Ernst & Young’s Bill Browning talks. Employees listen. Featured

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2011
Ernst & Young’s Bill Browning talks. Employees listen.

Bill Browning is nothing if not adaptable. As the father of two teenagers, that means adapting to the new methods of communication, from texting to blogging to Facebooking.

Those Gen Y connections have come in handy at Ernst & Young LLP, where about half of the 1,100 employees in the Los Angeles operation are under the age of 30.

“You just have to really communicate with ways that are important to them,” says Browning, the Los Angeles County office managing partner. “We’ve got to keep in mind that this is a different generation than, obviously, what I grew up with. The way they communicate is different.”

Regardless of which generation he’s communicating with or how, Browning strives to make meaningful connections with employees so his message will resonate. That’s key for getting everyone on board with his “growth mandate” — which includes growing their people, growing their community, growing their alumni network of former employees and growing their clients.

Browning focuses on building relationships and staying in touch so communication is a constant part of the environment at the firm, which has grown its worldwide presence to 141,000 people and $21.3 billion in fiscal 2010 revenue.

“(Communication) happens in a number of ways,” Browning says. “But the hallmark of seeking that feedback is setting a very open tone for our people, making sure that they know their opinions are incredibly important to us and that we have an open-door policy. And then once we get the feedback, to try to do our very best to react to it and to constantly do whatever we can to make L.A. County with Ernst & Young a great place to work.”

Reach out

Browning knows the most elaborately constructed messages fall flat if they’re isolated attempts to reach employees. It takes a very involved effort to communicate constantly with employees before you can expect a message to gain footing.

“You have to be visible. You have to be accessible,” he says. “I spend a lot of time doing that by one-on-one reaching out to our people.”

One of the ways he stays in touch is through an ongoing series of breakfast meetings called Straight Talk with Bill.

“First of all, it’s purely voluntary,” he says. “Whoever wants to come can come. It’s an open invitation to our people to meet with me periodically, and it’s absolutely an open agenda. No planned topics — it’s whatever is on their mind.”

He welcomes employees by experience level. Last month, for example, he conducted separate meetings for senior managers, managers, seniors and staff.

Typically, he starts with an update on what’s happening locally in the firm. Then he’ll pull from his international travels to offer observations of market conditions in London, the Middle East or Hong Kong. At this stage, he’s not necessarily delivering a corporate message but simply sharing his thoughts and opinions — which encourages employees to share theirs.

With unique audiences at each gathering, the discussions will vary, because you’ll share different thoughts with different groups.

“I tailor my comments based on the experience level of the people,” Browning says. “I’ll go into more detail with the staff on, for example, how the firm is organized. I might go into more detail with them about our different service lines, whereas [with] the senior managers, I don’t need to do that.”

Browning usually only takes the stage for a few minutes before turning it over to employees. But to be able to get their questions, suggestions and other feedback, he must be able to relate. That’s where it helps him to think about his teenage kids and the differences in communication styles.

“What (employees) are interested in is different, and we need to keep that in mind,” he says. “I’m always asking them what is important in their life, both personally and professionally. What kind of experiences do they seek with the firm and then are getting with the firm? Are they getting the best type of support they need from the firm to succeed?”

The feedback won’t always relate directly to a business initiative, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant. At the most recent breakfast, for example, someone asked about the firm’s recycling policies. That spurred some green suggestions to enhance the company’s efforts.

“That’s the kind of thing that comes up that really doesn’t relate, per se, to our business, but it is very important to our people,” Browning says.

By simply asking employees what’s on their minds — rather than commandeering the stage with your agenda — you show them you’re interested in hearing what they have to say.

Build connections

Open forums like Straight Talk are great because they put the ball in the employees’ court. But because they’re purely voluntary, you may skip over shy employees who don’t step out with their feedback. You need other avenues.

“One way that we make sure that our people are heard is through the mentoring relationships,” Browning says. “The mentor is trying to make sure they always are seeking feedback from our people and reacting on it to make sure each person’s goals are met.”

Mentoring programs also tackle another communication obstacle: the fact that the CEO can’t be the sole connector and develop personal relationships with all employees, especially in large organizations.

“It’s not just about me; it’s about all of us being visible to our people,” says Browning, who has six mentees. “I try to be accessible to all thousand of our people, but it’s really about all of our leadership team doing that and forming those key connections with our people daily.”

