Jeffrey Foreman is never too far from his BlackBerry. So if one of his lawyers who is working from home calls him with an urgent question in the middle of the night, he’s accessible.
Foreman, president and one of the founding partners of Maltzman Foreman PA, strives to make himself approachable. To do that, he’s torn down the ivory tower that sometimes separates employees from their leaders.
“As soon as you start isolating yourself from your employees, then you become vulnerable,” says Foreman, who guided the law firm to 2008 revenue of $6 million.
Foreman gets on the same level as his 45 employees by holding himself to the same expectations, staying accessible and interacting socially outside of the office.
Additionally, when there’s a dispute, Foreman avoids stepping in to dictate the resolution. Instead, he lets employees handle it themselves.
Through it all, he maintains an environment of open communication at the firm.
Smart Business spoke with Foreman about how to knock down the walls of hierarchy and be approachable to your employees.
Lead by example. First of all, we show them the vision and show that it’s achievable and show them our achievements. [I do this by] leading by example and never asking an employee to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. If I’m not willing to do it myself, then I shouldn’t expect others to do it. If I expect somebody to bill 2,000 hours, then I’m going to bill 2,000 hours.
So by me setting the bar, it shows that that bar can be accomplished by somebody. I’m not asking somebody to do something that’s incapable of being accomplished, and I show that by doing it myself.
I’m not going to not come into work or bill no time and expect my employees to do all the work. It makes it hard to ask them to do something and creates resentment.
So when you have a new employee, if they were to say, ‘Well, I can’t bill that many hours,’ you say, ‘Well, you can because I do it, and everybody else here does it.’
Keep the lines of communication open. I have an open-door policy. I am accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except if I’m on an airplane when I don’t have access to my phone or BlackBerry. Anybody that works with me knows that they can pretty much get me. As long as somebody’s not calling me at 2 in the morning to say hello but they’re calling me at 2 in the morning because they have a question that’s work-related, I don’t mind being woken up if I happen to be sleeping.
To have a successful firm that is essentially dealing with clients around the world, I recognize that you have to be accessible and sometimes provide answers at any hour of the day.
Interact outside of the office. Some people build a wall and there’s that fictitious wall where somebody may feel that it’s inappropriate to contact the CEO. So I think that interacting, even on a social level with all of the employees regardless of their social position, [is key].
So even if it’s sitting down in the employee cafeteria and eating lunch with them, it’s building the relationship and making them feel comfortable first talking to you face to face. Then that builds the comfort and the assurance that they can call you whenever they need to if there’s a problem.
One of the things that we do, for example, with our lawyers is we might take them on a retreat out of town so we’re out of the office and we build that comfort with them. It could be anything, whether it’s taking them out on a boat on a weekend and letting them know that it’s OK to joke around, to drop the formalities. If they feel comfortable with you, they’ll feel comfortable talking to you.
You spend so much time working with the people around you. I just think that it’s better if you know where everybody’s coming from, their life outside of the office. It makes it easier to understand each individual and what makes them tick.
Don’t butt in to disputes. Occasionally, there may be a difference of opinion, difference of personality. Let’s say an associate would come to me and say, ‘I can’t work with Partner A anymore.’ What we would try and do is if we felt that that individual was a good talent, if we couldn’t reconcile the two of them, then we might consider making a change.
But everything is not done arbitrarily. I don’t just say, ‘OK, this is what’s going to be.’ I listen.
Being a good listener means keeping an open mind, hearing what the employees are saying to you, whether it means acknowledging what they’re saying during the conversation, whether it means contemplating it and then thereafter making a change.
I sit down and listen to what everybody has to say, and I usually will try and get everybody else to come up with a solution. If everybody else signs on or buys in to that decision, then they’re going to be happier than if I just say, ‘OK, you’re going to work here and you’re going to work there, like it or not.’
[To get] everybody to talk out in the open, ask them, ‘What would you like? What would you like? What’s the solution?’ If it’s something that works for the firm, then they’ve made the decision.
If you are arbitrarily making decisions that affect others within the company, then inevitably you’re opening the door for unhappiness. Somebody is going to be unhappy with the decision.
If you [let] all that are involved come up with a resolution with my assistance or on their own, you’re going to have less unhappiness, less dissension. I think that they appreciate it more than me just saying, ‘Look, I heard you. I’m going to side with him,’ or, ‘I’m not going to side with you,’ or, ‘I’m not going to side with either of you. This is what’s going to be.’ Then you have unhappiness.
It comes down to, ‘If you guys can’t work it out amongst yourselves, then we’re going to have to make a decision, myself or the firm’s executive committee.’
How to reach: Maltzman Foreman PA, (305) 358-6555 or www.mflegal.com