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How Stephen Smith used humility to show his true intentions at Greenberg Glusker Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2012
How Stephen Smith used humility to show his true intentions at Greenberg Glusker

Stephen Smith is an ambitious guy. He turned that ambition into great success as an attorney at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP. But as he prepared for his new role as the law firm’s managing partner, he was concerned that the ambition everyone knew he had might come back to hurt him.

“I was a young up-and-coming whippersnapper at the firm who had had a lot of personal success and a growing book of business,” Smith says. “I was concerned that people would view my political success within the firm as being related to my own self interests.”

Smith wanted the people who now worked for him to understand that his ascendance to managing partner was not a hostile takeover. Rather, it was the next step in his journey to help the 160-employee firm, and everyone who worked there, be as successful as they could be.

“I felt like I needed to do various things and communicate various things to demonstrate to people that, ‘Listen, if I’m taking this job as managing partner, I’m doing it because I love the firm and I love the people,’” Smith says.

“I had to demonstrate to people at all levels, from our kitchen staff and runners all the way up to the senior-most partners with the biggest books of business, that I was doing this to help make the firm better and stronger. I wasn’t doing it to feather my own nest.”

The wisdom of Smith’s effort to be a selfless leader was only bolstered when he asked people what they liked most about Norm Levine, the man he was replacing as managing partner.

“No one ever thought that Norm put his own interests above the interests of the firm,” Smith says. “They all said that whether they agreed with Norm about an issue or disagreed, he was always acting in good faith to do what he thought was best for the firm. I just remember being struck by that. It’s also the thing I’ve liked about Norm. I just felt like that’s the one characteristic I need to make sure I’m emulating completely.”

Be mindful of your image

Smith needed to take as many opportunities as he could to show his eagerness to help his employees shine. One way was his approach to origination credit. In law firms, this is a term used for recognizing a person who management believes is responsible for bringing in a new client.

“You get paid for that because that’s probably the most important thing you can do as a lawyer because it allows the firm to exist,” Smith says. “We have to have clients and most people think that’s the hardest thing to do.”

The concept of giving someone credit for generating business is not unique to law firms. It happens in businesses of all types. And what became clear to Smith was that as the person at the top of his organization, he couldn’t be the one basking in the credit of generating new business.

“I started becoming incredibly liberal about sharing credit,” Smith says. “As managing partner, I’ve said to other members of the management committee, I would rather not get any origination credit on any new clients I bring into the firm because I want other lawyers to get that credit or the firm to get that credit so that people understand that my job is not to make my own book of business bigger. My job is to make the firm bigger.”

To that end, Smith didn’t stop at deflecting credit to his employees. He wanted to clearly show that he was working just as hard as they were, if not harder, to help them earn even more victories.

“You can only lead a group of people, especially in a democracy like a law partnership, by being credible at all times,” Smith says. “One of the things you have to do to demonstrate you are working as hard as anyone else is you have to be visible to them. You need to know your people. They need to know you. You need to be responsive to them. You have to think about what they care about.”

When Smith is out meeting with his people, he does it honestly and without an agenda or script.

“It’s not like I schedule a meeting and say, ‘I’m going to talk to you about your personal life for the next 15 minutes,’” Smith says. “I talk to people in all kinds of different settings.”

His goal is to demonstrate in as many ways as possible that he is on the side of his people and that he truly is working to make them look better. That only comes through building strong relationships.

“You have to really know them personally,” Smith says. “You have to know what is going on in their lives. For example, if someone has come in late to work for two or three days in a row. You don’t want to jump to the assumption that someone is being lazy. You want to know that the guy went to the University of Texas with his daughter to walk her around the campus because she was considering going there. Otherwise, you might jump to the wrong conclusion.”

Smith makes it a point to attend the firm’s traditional Friday drinks session in the attorney dining room as often as he can, along with other social gatherings that take place.

“It’s honest and it’s not something for show,” Smith says. “To be frank, I think in large part, it’s the reason I am managing partner. People have seen me behave that way and care that way ever since I was a first-year lawyer here.”

Be willing to hear criticism

Smith spends a lot of time thinking about ways to demonstrate to his people that he is there to help them achieve success. He is also the firm’s managing partner, a fact which his people need to be aware of when they think of him.

“It is my job to lead the firm,” Smith says. “I’m the person who is supposed to stand up at partner meetings and tell people, ‘This is what I think we should do and here’s why.’”

Effective leadership is all about using the time spent talking to people to gather data and information that will then help you make better decisions for your organization. Sometimes, that means you’ll be criticized.

If you’re not OK with that, you’ve got a problem.

“The thing I like most about my relationship with the associates is they have no hesitation telling me when they think I’m doing something wrong,” Smith says. “I think that is incredibly valuable. They have told me sometimes that I have done stuff wrong. A number of times, they have convinced me that they were right and I was wrong.”

