Dream builder Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Since taking the title of managing partner in 1999, Greg M. Nitzkowski has had a unique challenge at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP: The international law firm is extremely successful.

It’s not a bad problem to have, but it gives Nitzkowski fits when he has to get his people to buy in to the changes the firm has to make to stay on top of the market.

“The challenge is, how do you get people fired up to recognize that as hard as they’ve worked, that the bogey is just going up?” says Nitzkowski. “How do you go about giving people who have been doing better each year for 10 or 15 years running a sense of urgency? That is really what a leadership position is about.”

The basic thing that Nitzkowski must do when he wants the firm to grow is create buy-in from his entire staff. That’s not easy when you have 1,200 lawyers and 3,000 total employees spread over 18 offices, so he goes through a process of building up momentum by keeping in touch with his people.

“We’d all like to stop and say, ‘Gee, isn’t this comfortable?’” Nitzkowski says. “But the goal is getting people to recognize that a sense of comfort is certain poison and that you always have to push yourself because we’re in an extraordinarily competitive marketplace. It amps up the need for communication. You have to project very specifically the need for change and how it relates to the decisions individual partners are making each day.”

Using that idea, Nitzkowski built a strategy to get buy-in for new direction at the firm. By making himself available to his people and understanding their jobs, he is able to tie the vision to a context that puts emphasis on how the firm’s success will benefit the individual. In turn, Paul Hastings has continued its success, growing from $667 million in 2005 to $815 million in 2006.

Show your face

It’s not easy to push new ideas for an already successful business, so Nitzkowski starts off with a very simple strategy at Paul Hastings: He shows his face around the office. Nitzkowski spends more than two weeks of every month visiting some of the firm’s 18 different offices, making the time to attend smaller partner meetings to listen to new ideas and to be seen.

“The most important thing is just being in the offices and being available,” says Nitzkowski. “It’s important for the other leaders in our law firm to see that we are really one of them. I want them to see that we are derived from them, and our authority derives from their skills every day — that’s essential to culture.”

To Nitzkowski, the first step to improving Paul Hastings is to get in touch with as many people as possible to find out where the firm can sharpen its acumen. And while he can communicate some strategies via e-mail or conference calls, he says the best bet for step one of building buy-in is working with employees to get new ideas and to give them a good look at the leader behind the plan.

“There is no substitute for being across from somebody, answering their questions, and having them challenge you and them seeing some of their own influence in the ultimate shape of the decision,” Nitzkowski says. “People respect that you ultimately have to go a certain direction, you have to make a decision, but as leaders, our decisions are very much touched by that input.

“E-mail is terrific, but it’s not the way to have meaningful dialogue. It’s terrific for information conveyance, but I don’t think it’s a good tool for consensus issues that you face or communicating about the successes or challenges of the firm. Somebody being inspired by the personal qualities and visions of a leader is very motivating, so you have to have someone people want to follow at the head of the enterprise. Very few enterprises succeed over the long run without having someone in the leadership position that others want to follow.”

Nitzkowski knows that he can’t be best friends with all 3,000 employees, but the idea is to make a human connection with every employee so that new strategies come from a leader, not a corporate signature.

“I try to be there for orientation and training so that we’re the human face of the firm,” Nitzkowski says. “Part of gaining consensus is you have to demonstrate that you have all the qualities that they admire in their colleagues — and the understanding of what’s going on in the market — so that you build the case in a logical way to get them to understand whatever kind of change you need to make to keep up.”

Finish your homework

While it’s nice for Nitzkowski to spend time in the office, he knows that’s just the first step. He has to come in with his homework finished.

“In doing this job, you have to accept that no matter how smart you are or talented you are, when you’re in the room with other lawyers, 99.9 percent of them secretly believe they are smarter than you,” Nitzkowski jokes. “You have to accept that, and recognize that ambition and pride is a great part of what drives them, so it’s a good quality.”

Before he talks with a partner at the firm, he insists on knowing what he or she has been working on and how it ties to the strategic plan for the firm.

