Laying down the law Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

When Fred Nance was a young associate at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, he saw the chairman of the firm actively working — but not solely on client cases.

“I saw that the chairman of the firm was involved not only with the bar association but was involved with supporting the schools and development efforts, and I recognized that he wasn’t negotiating a deal,” Nance says. “When he wasn’t trying a lawsuit or he wasn’t attending a client meeting, he was out there trying to make the Cleveland community a better place. I started watching that and wondering what that was all about. I eventually saw that it’s about leadership, and it is about making the tide rise for everyone. It helps the organization that dedicates those resources to it, but it also just makes the community a better place to live, which is part of giving back.”

Seeing that at an early age has clearly encouraged Nance to not only work hard within the firm but to also give generously of his time throughout the community.

“The same skill set that made me successful as a trial lawyer or within my career as I was developing also ended up becoming leadership traits that I was able to utilize in different contexts — by different contexts I mean outside the firm in civic organizations.”

While he’s the regional managing partner for the law firm, he also serves on the boards of the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Foundation and the Greater Cleveland Partnership. He was recently named general counsel for the Cleveland Browns, and if you name nearly any major initiative in town — from the medical mart to the casino crusade — he’s likely had his hand in that, as well. But no matter which organization’s hat he wears at any particular moment, he’s learned that for any of these entities — for-profit or nonprofit — to succeed, you have to have strong leadership with a strong vision.

“All of these things happen because of leadership — people with vision, people who can first of all have the vision and then motivate others to see it and bring resources to bear it, to make it happen,” Nance says. “That’s what leadership is all about.”

Create a vision

Some people in town are afraid to think big when it comes to creating a vision.

So when Mayor Frank Jackson came to Nance and other local leaders and told them he wanted the city to contend to host the 2008 Republican National Convention, everyone thought he was nuts.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I want the Republican National Convention here. I want your businesses to put in the resources. I want you to loan the executives, and we’re going to go after this,’” Nance says. “We thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ He galvanized the business community to do it.”

But it took his vision to get people excited. Initially, Nance and other leaders thought there was no way Cleveland could contend because there wouldn’t be enough hotel rooms compared to larger cities. But that’s where the out-of-the-box thinking comes into play. In reality, the criterion was a certain number of rooms within a one-hour drive of the location. This puts Akron, Lorain and the rest of the region into play.

“We have plenty of hotel rooms,” he says. “We said to ourselves, why is the criteria one hour? Because, then again, in front of our face, something most of us take for granted that in 90 percent of the cities in America, because of the gridlock and because of how bad the traffic patterns are, it takes you an hour to get in 20 miles outside of the city.”

But you have to take the blinders off and be able to recognize these kinds of things and create a vision. While Cleveland lost to Minneapolis in its bid, it energized leaders across the city and got them thinking about greater possibilities and what united the region, and that’s the first step to creating a vision for your own organization.

“I think that many organizations have sometimes suffered from getting into a rut of always doing things the same way and people inside the organization saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to do that because we’ve never done it that way before,’” he says. “While there’s a certain distinctive behavior that causes people to do that, what leadership is about is getting people to break out of those ruts and sometimes take a risk and do things differently. There might be a higher objective or a better way of achieving the goal, and I think, particularly in today’s economy, the ability to influence or inspire people to do things differently ... (and) encourage people to be innovative and to think of a new way of doing things before others do, is what distinguishes many businesses.”

Get your mind in the right place to be able to think of a grand vision.

“It’s the mindset of whether to go after it, whether to take a risk and do things differently and have a business culture where you reward risk-taking and where you have leadership that’s going to be responsive to trying to do things differently as opposed to, ‘Go away, don’t bother me with that crazy stuff, we’ve never done that before,’” Nance says. “I think companies that are on the cutting edge of moving into the new economy have that type of culture where that sort of risk-taking ... is rewarded with additional resources to pursue it and rewarded with individual recognition.”

