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No fear Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

When the door to Joel H. Rathbone’s office is shut, his people know he does not want to be bothered. If that is a source of tension or concern for them, Rathbone says that he’s fine with that.

“In good times and in bad times, if you’re a business leader, it’s OK for them to think that,” says Rathbone, co-managing partner at the law firm of Javitch, Block & Rathbone LLP. “That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s OK if you’re the boss and the employees are wondering what’s going on. It means they care about their job.

“You should never be afraid as a leader of what people are thinking about while you are performing your process of leading.”

Rathbone likes to close his door when he needs to do some serious thinking about the future of the 370-member firm. And these days, with the economy continuing to plummet, he’s been doing a lot of long-term thinking.

Unfortunately, it takes more than just one closed-door session to plot out an effective strategy to take a hard look at your business.

“Things happen more slowly than people realize,” Rathbone says. “The good leaders will take their time and will realize you can’t come up with all the answers in one day. When you think about how to reduce your labor costs, it’s not like an epiphany. It requires some diligence.

“It’s more than one occasion when you’re closing your door to think about it.”

Of course, once you’ve made some decisions, you have to come out and let your people know what you’ve decided. When it comes time to go public with a major decision, such as one affecting staffing, you need to accept that no matter what the decision, you’re never going to please everybody.

“Our objective ultimately is to try to deliver the strategy as to what kind of employee we are looking to have as a permanent employee,” Rathbone says. “It has to focus on attitude, attendance and performance. If they are willing to be an employee who focuses on those three attributes, then they will be involved in the decision-making as a matter of their job and just as a matter of course.

“But if they are a disgruntled employee, they have had attendance issues, their attitude is mediocre, I’ll never please them. A leader can never please them. The best you can do is to ask them to leave.”

Change is a major part of getting through tough economic times, and you need to prepare your company to deal with it.

“One of the first ways is to set expectations and let them know that this is and will always be a change-ready organization,” Rathbone says. “But what you want to do then is provide an information media process to keep them informed at all times as to the changes that are occurring.”

Rathbone uses an online daily newsletter that pops up on employees’ screens first thing every morning and that provides announcements about the firm throughout the day.

“In addition, we set up an electronic bulletin board for employees to use for their own personal use to share information amongst each other,” Rathbone says. “In reality, change is something that happens in all our lives. We try to provide an environment at work where the information is a constant flow, rather than once a week when you lay it on them. That’s not what we do. We lay it on them all day long.”

How to reach: Javitch, Block & Rathbone LLP, (216) 623-0000 or www.jber.com

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Joel H. Rathbone, co-managing partner, Javitch, Block & Rathbone LLP

Focus on relationships

Many leaders talk about getting back to basics during tough times, and Brian Sooy says that one of the best ways to do that is to be a better listener when meeting with your customers.

“A lot of people, when they meet, they say, ‘Here’s what I do and here’s what I’ve got,’” Sooy says. “Instead, you should be saying, ‘Here’s what I do, here’s what we have to offer, but how can I help you?’ It’s that third little part where you start listening to that client. ‘I’m interested in you and how I can help you,’ instead of, ‘I’m trying to be all things to all people, and you’re one of those people.’”

Sooy, president and creative director of Sooy + Co., says that nearly everything at his marketing firm centers around the development and cultivation of personal relationships.

“It creates meaning because instead of you trying to attract the customer, the customer is attracted to you,” Sooy says. “People perceive you a certain way depending on how you present yourself. If you come across as brash, arrogant and thinking you know it all, it’s not going to be a pleasant process to work with your company.”

How to reach: Sooy + Co., (440) 322-5142 or www.sooyco.com