Complete communication Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Carl J. Grassi came into his tenure as president of McDonald Hopkins LLC dealing with a potential communications catastrophe.

The business law, litigation, restructuring and estate-planning firm was fine from a business standpoint, growing from one office to five in the last five years, but it was dealing with the unexpected death of Grassi’s friend and predecessor, Joseph J. LoPresti Jr.

Grassi did his best to comfort his people through open communication, mixing understanding and the time to mourn with an appropriate focus on the future. Then, after six weeks, Grassi and the firm’s partners had an off-site retreat to close the sad chapter.

“We focused not on the past, but we focused on communicating where we were at and where we wanted to be,” he says. “It was great closure to a very unfortunate, unexpected result.”

With that, Grassi was able to refocus his more than 250 employees on getting back on task and seeing brighter days ahead.

Smart Business spoke with Grassi about how important it is to open up communications.

Talk business in person. To get the message across and have people pulling in the same direction, the importance of regular and frequent communication is critical. And one thing that you can’t replace is the impact of face-to-face communication.

Our management team meets every month, and every quarter, our management team goes to one of our markets and spends two days. It takes a lot of time, but you have to do that because each market is unique in and of itself, and people want to feel like they are a part of something.

And the only way you can do that is you’ve got to be able to embrace the feedback; you can’t be critical of the feedback. You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to make people feel part of something — and the only way to do that is you have to be there. Face-to-face communication is still the most effective way to have people relate. You cannot replace the benefits of that.

So you can easily say, ‘Well, you have videoconferencing capabilities, you have e-mail, and you can hit four digits and be talking to somebody ...’ But, you know what, it doesn’t replace regular and frequent communication, and it doesn’t replace those face-to-face meetings.

Listen to everybody. To get feedback, you have to be a good listener; you have to be able to listen to the message rather than try to impress upon them your agenda or your considerations.

Secondly, you have to be proactive at it. One of the things we did this year — and will do on a regular basis — is a client survey and an employee survey. What we’re trying to do is be proactive so those individuals that may not speak up or say how they feel can voice concerns. The other thing is the walk-around management style; it’s going out there and seeking that feedback — asking and encouraging people to speak up.

If you look at our firm, 85 percent of us have come from other law firms. We draw on those experiences that those individuals had with those other firms, those things that we need to consider and those things we should avoid.

And to be able to do that, you have to be able to listen, and you have to be proactive in terms of asking and encouraging people to communicate.

Give everybody the same memo. When you put out the message, being consistent — not changing the message — is so important because it can be misunderstood, misconstrued. So when I talk about the results of a particular month that we’ve had, that message goes to everybody. We don’t change the message for the audience because we have to recognize that we’re all here together to promote and grow this firm. And if you’re going to do that, then you need to make sure the message you’re providing to your colleagues is consistent.

That’s really important as you evolve and change — and we’re a bigger firm today than we were just a few years ago or just last year. You’ve got to make sure that the message doesn’t change for the audience. Sometimes the core thing there is when you get the message out, you really want to make sure you do the message in a framework where it’s, I don’t want to say instantaneous, but it’s out to everybody at the same time because you don’t want any of it to be lost in the translation.

Celebrate success, but refuse complacency. The time you become complacent is the time you really need to find something else to do. You really need to be looking outward, looking forward. You can rejoice in your past successes but not to the extent that it forestalls you from moving forward.

One of the things I have on my wall is a Vince Lombardi speech. ... His one line is, ‘(There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers)’ That’s a little strong, because you don’t want to be viewed as ‘winning is everything,’ but what he really was saying is, don’t be complacent, try to strive to reach your fullest potential, don’t just sit there and say we’ve made it.

If you think about our firm, we could sit back and say, ‘Boy, we’ve done a pretty good job.’ That’s the day I need to worry because we need to continue to look at opportunities. That’s a daily occurrence that you share with everybody. You don’t put it away and think about it later.

HOW TO REACH: McDonald Hopkins LLC, (800) 847-6424 or