that aren’t as severe where we would say, ‘You know what. That’s just their point of view.’ You talk to them and work with them and just hope that through constant discussion, you are dealing with somebody who can see your point of view.

How to reach: Plante & Moran PLLC, (847) 697-6161 or www.plantemoran.com