George Yund leads employees at Frost Brown Todd LLC Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

Let’s draw on George E. Yund’s background for a minute.

After years representing employers in labor and employment law, after years of extensive experience in litigation over those same matters, after years working with unions on negotiation and arbitration, Yund has tucked away a few lessons on leadership that he has been able to reference while guiding Frost Brown Todd LLC.

Take, for instance, the employees who are considering unionizing. Yund’s experience shows that his clients who win union elections aren’t going through the process because they necessarily want better pay or benefits. They think about unionizing because of leadership.

“Supervisors who are trusted are consistent in what they expect of their employees,” Yund says. “It’s the supervisor who is a bully or is inconsistent or can’t be trusted who causes people to think that they need a union, not better pay and better benefits. Whether it’s people deciding to unionize or leave and go elsewhere, I think it’s because of good supervision — people are in positions of authority at the company who they can trust, people who are consistent in saying one thing and meaning it, not saying one thing and doing another.”

What does this have to do with how Yund leads his 925 employees as the firm’s managing member? Well, first of all, it’s a lesson in how to retain quality employees and it’s a lesson in the importance of good leadership.

Consistency and trust are also wound into the keys Yund sees as essentials to being a good leader.

Here’s how Yund uses the fundamentals of leadership to guide his employees.

Convey confidence

To lead in any industry, you must have experience and be knowledgeable about the company you plan to guide. That’s understandable. But Yund’s reasoning behind the obvious is that it is linked to an essential trait that good leaders must possess: confidence.

“That’s necessary in order that the leader can have the confidence to know what to do,” Yund says about being an expert on your company. “If you don’t have the confidence to know what to do, nobody else is going to have confidence that you know what you’re doing. To lead others, you have to inspire confidence, and to inspire confidence, you have to be confident, and to be confident, you have to have that experience and knowledge of the business.”

Confidence can be a chain reaction. If you’re the first domino to fall, you can’t expect others around you to stand strong.

Having confidence in your own abilities and your own decisions to lead a company starts with understanding your business. And understanding really comes down to being a better listener than a talker, Yund says. Separate yourself from anything that can be a distraction — your BlackBerry, your e-mail — and take the time to really be in the moment, ask questions, and listen to what your employees and clients are saying about the business.

“You have to commit yourself to spend the time necessary to get to know the people, the product, the company,” Yund says.

Yund had been with Frost Brown Todd for 32 years before being named as the managing member, so the learning curve wasn’t quite as steep when he was named to his current position a year and a half ago. However, that doesn’t keep him from continually learning about what is happening within the firm. Even after three decades with Frost Brown Todd, do you think Yund knows it all?

“The answer is no,” he says. “I do think that’s necessary to keep (a commitment to understanding the company). Just because you have to have confidence that the path you’re taking is the right one, you also have to be flexible and adjust where necessary.”

Case in point, when Yund took over as managing member, the country was in the thick of the recession. So he worked with Frost Brown Todd Chairman John R. Crockett III to develop a plan that would guide the firm through the economic downturn. The goal was to make sure that the economy and its continual uncertainty didn’t negatively affect the firm in a way that it lost key people.

Yund wanted input from his partners and clients. Receiving input — listening to your employees’ ideas — can’t simply come from walking around the hallways and having meetings with your senior executives. Frost Brown Todd surveyed both employees and customers. Questions were sent to the firm’s 100 largest clients. In addition to an online employee survey, Yund and Crockett personally interviewed 40 partners asking questions such as what they needed, what could management do better, and where they saw opportunities for the firm to improve and prosper.

You have to put in the effort that will allow you and your employees to have confidence in your decisions and your ultimate plan for the company. And that effort means constantly keeping the pulse of the organization.

Taking the second step of inspiring confidence in employees comes from how you present yourself and your decisions. You need to not only be communicative but open and honest.

“Make sure you never appear to be hiding the ball,” Yund says. “Make sure you don’t do anything that makes people doubt that they can trust you. That’s probably the biggest thing, so that they not only have confidence in you but confidence in their own ability to push the agenda of the company forward and the confidence to make mistakes.”