“When I speak to a partner, I know exactly how they spent their time for the last five years, I know what their team looks like, I know the concept of that team, I know how the model of that team relates to the profitability model and the strategies of the firm,” Nitzkowski says. “I can meet with them and talk in a very specific way, some of it having to do with metrics, some of it more conceptual, about the direction of the firm, talk about mismatches, things that we need to see from them in order for Paul Hastings to reach its goals.

“When you ask, ‘How do you drive people toward the changes in behavior that they’re going to have to adopt in order for the enterprise as a whole to succeed?’ It’s about communicating deeply and clearly and being viewed as very prepared and knowledgeable about the marketplace in a way that helps us build consensus.”

A big part of that is going to the partners at Paul Hastings with a good bit of background on how individual work fits in with the market and what changes must be made. At the heart of building buy-in is a need to communicate but also a need to back up that communication with hard evidence on where Paul Hastings needs to go.

“It has to come from the needs of the enterprise itself,” Nitzkowski says. “Looking into the future, looking into the market, understanding what kind of enterprise you have and saying, ‘What do I need to drive us to a more successful future and what are the changes that are going to be out there on the market?’ Being familiar with their work makes the message much more powerful and helps me talk about the direction of the firm. That’s the key part of changing behavior, understanding what people are doing and connecting up where their strategy ties to the model and then showing them the mismatches in what they’re doing in a direct and thoughtful way.”

Put the vision into context

Once Nitzkowski has done all of his homework, the final step to building buy-in is to roll out a vision that is based on a mixed concept of the firm’s strategy and how it fits in to the context of his people. The idea is to make a personal connection with what may otherwise seem like merely high-end firm goals.

“It becomes about putting into context the decisions that we’re making that affect their daily lives,” Nitzkowski says. “Why we’re doing it, how does that relate to what’s happening in the marketplace, why it will give them greater opportunity. Making a connection between the things that matter to associates and the decisions that we’re making, that really is the job of the leader’s communication with employees. For those that aren’t as deeply invested in the firm, it’s very valuable that their career here is connecting to what they want their future to be.”

The contextual part is where it’s easy to get confused. While Nitzkowski would like to believe that he can put together a vision that will keep all of his employees deeply engaged in the future of the firm, he realizes that just won’t happen. Instead, he draws up a plan that shows how individual success drives company status — and how that company status will drive individual success.

“Retaining people is a combination of them believing in the vision, seeing the trajectory of the enterprise, understanding how the decisions being made will help propel that trajectory, them feeling richer in every way because of their connection to the enterprise,” Nitzkowski says.

“One of the things you have to accept as a leader is that people come for all sorts of different reasons, and not everybody shares the goal of going to the top of the firm. You have to communicate with them why your vision to be an elite player in the marketplace will help — because no matter what their personal goal is, if the enterprise itself is building up to be an elite institution, their trajectory is enhanced, as well. You give them that combination of self interest and the firm. You want people to believe that by hitching their wagon to a star they are going to soar much higher and farther than they would otherwise. That’s a big part of helping them see their own professional opportunity because regardless of what they are doing, they want to be part of the best team possible.”

To Nitzkowski, it makes sense to view getting employees to buy in to the firm in the rule of thirds: One-third of your employees will be on board with any company strategy, one-third can be convinced in time, and one-third won’t care about the company goals. Knowing that, he tries to make a connection with those people who may be not staying for the long term so that they still desire success in their tenure. By showing them how they can grow, he gives them a road map to a better future and a reason to get there.

“You can’t make the direct personal connection with every person about their goals,” he says. “But it’s about describing the vision and trajectory in a way that they can link their own future to it. They see where they hook their strap to that star so they can get that ride out of this. And when they see where they hook their strap, they can see that this place is going to take them much, much further.

“You have to have that human capital day in and day out, connecting with the big strategy so that they understand that the things they choose to work on, how the time they spend training an associate or not, will help the enterprise. You need them to understand how important what they do is so they feel connected to it.”

HOW TO REACH: Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, (213) 683-6000 or www.paulhastings.com