When you’re thinking big, put the pen to paper and actually create a formal vision.

For example, when the Greater Cleveland Partnership formed, it was the merger of Cleveland Tomorrow, the Greater Cleveland Growth Association and the Greater Cleveland Roundtable. While these organizations had all worked separately, they all had similar goals in making Cleveland better. Now they needed to create a unified vision.

“One of the things we did was we had the constituent groups that were eventually merged come together and identify common interests — what is it that we are trying to accomplish,” Nance says.

They also looked at the past.

“What had worked and what hadn’t worked?” he says. “Why did it make sense to come together and look at some of the mechanical things? How do we meld these organizations together?

“The way you identify those objectives are to look at your past,” Nance says. “What has been successful? What hasn’t been successful? And you don’t necessarily keep doing what was successful or not do what wasn’t, but you look at that and take into account the future. How are things unfolding or what is going to be the direction or the emphasis in the economy or the industry going forward — and then try to position yourself to be a leader and to be successful based upon how things are developing.”

You also have to take into account two other factors in creating your vision.

“There’s the internal — What does my company need to accomplish? — and then there’s the (external) — What should we accomplish in the region?” he says. “Hopefully you figure out a way to make the two dovetail.”

And lastly, you have to think of others and not of yourself in creating your vision.

“There needs to be in leadership and in creating a vision an element of selflessness, meaning you have to believe in the

vision enough that the mission, the institution, is more important than the interest of the individual,” Nance says. “And I have seen this again and again, particularly in some of the volatility of companies and firms going out of business and failing in these turbulent times. In order to be successful and thrive, you have to have a culture where the vision is articulated in a way that everybody understands that the goal of the collective institution is more important than the interest of the individual.

“If you don’t run your organization that way, when times get tough and you face serious challenges, you’re going to be a lot less stable than if you’re in an organization where everyone believes that, no matter what, we have to make sure that the interest of the institution is above the interest of the individuals. It is the differentiator between those that survive difficult challenges and those that don’t.”

In the case of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, it decided that the common vision was to move the region forward on an economic-development basis so it could participate in the new economy, attract talent and resources, and get the region’s young folks to stay here after they graduated.

Nance says, “Ultimately, it was the recognition of a common desire or common need to take all of these marvelous resources that we have that were in different places and put them together and get everyone to understand that creating the opportunity for economic development here meant that we had to have a strategic plan that required a planning process.”

Get buy-in for the vision

When Nance goes to court, it’s often the culmination of several years worth of work and preparation involving not just himself but young associates, legal assistants and specialists, as well.

“The person who stayed up late at night copying the documents in the duplicating room needs to understand what role they are playing in achieving that overall objective so they take pride and they’re motivated and they get up every day and come to work and think, ‘I’m part of a bigger whole,’” Nance says.

Everyone needs to be linked to that bigger whole in some sort of way.

“I know that it seems kind of hokey to talk about mission statements, but unless organizations have a clear, articulated set of objectives and a stated dedication of leadership to moving the organization forward, then it’s hard to get people to recognize what it is that you’re trying to accomplish,” Nance says. “Once you have a clear set of objectives, you have a mission statement, you have a collective goal, then you integrate into that your understanding of human nature — what it is that turns people on, what it is that motivates them to get behind a particular set of objectives — and you figure out a way how to integrate everyone in the organization at all levels and understanding whatever their job is and whatever they’re doing is furthering the final objectives.”

At Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, the ultimate goal is to provide excellent client service.

“Excellent client service can only occur when everybody at every level of the organization understands that objective and buys in to it, is recognized for their participation and particularly for excellence and success, and is pulled into your organization,” he says. “If you can motivate people at every level by sharing a clearly identified objective and mission, it makes it that much easier to get the best out of people because we’re basically all the same — all of us need motivation to do the best we can do and indeed sometimes under stressful situations to go above and beyond what we think we’re capable of doing.”