As Yund communicates the plan and the firm’s message to his department heads and practice group leaders, he asks them to use the same confidence and to lead their people in a direction that is consistent with what has been laid out for them. You do that by sending a clear message but also by consistent communication and consistent expectations. You should expect the same standards of your managers that you want them to expect of others.

“Why is consistency important?” Yund says. “Because people get confused if they get mixed messages.”

Be approachable

Yund spends a lot of time in his car. And if Frost Brown Todd’s eight locations were more than 250 miles from the home office, his sky miles, not his odometer, would be the true testament of his efforts to reach out to all of his employees and partners.

You’re never going to have as much time as you’d like to interact and communicate with employees, so you have to spend your time wisely when it comes to spreading your message. One thing Yund wants his employees to know is that he is approachable.

“You have to be approachable,” he says. “I don’t mean that in I wish I had more time to spend in walking-around management, but when I do walk around, I want to let people know I’m having fun at work, so they can feel that they can have fun at work and they should have fun at work. I think the better companies are ones where people really like their jobs as opposed to just dread Monday morning and can’t wait for Friday evening.”

When Yund talks about fun and approachability, he doesn’t mean performing juggling acts or playing practical jokes in the hallway; he means simply letting employees know that you enjoy doing your job. It’s like with any lead-by-example scenario: If you are able to demonstrate to your employees that you like your job, that sentiment rubs off.

“When I hear peopl

e complain about their jobs, and this goes back long before I was the managing member, my general response was, ‘Man, I really like what I do. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. It’s a fun place to practice law with great partners and great clients,’” he says. “If you give off the aura that that’s the way you feel about your job, I think you’re more likely to have other people feel that way, too.”

Building that approachability starts with taking advantage of whatever opportunities you have, no matter how short or how limited, to demonstrate that you enjoy talking to your people and you enjoy getting to know them. Yund tries to reach out to his 925 employees, a little more than half of whom are lawyers, by not only traveling to all of the Frost Brown Todd offices but by inviting employees to visit the larger Cincinnati and Louisville offices in order to spend time with them and introduce them to other firm employees.

It’s a circular answer, but in order to build relationships with employees and show them they can reach out to you, you must be accessible.

“That doesn’t mean sitting in my office with the door open because there are, of course, times when I can’t do that,” Yund says. “It means getting out of my office and making sure that when people come to talk to me about a problem, which is most of what I do, I don’t look at it as a chore.”

Naturally, when employees have a problem or they did something wrong, they might be worried about the reaction they’re going to receive from you. Yund takes a tip from former President Ronald Reagan by using a bit of tough-minded optimism. You have to make sure the problem gets fixed, but you also have to reassure your employee that everything is going to work out.

If you want your employees to feel that they can approach you with a problem, you have to be willing to help walk them through their dilemmas.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for helping people solve problems. That’s mostly what lawyers do anyway, so maybe it’s easier for me,” Yund says. “But I look at when people bring problems to me as an opportunity to do my job. I’ve already said I like doing my job, so I don’t want to make them think it’s difficult to bring a problem to George because my reaction is something other than optimistic.”

Relay a simple message

A big part of leadership is keeping everyone working toward the same goal. You do that through your vision.

When it comes to communicating a vision, there are two things that you need to keep in mind, Yund says. You have to keep it simple, and it must be something that is important to your business.

“It has to be something that is specific to your business theme, something that will explain a lot of what you do when you’re consistent about sticking to your plan,” he says. “That helps communicate your confidence. It helps you do what you say you will, and it helps you align your actions to your message. But I think it’s important to develop an important-to-your-business theme that is very simple.”

In Frost Brown Todd’s case, the firm thinks clients are more likely to seek services at a larger company because they expect that their needs will be met with the range of lawyers provided. In order for that to happen, the firm has to be organized and communication structures have to be such that it can meet each client’s need. The message is simple, but it’s important to the firm based on its history of having offices scattered throughout several states.

Put it this way, Yund says, “I think the easiest message to get across is the one that is simple.”

How to reach: Frost Brown Todd LLC, (513) 651-6800 or www.frostbrowntodd.com