Personal touch Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Diana M. Thimmig wants to know about your background.

Don’t get the wrong idea: She’s not digging for dirt. She is a champion of all upbringings and backgrounds as partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office of Roetzel & Andress.

But she wants to know as much as she can about you so that she can help you succeed. Born in Germany, Thimmig concedes she hasn’t followed the usual leadership path that you’d expect of someone charged with 85 employees. But she’s been a big hit at the $88 million, Akron-based firm because she is forever willing to take the time to understand her people and earn their trust.

As a result, she’s been at the helm during a time when the Cleveland office has become an anchor for the firm, almost tripling in employee numbers this decade.

Smart Businessspoke with Thimmig about how to hone your employees respect for you by taking a stake in their personal lives and why a superstar with a big ego is best off flourishing somewhere else.

Forget about e-mail, and go talk directly with employees. It’s critical to have frequent contact. That doesn’t mean an impersonal memo or e-mail but rather face-to-face contact — that’s the most effective way to communicate. I make a concerted effort to reach out to our attorneys and staff, both on a personal and a professional basis.

I don’t think you develop personal relationships through e-mail. To build a good relationship, people want to know that they’re a valued member of the team, and they want to be engaged. They don’t want to come in and simply punch their time clock and bide their time until the end of the work-day; they want to know they’re making valued contributions.

The way that you do that is through personal interaction and soliciting their ideas and listening to what they have to say. You can’t do that in an e-mail.

Roetzel & Andress has had a lot of strategic growth the last five years, and the Cleveland office has expanded to three floors now. So each day, I circulate through each of the floors to stay close to the folks, so if people have questions or concerns, they have an opportunity to voice them and they can get them addressed from me. And I know it’s effective because it works; I have people feeling comfortable enough to come into my office every day.

Take an interest in your people outside of work. There’s so much you can do as a leader to add that comfort level, to establish that trust factor. We do things outside of the workday together.

Get to know people, get to know them on a personal level, get to know about their spouses and their children and what their dreams are and aspirations are. It makes people feel as if they can belong without being the same.

We don’t just support various organizations monetarily, we also provide leadership in organizations and hands-on work. Every month, we go to the Cleveland Foodbank and we work side by side — partners, associates, staff members — sorting food with other volunteers where it’s outside of a formalized work setting. The barriers come down, the titles come down, and people just work together.

Over time, I learned that complete consensus is rare, and that the best way to deal with challenges isn’t through formal meetings with fixed agendas but really behind the scenes in the personal relationships that you develop. When you build these solid relationships, a leader can have an open and honest dialogue with employees and they will know that you care about them and understand them.

There are two important byproducts as a result of those relationships — trust and mutual respect. At the end of the day, I’m the one that has to make a decision, and it may not be a popular one. But because of the trust and mutual respect, people abide by the decisions, whether they agree with them or not.

Construct a culture without egos. Our culture is one that embraces diversity; it fosters an atmosphere of mutual respect. So if I’m going out and looking to hire somebody, it’s easy to say that we look for the best and brightest — I think everybody would say that — but what we’re looking for are people that value team-work.

And I’ll tell you what we don’t look for. It doesn’t come as any surprise to know that in the legal profession, we have our share of lawyers with inflated egos, and we expect people to check their egos at the door and work with other members of the team. If an attorney is unable to embrace that concept, it doesn’t matter how profitable he or she is, he will or she will be asked to leave — it’s best that they find another suitable place where their egos will be allowed to flourish and grow — which is really important for the other people to see, and it reinforces that culture.

When you’re hiring, you can find out a lot more than just (what you hear) in the interview. We’re not that big of a community.

There are a lot of us that are active in professional organizations where we interact on a daily basis, and if you have those conversations, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of a person’s ability to work with others or, conversely, an inability to work with others. It kind of follows them.

HOW TO REACH: Roetzel & Andress, (216) 623-0150 or