Personnel counsel Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. is no stranger to handling situations of

international importance. Culvahouse, who served as White

House counsel for President Ronald Reagan from March 1987 to

January 1989, was brought in to that spot by former Tennessee

Sen. Howard Baker. When he first took the post, he had a meeting

with Baker that he never forgot. “I went into the White House at

the same time that Howard Baker did to be chief of staff,”

Culvahouse says. “Senator Baker had recommended me to be

White House counsel. Before we went in, we met at Howard’s

house, and he said we would have three, and only three, priorities,

and everything else could not distract from the priorities.” Those

first three priorities, which included getting Reagan through the

Iran-Contra investigations, negotiating an arms agreement with

the Soviet Union and getting a Republican to succeed President

Reagan, were laid out clearly so that Culvahouse was on the same

page with White House expectations.

So when it comes to his daily work as chairman at O’Melveny &

Myers LLP, the international law firm, Culvahouse still thinks

about that conversation. His firm has more than 2,200 personnel,

including more than 1,000 lawyers, and has offices all over the

globe. It would be easy, then, for any of those offices to take off in

its own direction. But like his initial conversation with Baker,

Culvahouse and the senior leaders at O’Melveny focus on getting

everyone on the same page.

So how do you get 2,200 people working anywhere from

Shanghai to San Francisco on the same page while still finding the

time to conduct your business every day? It’s not easy, but

Culvahouse and O’Melveny have done it by unifying the firm

around its values statement, ramping up communication frequency and channels, and when a solid majority is reached, moving forward without hesitation.

Use a guiding principle

It’s just a guess, but you probably have taken some time at your

company to put together something you consider to be a values

statement or a mission statement — some ideas and practices that

you think define what your company is about.

But after you went through that process, did you ever make them

the foundation of what you were doing?

While many companies have things they think drive their company, most don’t use their values as a guiding principle for daily

interactions. At O’Melveny, the firm uses the values it wants to live

by to drive everything it does, from hiring to giving raises.

“All of our messaging and everything we do is guided by our values, we’re a value-driven firm, so whether it’s compensating partners, deciding who to call back from law school interviews to evaluating administrative assistants or marketing professionals, each

of us is evaluated in terms of excellence, leadership and citizenship. Almost all of our messaging is focused around our values and

that is a unifying theme,” Culvahouse says.

“(Values) are the guiding stars for everything we do, from compensation to performance rankings to admitting lateral partners,” Culvahouse says. “We passed on particular acquisitions because we

thought they were values challenged. If a partner is considered by

associates to be unreasonable and not a good colleague in terms of

working for, we will have a conversation with that partner and we

will coach him or her on how to be a more value-driven colleague.”

The idea is simple: If you have four core values that you want

your people to live by, do something today to show people that

those are important so everyone realizes you aren’t just floating

around big ideas — you’ve created a shared rallying point. For

example, O’Melveny makes community service an important

value, so the company regularly shares the good work that people

do in firmwide communication.

Another piece is celebrating your guiding principle. While most

leaders will happily share with you their company values, how

many of them have a process for celebrating them in a way that

encourages people to make them part of daily life? At O’Melveny,

values awards are given to those who exemplify the firm’s values.

“We give values awards every year to two partners, two associates in counsel and two members of our staff, so that binds us

together in ways that are unique,” Culvahouse says.

And to conjure up even more interest in the firm’s values, those

awards are not just handed out by senior leaders, there is a

process that allows anyone in the company to fill out a nomination

for someone else.

“Everyone in the firm, from the most senior partner to the most

junior paralegal hire in Shanghai, are encouraged to nominate their

colleagues to receive the firm values award, and we have several

thousand nominations every year,” Culvahouse says. “So I think

receiving the values award, which is not a big deal financially, it

might be a very nice watch or something like that, but people are

really touched and moved to get it. It reminds us of the glue that

binds us together, it reminds us what is special about our firm. As

we become much more geographically diverse and much larger,

practicing law, in many respects, with much greater intensity than

our forebearers, we don’t want to lose that part of our heritage.”

The celebration of your guiding principle also gives you a database for people that can help get others behind your company. At

O’Melveny, Culvahouse and other senior leaders rely on a values

committee to help push their efforts to get people on the same

page. They wanted this committee to be diverse in age and scope

so it would have more effectiveness, which would normally be a

hard vetting process with 2,200 people. But O’Melveny had little

difficulty, as the firm already had a group of values awards winners and incoming applications full of reasons to include potential award winners to help guide that decision-making process.