There are a couple of ways that he makes sure this happens in the firm.

“You’re more likely to do that, A, if you have been integrated into the organization in a way that you understand the part you’re playing, but B, if you have strong leadership,” he says. “It’s again just human nature that people are more willing to push themselves beyond what they believe they’re capable of doing if they believe there’s someone in a leadership position who’s doing that and who is selfless, who is dedicated to the institutional interests, and who is going to do whatever they can to make your organization successful. I think that’s true in for-profits and nonprofits and all different large organizations because it’s a function of human nature.”

Nance says that the ability to intertwine your employees’ goals and needs with those of the company is an integral key to successful leadership.

“There is a certain level of technical proficiency that is necessary to advance in your career that is required of everyone,” he says. “To people that advance beyond that or who move into leadership positions, often are those that have people skills and emotional intelligence where they have not just the ability to communicate with others but the ability to empathize with others, to see things through the eyes of others and to be able to relate to others’ objectives and goals and weave them into the institutional objectives and goals.”

Doing all of this comes down to communicating your vision effectively.

“The more clearly you can articulate the vision, you can hopefully inspire others to first see it, and then again, it’s figuring out how to let others see how they can play a meaningful part, meaning, not everybody can be involved in every project,” he says.

You may roll your eyes at reading another person talk about the value of communication, but don’t underestimate its value in getting people on board with your vision.

“(Communication) may be an overused word but one that is very, very important because … oftentimes, employees feel disconnected — they’re punching that time clock, can’t wait to get out and go home, and need the paycheck,” Nance says. “Well, that’s one way of doing business, but if you are able to figure out what is important to your employees, ... most people are going to buy in, most people are going to want to play their part.”

But there’s more to communication than simply having a town-hall meeting or sending an e-mail.

“Communication isn’t just telling people what to do,” he says. “Communication includes listening. Communication includes receiving feedback and being able to explain what it is the company or the organization is trying to do in view of what people’s needs, what people’s desires are — what people would like to see done in the community.

“[If] you listen to people and provide them with a vehicle that lets them help in the way they want to help, you’re more likely to get buy-in.”

The more you’re able to do this, the more you’ll be able to work toward your vision.

“With respect to your business, yourself, your industry or your firm, listening to people as to how you can do things better within the profession is one of the best ways to drive some of this innovation that everybody is looking for today,” he says. “Again, you can have a institutional mindset where, ‘We’ve done things in a certain way, we’re always going to do them that way, and if you start to question it, you’re a troublemaker,’ or you can have an environment where, ‘If anybody sees a better way of doing this, not only do we want you, we’re going to recognize it, and if it works, we’re going to reward you, we’re going to do things like that to help move us forward, and we want you to understand that w

e want to know if you think there’s a better way of doing things,’ is clearly the corporate culture and the collaborative culture of the future.

“If you extend yourself that way as opposed to thinking that your business culture ought to be to make sure that everybody does what they’re told and only when they’re told, in today’s economy, your business is going to be that much more successful and that much sooner.”

And you can’t use your business’ size as an excuse to not do these things.

“I don’t think it really matters the size of the company because however big the company is, the company, the firm, we all interface in either supplying goods or services at a very defined level, and there are always ways to do it better, and oftentimes, the people who are doing the work to make it happen, understand efficiency perhaps better than a person sitting in an office somewhere looking at numbers on a pieces of paper,” Nance says. “You have a culture that encourages people to speak up and promote innovation, those are the companies that are on the cutting edge these days, and that is an attribute that is rewarded. Again, ultimately, it’s self-interest, but it takes vision recognizing doing things differently and accepting input from people at all levels is part of what it takes to be innovative, and oh by the way, it also creates a positive business culture — a corporate culture that begins to develop upon itself. It can become a competitive situation always trying to come up with new ideas.”

HOW TO REACH: Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, (216) 479-8500 or