Running a democracy Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

Michael W. Hartmann wouldn’t get far ruling his firm like a king. If he sat on a throne and handed down mandates, he’d surely butt heads with his 736 employees worldwide.

So instead, the CEO and principal of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC takes a democratic approach.

It starts at the law firm’s strategic planning meetings, where leaders can contribute topics to a loose agenda. As he contemplates those ideas, Hartmann strikes up conversations with other associates to get feedback.

Of course, this takes time.

“It’s the old story about democracy,” he says. “It takes you a little longer to make decisions. But once you make them, it’s easier to get everybody signed up.”

For Hartmann, whose firm reported 2008 revenue of $146 million, it’s worth the time and effort to let employees participate in decision-making.

“You have to build relationships with the people you work with,” Hartmann says. “The better you know them and the better they know you, the more information you’re going to have.”

Smart Business spoke to Hartmann about getting input and building consensus with your employees.

Keep in touch with employees. Your principal constituency is your partners, and it’s important to listen to your partners and find out what’s important to them. That’s probably got two aspects. One, you need to schedule up some pretty periodic meetings. I’m also not a person who sits at my desk, so I visit offices and I walk the floors. That encourages people to say what’s on their mind.

You have to ask them what’s on their mind and what their issues are. It’s not like they have to be overly encouraged to tell me what’s on their minds.

We have a management group and we meet once a week, and we’re probably on the phone almost every day. An activity that occurs in virtually every meeting we ever have is [asking], ‘Who have you talked to in the last week, and what issues are being raised by people that are out there?’ We still, on a regular and consistent basis, talk among ourselves about issues that have been brought to our attention during the week.

Get buy-in through persuasion. You have to convince them [a change] is in their best interest. So you have to have a long-run vision and convince your partners and employees that whatever you want to do a little different is, in the end, in the long-term best interests of the organization. Everybody’s worried about their economic health, at least in today’s day. Everybody’s worried about keeping their culture intact, making sure that what brought people to the firm in the first place is still there. It’s also important to keep in touch with the leaders in your firm on a regular basis to see what’s important to them.

It’s not like you can say, ‘Do it,’ and everyone follows along. It’s like 95 percent persuasion. So that means you have to get out there and talk to your people. E-mail’s wonderful, but I think there has to be a lot of face-to-face contact. You have to get out there and talk to people.

Every time I see a partner, I ask him how business is, what’s going on, what are the issues, that sort of stuff. Ask them how their business is doing. Ask them what they need.

I send e-mails out to the firm on assorted topics every single week. There’s no week that goes by that I’m not communicating by e-mail to all the personnel. Every time we add a person, we send out an e-mail. I send out dozens of e-mails a week.

Some of it’s written, some of it’s group meetings. It depends on what the message is. If you’re just trying to get out information, I’d say an e-mail probably is sufficient. If you’re trying to change the way the firm is going to do something, I don’t think you can do that by e-mail. If you’re going to do something different, you’ve basically got to get out there and talk to them.

Allow dissent. I don’t think we’ve ever made a major change that we haven’t discussed pretty widely inside the partnership before we’d done it. So most everything here that gets done gets discussed pretty widely.

I don’t think there is an idea that someone doesn’t disagree with. In our firm, dissent is tolerated pretty widely. People are allowed to express their views. Generally, most substantive issues are debated openly and enthusiastically.

The most important thing management could do is not ever take punitive actions against people that express divergent views. And I also think it’s important that whoever expresses a view knows that it got heard by the management group. Not necessarily agreed with, because no one’s going to agree with everything everybody says.

It’s important to be able to go back and say, ‘Well, you know, you made this argument. We actually talked about that. We might not have agreed with you, but we discussed it.’ I think that’s important.

Check results with customers. If you try to do something differently, see if people actually do it. [See] whether there’s a rear-guard action to resist it. Pay attention to the general business climate. Do people have enough work? Are people fully engaged? Are our clients satisfied?

It’s really important to get a steady stream of repeat business from existing clients, so it’s important to know that our clients are satisfied with our services. That’s without question the most important thing out there. So we measure that and talk to people about that constantly.

Some clients come and survey us and give us reports. Some clients, it’s just a history — are they still sending work? Some of our partners and I meet with major clients on a periodic basis and ask them how things are going. Certainly, with our major clients, we make an effort to check in on a quite consistent basis to see how things are going.

How to reach: Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC, (313) 963-6420 or www.millercanfield.com