Browning tries to make sure no one is overlooked by approaching mentoring from several angles. First, the firm formally assigns mentors by matching up employees in similar work areas. They may be paired with members of the senior leadership team or, as of March 2010, with alumni — former E&Y partners and employees who can add value from outside business settings — as well.

But there are also pre-existing personal relationships between employees, where mentors may seek certain mentees or vice versa. These informal matchups will happen with or without a formal program.

“There are a lot of informal mentoring relationships that happen and those, quite frankly, are often the most effective,” Browning says.

Because relationships form and develop differently, it takes flexibility and follow-up to make sure they’re equally valuable.

“It’s a constant process of reaching out to both the mentors as well as the mentees, seeking feedback that those connections are being helpful, asking our employees if other connections are needed,” Browning says. “If a match isn’t working, we’ll change.”

Whether the relationships start as formal assignments or informal friendships, ideally they should all trend toward the latter as they develop.

“There is a formal program, but it really gets down to the mentor and the mentee making it happen and staying in touch with each other and tailoring that mentoring relationship so it works for each person in that relationship. If you look at a mentoring relationship, it starts out as first becoming friends and establishing a personal relationship and then really trying to discover what the mentee’s personal and professional objectives and goals are. This is where the personal and professional often intersect because they are intricately entwined.”

A good mentor knows when to probe and when to draw the line. Respect your mentee’s privacy and be sensitive to personal issues, obviously, but personal matters do play a part so don’t overlook them entirely.

“An effective mentoring relationship only comes when you really get to know someone,” Browning says. “The root element of a mentor relationship is a friendship. And when you develop that friendship with the mentee, then that really sets the stage for having an effective relationship.”

The basic questions behind a mentoring relationship center around: “What do you want to accomplish in life? What do you want to accomplish at this company? Where do you want to be in five years?”

“That then breeds a lot of different discussions in terms of job assignments, in terms of training opportunities, in terms of: Do they want to be involved in the community activities we’re doing? Do they want to be involved in marketplace activities?” Browning says. “The overall goal of a mentoring relationship is we want that mentee to be the very best they can be, both professionally and personally. Mentors are trying to make sure the mentee really thinks about what their objectives are professionally and personally, and the mentor is a real advocate to them to try to accomplish those goals.”

Mentors may meet mentees over lunch, a baseball game or during the day in the office to set action steps for meeting goals. The key is that there are constant touch points.

“It only happens through that close day-to-day contact with our people,” Browning says. “You can’t do it from afar. … You (have to) have day-to-day contact with people so you really understand what’s important to them and what they want to focus on.”

Communicate effectively

Now that you’ve reached out to employees through open forums and mentoring relationships, your messages stand a better chance at gaining traction. But you still need effective communication. You can’t expect people to just listen to you because you’re in charge.

“Effective communication doesn’t necessarily flow from your position or your title,” Browning says. “Leadership comes from the level of impact and influence you have on people. It’s not about my position as the managing partner; it’s really about the amount of influence I have on our people.”

Of course, some of that influence will come from the reputation you build through relationship-building; employees will see you care about their ideas and success when you ask for their input and help them set personal goals. But you build upon that influence by delivering compelling messages with clarity.

“I find that the younger generation prefers concise communication in a mechanism that’s readily accessible to them when they want it,” Browning says. “So therefore I try to be brief. I try to be to the point. … When I try to craft messages, whether they’re by voice mail or by text message or by e-mail, I always try to put myself in the shoes of the recipient and think: What’s in it for them? What do I want them to know? Am I asking them to take action? Am I just communicating information?

“I don’t try to give them corporate speak. If I’m seeking action, I make clear what the actions are that I’m seeking. If I’m communicating information that I think is important to them, I tell them what I think is important to them, and I stress that in very simple terms.”

Beyond that, effective communication depends on how the message is received. Browning sometimes uses Straight Talk meetings to ask how employees perceive his messages.

“Often what I’m asking is, ‘Do they understand the direction that we’re trying to go, do they understand what our growth mandate is here in L.A.,?’ and then really seeking feedback about what are we doing right, what can we improve,” he says.

The communication loop should be constant, whether you’re meeting with mentees regularly or just stopping employees in the hall to chat. Don’t wait to observe results through the actions people end up taking — make sure they’re on board before it’s too late.

“You just have to be as involved as you can with your people and as close as you can to your people to understand: What are they receiving? What are they hearing? What’s motivating them?” Browning says. “It’s just listening, facing feedback, trying to discern what people have heard.”

If you’re taking the time to assess how people understood your message, you should also have the willingness to adjust if their perceptions don’t match your intentions.

