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Legal challenge Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006

I t’s easy for business leaders to say they would travel to the ends of the Earth to pick up a new client or customer; but it’s another thing to actually do it.

When Melissa Proffitt Reese became a co-managing partner at Ice Miller LLP two years ago, she knew she wanted to expand the law firm’s external focus and grow its client base. Her travels on trade missions with other Indiana business leaders and government officials to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam during the past year showed just how far she was willing to go to do so.

“Instead of just having lunch or dinner or breakfast, I would spend 10 days with these individuals on long bus rides and 22-hour plane flights and would have the opportunity to talk about a whole host of issues affecting them and their businesses,” says Reese, whose term as managing partner expired Jan. 1. “I was able to bring that information back to my partners and share various ideas on how we could support them, not only from the standpoint of providing legal services but from a pure business initiative standpoint.”

Reese says the knowledge gained from these expeditions can only help Ice Miller in the months and years ahead. The extended interaction with potential customers and clients provides an opportunity to really get to know them and understand their issues and concerns on a deeper level. “It’s a true investment of a CEO’s time and effort,” she says. “But I think it’s critical to developing a long-term relationship and partnership with new and existing clients.”

Making the trip even more positive was the fact that Reese didn’t have to worry about the law firm she left behind in Indianapolis.

“Having three managing partners allows for one of us to go out and focus externally,” Reese says. “Having that strong internal base of talent within your organization allows for that flexibility of its leaders.”

Reese grew up in a judicial family; her father was a lawyer, and her mother was a judge. But it wasn’t until she was in junior high that she got the push she needed to follow her own path toward being a lawyer. “When I was talking to (my father) about being a nurse or a paralegal, he was the one who said, ‘Well, why not a doctor or a lawyer?’” Reese says. “He always instilled in me that if you work really hard and approach things in an honest and ethical manner, you can achieve almost anything you want to achieve.”

Reese says it is the principles of hard work and an openness to fresh ideas that have led Ice Miller to more than $100 million in revenue nearly a century after the firm was founded in 1910.

The firm is headquartered in Indianapolis and has offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., with more than 225 lawyers, 40 paraprofessionals and 250 support staff members.

Everyone counts
Whether running a law firm or another type of business, Reese says each and every employee must be convinced that he or she plays a part in the organization’s ultimate success or failure. “Everybody here plays an incredibly important fundamental role in accomplishing what the firm needs to accomplish,” Reese says. “No one refers to a client as their client. All clients are firm clients. The firm is very open, and opinions are expected and always given. It’s a very communicative environment.”

And the value of finding employees who bring a positive attitude to their work and are willing to be team players should never be underestimated.

“A positive attitude motivates others and is easier to manage,” Reese says. “Persons with a half-empty attitude are frequently critical. Such negative attitudes can drain the energy out of the department or organization, regardless of the quality of the skill set of the individual.”

Once team-oriented employees are in place, good leaders find ways both to energize and inspire them in their work, Reese says.

“They need to do this by demonstrating high standards of integrity, honesty and performance,” she says. “Leaders need to take the time to provide feedback to employees and to mentor them. One of the important hallmarks of good leadership is that when you leave your organization, you’ve left your organization with people who can take over.”

Leaders also find ways to ensure both that they are being followed and that those who are following know where the leader is taking them.

“You become very busy and very engaged in the day-to-day business of running the firm,” Reese says. “You have a tremendous amount of responsibility and obligation on your plate, and you want to get things done to move the organization forward. It is easy for CEOs to forget the importance of communicating so that as you’re trying to move forward, the organization is behind you and understands why you are headed in the direction you are.

“Leaders cannot communicate enough. They need to articulate very clearly their vision and their goals, how they intend to accomplish them and why. You should never assume those following you understand why you’re doing it or where you want to go. No matter how strong of a leader you are, if you don’t have people following you, you are not a leader.”

Provide feedback
Employees also need to know how well they are doing at following through on the plan.

“I believe every person really wants to do their best and is very open to constructive criticism, if it’s presented in a very respectful manner,” Reese says. “It’s incumbent upon any leader, any manager, to take time to work with and talk with their employees and help them continue to be better at their position.”

The CEO may also uncover, through constant communication with others in the company, a solution that he or she had never considered.