Expand and repeat your


Beyond using a unifying theme to get your people behind you,

you also need to take into consideration how well your messages

are getting across. Consider the struggles that Culvahouse has at

O’Melveny. The firm has more than 1,000 lawyers spread across

the globe. His decision-makers aren’t just busy, they’re working in

different time zones and often are inundated with e-mails and

phone calls. That’s how he came up with a rule of thumb for communication.

“I read someplace, I can no longer quote you the source, that says

you need tell the average law firm partner something eight times

before it really sinks in,” he says.

It’s not that Culvahouse thinks his people intentionally block out

messages, he just knows that there is a lot of information out there.

“We live in a world of communication overload, so if you communicate something eight times, you’re hoping at least one of the

messages gets through and is retained,” he says.

“You can say it’s really, really important that we have acquisition

finance capacity in China, but if you say it only once, you may only

have 20 partners that heard you.”

And if you are only getting it across to 20 people, then everyone

else is already down a path to misunderstanding.

“And if our partners don’t have current and up-to-date information, then they will assume the worst, which is what we’re taught

to do as lawyers, to imagine the unimaginable horrors,”

Culvahouse says.

So Culvahouse follows the eight-times rule by constantly considering how important it is to get messages to people not just several times

but also through several avenues. One reason for that is obvious: A

law firm doesn’t just throw its strategic plans up on a blog where the

world can see it. But there’s more to it than that. Part of trying to get

something across is understanding that some people might have one

method of communication that they often ignore or one that they are

constantly tied to. The best communication strategies include not just

consistency of message but also different forums.

“I think each one adds value,” he says. “One-on-ones or small

groups are the most effective, but they’re the most time-consuming.

We try to be a transparent firm, all of our financial information, our

strategic plan, we have no secrets from our partners.”

That means that O’Melveny has diversified its communication

strategies. The company does the usual stuff to lay groundwork —

off-site partner meetings, practice group retreats, etc. — but also

makes an effort to have communications available when people

can get to them. The firm has 90-minute videos that it places online

so people in different time zones can access them at any time. The

firm also is completely open with information, sharing financial

decisions and structure so that that no other communications

seem shrouded in mystery.

Beyond that, the governance structure of the firm has adapted to

include an executive committee that is made up of those value-award-winning types that acts as an additional bandwidth for communication between senior leadership and the firm at large.

All of this helps Culvahouse create a firm where people have consistent outlets that help them understand the firm’s direction.

“Every partner understands that they’re entitled to information,

and it’s really our responsibility to respond to that need because our

partners are very good lawyers and they want to understand decisions,” Culvahouse says. “Lawyers by style are not command-and-control types, we don’t salute and say ‘yes sir’ or ‘yes ma’am,’ and it

takes some convincing and some explanation, so you really need a


Run with a healthy majority

While solid communications come from a guiding principle and

an effort to push the message in multiple formats, you also have

to respect the fact that there is a timetable on decision-making. It

may only take one person to hang a jury, but you cannot let one

naysayer to your plan destroy your business. Culvahouse would

love to get a vote of 100 percent confidence in everything that he

does, but he knows that getting everyone on the same page means

running with a healthy majority instead of constantly circling

back and changing plans.

“Once you reach a confidence level that is 66 2/3 percent or

greater, and this is in respect to a particular course of action or particular strategy, then all other time is best spent on executing rather

than trying to reach a higher confidence level,” he says.

So while O’Melveny is constantly pushing the firm’s value messages and trying to keep everyone in touch, Culvahouse is looking

for that magic two-thirds majority of his senior decision-makers

before he pushes a decision. Working for a higher than normal

majority will help keep people on the same page with what you’re

doing because you’ll have high support, but not waiting for everything to come in at 100 percent will keep you nimble. O’Melveny is

a juggernaut in the legal world, but Culvahouse knows that its success leans heavily on the fact that the firm can quickly get everyone on the same page and get strong execution on an idea.

“It’s really appropriate for O’Melveny, because we as lawyers,

being conservative, not politically but in terms of running our own

business, being very good at imagining unimaginable horribles,

would want to really try to achieve a much higher confidence level

and that detracts from being nimble and decisive and opportunistic or strategically opportunistic,” he says. “So ... while I think as

lawyers we should always be very careful, but we need to run it

like a business, and frankly, fierce execution has been one of our

strengths over the past eight years. There’s nothing in our strategic

plans that is so extraordinarily creative that anyone would be surprised by what’s there. A lot of what we try to do is pretty obvious

in many respects. It wouldn’t knock people out, but we’ve been

pretty darn good at execution.”

HOW TO REACH: O’Melveny & Myers LLP, (800) 635-2189 or