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Raising the bar Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

When Wayne Risoli looked at his law firm in 2004, he saw an organization that was drifting, content with being good enough but no longer striving for excellence. The new managing shareholder at Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin knew things needed to change.

“When people believe they can operate without any structure or any answering to management, then left to their own devices, people will get in a feeling of status quo,” Risoli says. “They will just do enough to get the organization running and nothing more.”

Risoli wanted to make the pursuit of excellence a priority and ingrain it in the culture of the 285-employee firm, which grew 2007 revenue to $58.2 million, up from $35.1 million in 2003. But such goals often require a leader to make hard decisions.

“In three months’ time, I terminated seven or eight people,” Risoli says. “From that minute on, everyone knew management was serious about only accepting excellence.”

Smart Business spoke with Risoli about how to communicate change to employees and how to weed out those who don’t want to go along for the ride.

Q. How do you communicate change to employees?

Be sure that the organization has a solid foundation. The first thing we did was meet with every employee, starting with the management committee, the practice group leaders, all the associates and all the staff in our offices and communicate our goals going forward. Ask everyone, ‘Are you prepared to join us in attempting to achieve these goals?’

Be candid with where the company is at present. Tell everyone in the organization that we are going to improve this organization with your help.

Identify all those people who will not or will drag the company down or somehow will not buy in to your plan going forward. The leader needs to make hard decisions with those people. Either you are going to be with us or you need to find other employment.

Sometimes, the best decisions leaders make are terminating those who will not agree to the plan for growth and success.

It’s difficult if you just come into an organization to identify those people. You may be able to look at production runs on those people. There may be something in their file that suggests they will not help you advance.

Q. How do you get everyone working in the same direction?

A leader, if they are going to have any staying power, needs to have the confidence of his or her staff. In order to do that, you need to have confidence in them. What I try to do is instill in them that I have complete confidence that they are good at what they do, and we are results-driven.

I open the communication up to dialogue between management and the employees. I get some very good suggestions and advice from people, and I continue to encourage it.

It’s funny that CEOs fear that rules that need to be followed are going to be looked at negatively. Most people want to succeed. We saw that with just about everyone on our staff.

They wanted some rules applied evenly and to everyone. Once we explained that, everyone said, ‘Now, I have a structure, and I can give you my best effort.’

Have faith that they are going to accomplish the goals that they set.

Don’t try to micromanage those goals. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of an organization to get too far down in trying to manage every detail.

Q. How do you convince employees of your confidence in them?

Have realistic goals that are actually achievable in one year so that you get momentum going forward in year two and three.

Communicate with your people and tell them how you’re going to reach those goals. In most organizations, it’s not that difficult to see what is dragging the company down. Identify those and make the hard decision. Tell everyone you are eliminating those and that you freeing them up to do their best work.

Q. How do you deal with problems along the way?

If, in attempting to reach your goals, the firm faces some failures, don’t look at those failures as stopping or preventing you from reaching your goals. Every organization has failures. The organization that is healthy is the organization that minimizes those failures and learns from them.

You’re going to make some failures. Learn from it, tell everyone we did fail at this, but we’ve learned from it, and here is how we’re going to cure it.

Once you see something is failing, call it. You get the trust of your employees when you admit you made a mistake, and you cured it.

HOW TO REACH: Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin, (713) 654-9645 or www.chamberlainlaw.com