“The biggest mistake a CEO can make in leading his or her company is believing that you have all the answers,” Reese says. “Leaders don’t have all the answers. When you stop asking for help and listening to others is when you stop learning. I think leaders need to be comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know the answer.’ Making others perform at their best will have you perform at your best. You need to ensure that everybody within your organization feels that he or she has a role and is very important to the organization and can contribute to you as a leader.

“Listen to what their concerns are, treat them as equals and use the information they provide you to the best of the organization. When employees or lawyers feel like they actually have a voice at the firm and are contributing, I think that is fundamentally important. It motivates individuals to be involved in the firm and to participate.”

Open lines of communication become even more critical when a company is dealing with a high rate of employee turnover.

“It used to be you would go to a law firm, you’d become a partner and you’d spend your whole career there,” she said. “Now, it’s not at all unusual for lawyers to practice at several different law firms or within corporations. Attracting and retaining talent is key.”

Measuring up
CEOs should determine the typical turnover rate in their industry, gauge whether they are within the norms and determine the cause of turnover at their company.

“In looking at these issues, one should consider which terminations are voluntary and which are involuntary,” Reese says. “If voluntary, consider the reasons individuals are leaving. Exit interviews are frequently very helpful in providing feedback to businesses in this regard. If the terminations are involuntary, is there a problem at the hiring level?”

Employee turnover can prove costly to businesses beyond just benefits and salary.

“Also lost is the training that has been provided and each employee’s knowledge of the company’s clients and business,” she says. “It is the CEO’s job to determine the reasons for the turnover and develop a strategy to address the issue and then follow up to ensure these strategies have been successful.”

CEOs can stay better attuned to the satisfaction level of their employees by exhibiting a certain level of approachability in the workplace.

“It’s very important to have a personality and a persona and a consistent demeanor around you that is one that facilitates an open-door policy and an openness of communication,” Reese says. “That means you need to be a good listener and nonjudgmental. It’s also important for CEOs to spend as much time as they can talking and interacting on a one-on-one basis with people within their organization.

“Obviously, this is a huge challenge, but it’s not anything you should ever put on the shelf or not try to do on a daily basis as best you can.”

Show the way
Open lines of communication will help show employees the path they need to follow if they themselves wish to become leaders.

“There are numerous opportunities within the firm to demonstrate leadership skills through practice group leadership, through committee chairmanship and through other avenues outside in the community,” Reese says. “It is somewhat easy to identify those individuals who rise to the occasion and perform admirably repeatedly in important roles.”

Leaders can also benefit by maintaining contact with their peers if both sides enter the dialogue in the right frame of mind.

“Managing partners look very frequently to each other to provide information and assistance with regard to best practices and different avenues of change that have worked and not worked for them,” Reese says. “It’s a very open dialogue in that regard, so developing those relationships and networking with your peers in this industry is very important.

“Although you learn from each other, you’re always competing with each other, and so consequently, you need to be thoughtful about the type of information you discuss and share with each other.”

And just as leaders think they have all the bases covered, they need to beware of complacency.

“Complacency can be a very serious enemy of a company,” Reese says. “CEOs need to make sure that everyone is doing their part to collectively improve the bottom line. Being content with the status quo will ensure you will end up with less than the status quo. Thinking short-term and thinking without a vision toward the future can be very damaging to a company.”

Actions that can be defined as risky, while necessary, must be taken with caution, however.

“The sign of any good leader is someone who can rise to a challenge and learn from failures, mistakes or losses,” Reese says. “Whenever anything happens that is not what you would like, there is definitely something to learn from it. Sometimes, it jumps out at you, and you know exactly what you’re supposed to be learning and what you missed. Other times, it’s not so apparent. ... Pull from the very talented people that surround you to help you understand what went wrong and how you can prevent it from happening again.”

Reese says that while a CEO’s job is never completely done, successful leaders will always strive to find the fun in their work.

“As a managing partner, you spend a tremendous amount of time here at the office and thinking about the firm, even when you’re not at the office,” Reese says. “It’s very important to enjoy the job. I just try to be very optimistic and look at each day as a new day, where there’s lots of results that can be achieved.”

HOW TO REACH: Ice Miller LLP, www.icemiller.com