Smith flashes back to an instance three years ago during the recession when the firm was going to make pay cuts with the hope of avoiding layoffs.

“The associates and partners told me that they thought I was wrong,” Smith says. “And I concluded that I was wrong and they were right and the decision was undone a few months later. I cite that all the time as an example of how glad I am that people told me I was wrong. So I have to be willing to encourage people to tell me that and then I have to be willing to do something about it. But you can’t just get up and say that to people. You have to prove that day in and day out.”

Ideally, you create a forum where criticism can be offered in a constructive setting. Otherwise, it could get personal and that’s not good for anybody.

“We have what we call an associate committee where we have representatives that meet with the management committee,” Smith says. “Their job is to be the representative of their constituency, which is the associates. I used to be on the associate committee back when I was an associate.

“We encourage the associate committee to speak very frankly. We do not retaliate against them when they do so. If they say something critical of management, we’ve never once done anything to retaliate. We have a reputation internally as being fair on that. But that comes only with a long history of proving it.”

In other words, you can’t create a committee from scratch and expect to get instant feedback about what you’re doing wrong. Especially if you’ve tried it before, but got defensive when someone was critical of you and said something like, ‘No more negative comments.’

If you can summon the strength to take a little heat, you’ll earn valuable respect and have a better company at the end of the day.

“It’s more important for the managing partner to say, ‘OK, what does that criticism mean?’” Smith says. “What are we going to do to make it better or solve that problem? That’s the difference between just being a partner or a person with an opinion, which is perfectly valid, and being the leader of the group. The leader of the group says, ‘OK, I acknowledge there is a problem. How do we solve it?’”

Lead with consistency

As you’re building stronger bonds with your people and engaging them in what you’re doing, you need to take caution that you don’t show any sense of favoritism for one group over another.

You’ve got to approach relationships with consistency in mind so that when the time comes to make difficult decision, people won’t see anything unfair about how those decisions were made.

“It goes to credibility,” Smith says. “I am fine informing people of something that is unpleasant, whether it’s a termination or cutting something in a budget or whether it’s refusing to spend money on something somebody wants me to spend money on.

“I’m comfortable doing that as long as I’ve been consistent in my messages prior to that point in time. What is unfair and what makes it incredibly difficult is if you have not been consistent. The people you are leading are usually pretty smart and they will know if you are selling them something that isn’t true immediately.”

To drive his point home, Smith refers, with a chuckle, to his “stupid little analogy about my boat.”

He compares an organization to a boat with all the people, including the leader, serving as rowers on the boat. And in order for the boat to keep moving, everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction.

“So when I have something critical to say about someone, it usually has to do with the direction they are rowing being off kilter,” Smith says. “If it’s completely backwards, then they are usually going to be terminated. By the way, that’s at any level. That includes partners because it’s about being consistent.

“If I’m going to have any credibility among my directors or if I’m going to have any credibility among the associates, I have to be consistent with the partners. And although the partners are obviously the bosses and obviously more powerful in one sense, I, as managing partner, try very hard to be consistent in the way I treat people at all the different levels.”

So as Smith continues to learn about his people and what is needed to help the law firm succeed, he’ll also continue to be conscious of his image with his employees.

“You’re being judged as the leader of the firm and the firm itself,” Smith says. “Everything you say and everything you do is going to be seen through that lens. So you have to comport yourself, whether it’s the way you dress or the way you speak to people or how hard you work, whether you are here in the morning before people or in the evening after people, you have to remember all of those things about being a role model for the people you’re leading. I want everybody to know I’m rowing the boat harder than anybody.”

How to reach: Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP, (310) 553-3610 or www.greenbergglusker.com

The Smith File

Stephen Smith, managing partner, Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP

Born: Gainesville, Fla.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Rice University; law degree, University of Texas at Austin

What was your very first job?

Bresler’s 33 Flavors Ice Cream in San Antonio. To this day, I’m not an ice cream lover because if you work in an ice cream shop long enough, the smell of ice cream starts to rub you the wrong way.

Who has been most influential on your life?

Both my parents, but if I had to pick one, my mom. I have some characteristics of my mom and some of my dad. But overall my mom wins. My mom did it through words, whereas my dad did it through behavior. My mom was much more communicative with me. She was the person I always talked to and argued with. I knew I was going to be a lawyer probably from the age of 13. That’s really because my mom and I used to always debate every issue.

Favorite book: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The way Atticus Finch has to deal with that case is incredibly accurate. And it shows that it does not always work.

Whom would you like to sit down and talk to and why?

President Abraham Lincoln. He’s a combination of political genius, while at the same time being incredibly principled. George Washington is definitely second. I’ve read a bunch about both of them. They were the real deal. The reason I give Lincoln a little bit of the nod is simply because he was trying to lead a group of people, a country, that was totally trying to rip itself apart.