“The two main things that I try to tell myself often are: Be adaptable, be flexible,” Browning says. “If something’s not working, if I’m not achieving the desired result that I’m seeking from people or from our organization, I tell myself to focus on what I’m communicating because the problem may be in me, not the person that’s receiving or listening to my communication.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (213) 977-3200 or www.ey.com

The Browning File

Born: Dallas. As a small child, I moved to Chicago. I grew up in Chicago, and I consider it to be my boyhood home.

Education: Bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Oklahoma

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

I had a variety of jobs as a high school student, but my very first job was working for a pharmacy chain in the Chicago area by the name of Walgreens. I learned, first of all, it’s very hard work. It was great encouragement to continue my education and to get a degree and to really seek a career as opposed to just a job.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

About 15 years ago, I was going through some difficult situations with a client and another client told me that once your career is over, you can take two things with you and only two things. Those two things are your reputation and your integrity. When I’ve been really challenged, I always come back to the advice that he gave me.

Your workday is off to a bad start. How do you turn it around?

I’m a morning person so my day typically doesn’t get off to a bad start. But if a day isn’t going like I want it to go, I simply get up from my desk, walk around and try to talk to people. I always find just talking to our people or the clients’ personnel typically gets me out of a bad frame of mind because I start really focusing on how I can improve their day — and in doing so, I typically improve my day.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

When I look around, I’m always depressed by the amount of suffering that’s going on, the amount of poverty, the amount of homelessness, the amount of abuse. If I could wave a magic wand and have a superpower, I would immediately take away all that suffering.

If you could have dinner with anyone, from any time, who would it be and why?

I see very few people that I can think of in recent memory that had as much impact on so many people as Coach John Wooden did. The legacy he left of living honestly, hard work and striving to be the best you can be was just amazing. I would love to meet him and have dinner with him and just listen to all of his experiences and all of his advice. He was really a remarkable man.

The benefits of giving back

Whether it’s a holiday party, a community volunteering program or a local sporting event, out-of-the-office activities give Bill Browning a chance to interact with his 1,100 employees at a whole other level. Not only does he get to know his Ernst & Young staff and partners more personally, but the experiences also double — or, actually, quadruple — as teaming activities, training opportunities, community involvement and a way of branding the firm locally.

“Community activities are a great way to participate in a team environment,” says Browning, the Los Angeles County office managing partner. “We’re focused on each individual succeeding as an individual, but doing so in a very team environment.”

On Dec. 3, for example, Browning shut down Ernst & Young’s L.A. County offices so his employees – more than 500 of them – could spend the day participating in community activities through an EY Connect Day. Employees volunteered with 18 local organizations from Habitat for Humanity to the Los Angeles Zoo to Heal the Bay, a beach cleanup organization. All in all, employees donated about 2,600 volunteer hours that day.

Across Ernst & Young’s west region last fall, nearly 1,700 employees participated in EY Connect Days, totaling about 6,700 volunteer hours.

Most companies sport a similarly impressive list of philanthropic efforts, but for community service to reap the benefits it does at Ernst & Young, put some thought into what you’re doing and why.

Browning’s two-fold goals for community activities are pretty basic – that they make a difference at the organization he works with and that they make a difference with the Ernst & Young employees who are involved. As a third goal — which is really more of natural byproduct than a result to drive toward — Browning wants the overall company to benefit from community commitment.

To keep community service aligned with that end goal, Browning organizes activities according to the three E’s.

“The first E is education,” he says. “So we focus on activities where we really can educate and mentor people in the community. The second E is environment; we focus a lot on community activities and organizations that are focused on environmental sustainability. And the third is entrepreneurship, supporting organizations that that build entrepreneurship in our community, and a lot of that is done by encouraging young people to get involved in business.”

By devoting office hours to the community, Browning keeps the organization focused on one of its four core goals — community — and demonstrates that what you do at work ties into the broader community even if you’re not strictly volunteering your accounting skills.

“By being involved in those organizations, we will really build a sense of involvement and we will build skills in our people,” he says. “And then through their efforts, my hope is that Ernst &Young will achieve a brand in the marketplace that we really are giving to the community. It’s just a result, but that’s not the focus. The focus is really on the city and the community and for the people that will benefit because of our involvement. If Ernst & Young achieves some branding and some goodwill because of it, so be it, but that’s just a natural result.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (213) 977-3200 or www.ey.com

[Watch local news coverage of E&Y employees volunteering at the zoo.]