Internal networking Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Martha Corbett eschews the traditional perch above her employees, clients and community organizations. Instead, she focuses on creating lateral connections, with her networks stretching out like a web around her.

The way the PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP executive looks at it, she’s simply building relationships out in every direction to stay in the loop.

“I want to make sure that I don’t just have my own view of what’s going on — that I have a wider and broader perspective on what’s happening, what’s on their minds,” says Corbett, managing partner for the accounting firm’s Southern California/Phoenix market. “I don’t want to be the last to know.”

She doesn’t just stay in touch with the 1,200 employees in her region — which spans from Los Angeles to San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas — and their clients to form that knowledge. Her network also includes other organizations unrelated to accounting or auditing. Deeply involved with charities like The United Way, she encourages employees to find similar organizations they can support, and she makes connections for them within her web whenever she can.

Her focus is on sustaining relationships with — and between — all of those groups. Beyond building her own relationships with her constituents, she helps them do the same with their own co-workers, clients and charities. Her role is even built around the importance of those relationships, as she’s charged with coordinating teamwork across her market and honing relationships between her employees and their clients.

Corbett’s approach starts with the basics — an open-door policy and a philosophy of managing by walking around to get input from others — but also involves a steady flow of communication back at employees.

So while there’s an aspect of leadership that reaches out from the center, it isn’t dictatorial. Rather, Corbett thinks communication should be built on and feed off of your relationships with those around you.

“You often see leadership speaking from the center or speaking from a podium,” she says. “What’s even more important is the one-on-one relationships that you have with your people. You can’t just stand at the podium and espouse your vision and your strategies without really knowing what everybody’s thinking and what they’re able to do.”

Here’s how Corbett emphasizes the importance of relationships built on communication and how she keeps it flowing both ways.

Stay in touch

To find out what people are thinking, you have to get out there and ask.

Taking the temperature of your organization’s morale through employees can be a “touch and feel” process. You can even ask them directly what morale is like and how their co-workers are feeling, as Corbett does.

She takes management by walking around seriously, whether she’s at the L.A. office or any of the others in her region. She compares it to a networking exercise within the organization.

But it’s not just the traditional definition of MBWA she’s talking about. She’s also walking to meetings, because they’re not always in her office.

“When I meet with people, I don’t usually ask them to come into my office. I usually go to theirs,” says Corbett, who got the advice from a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner in another market. “It just sets a different tone and openness for the meeting.”

By literally meeting employees where they are — and, consequently, where they’re comfortable — you create an inviting setting for an open conversation.

Beyond the general “how’s it going?” that she asks employees, Corbett makes sure to ask partners about specific concerns or issues they’re facing. Then she asks how she can help.

“What I’m trying to find out is how their business is going and what kind of challenges they’re facing and how I can support them,” she says. “Sometimes it can be a simple thing like … I can get them a spot on an agenda to speak about the business that they’re trying to build.”

To help employees relax and open up, you need to create an air of approachability around yourself. That can be as simple as keeping your door open so employees have the opportunity to initiate a conversation if they need to.

Corbett also opens them up by sharing about herself first. For example, she may get started by sharing some of the challenges she faces trying to balance running a company with raising three children.

“I think if you share, they will share,” she says.

Still, it’s hard to connect with every single employee if you have as many as Corbett does and especially when they’re stretched across multiple states. So you can rely on some employees to channel multiple lines of communication to you.

“I will gather a staff council in one of our lines of service,” Corbett says. “And I view that as a voice of the people. So I ask them if I can come to one of their meetings and I sit with them and find out what’s on their minds.”

Listen to those around you

There is some degree of speaking from the center in leadership. As important as it is to get input from employees, you should always be communicating back to them, as well.

Sometimes, that’s just to keep them informed and answer questions about issues that come up through your walk-arounds and client feedback. You can do that through multiple methods, from monthly newsletters to an intranet and team meetings to marketwide all-hands meetings at the start of each fiscal year.

Corbett also does that more intimately by pooling groups of employees to discuss topics in a smaller setting, which she describes as both mini town halls and fireside chats. About every six months, groups of 10 or 12 staff members sit with a partner. The partner explains what you’ve been hearing from employees and clients while reiterating bigger messages like the importance of building relationships with each other and with clients.

You can adjust the messages and methods based on the input you get back. For example, Corbett realized that her employees — especially younger ones who haven’t experienced a recession — were feeling pressed by the economy. So, it became a mini town hall topic.

You can also look for cues about how your employees communicate to adapt your methods. Corbett saw the tools young employees were using and rolled them out across her market, for example.

“A lot of the young people really like to be connected electronically, so we have our own internal Web pages that are unique to each of the offices,” she says. “There’s lots of information for them and lots of forums for them to give us their feedback and communicate.”

Corbett arranges similar mini meetings with customers, too, bringing several of them to sit in on executive board meetings. In addition to hearing about your thought leadership on a topic, customers can also learn what their other peers are doing about it.

Those round tables are preceded by plenty of research about the market, such as CEO surveys, to ferret out topics that are relevant to them. The forums are further planned with a steering committee. But it’s not made of PricewaterhouseCoopers employees; it’s the clients themselves decidin

g what would make the most meaningful conversations for them.

“That [study and research] is a starting point,” Corbett says. “And then it’s listening to our clients as to what part of that they want to hear about. So there’s this ongoing dialogue.”

You can keep the atmosphere more open and relaxed by keeping the meeting small.

“The key is to keep it small and intimate and create that one-on-one feeling, that feeling of trust,” she says.

Teach relationship-building

Corbett also emphasizes the importance of building relationships and communicating by — you guessed it — communicating just that. Her messages to employees almost always include a reminder about it. But you shouldn’t stop there.

“It’s a soft skill, but I actually believe and the firm believes that that relationship-building culture is also a skill that you need to build,” she says. “So as opposed to just saying that it’s one of those softer sides of our strategy, we actually do have some training around that, and we actually do have a feedback process around that so that we can test the strengths of our relationships.”

A lot of the training revolves around the different styles of interaction and communication people have.

It starts with tests and evaluations to help employees identify their own styles, and that helps them connect those with other styles they might encounter.

“Everybody has a different style, and understanding and adapting to a style — even just in a conversation — is a skill that you need to build and have experience on,” Corbett says.

The training provides some of those skills by helping employees look for cues in conversations and gestures to improve their communication.

“If you have a style that’s very methodical and can be slower, when you’ve got a client sitting across the table from you tapping their fingers, it means that you should pick up the pace,” says Corbett, offering an example.

You can further train relationship-building by letting employees observe it in action as a third party. Corbett encourages that through shadowing.

“If you’re going to meet with a client, bring the intern with you. Bring the staff person with you,” she says. “Let them shadow you to experience and to get exposure, whether it’s [with] the client or firm leadership or whoever it is.”

She also urges her managers to adopt the same mindset.

“It’s easy to go to that meeting with just yourself or with a partner,” she tells them. “Take a second and think about bringing somebody with you.”

It’s one thing to give employees those tools and opportunities, but you should also get feedback about how they’re using them. Evaluate the relationships they’re building and how they’re communicating within those.

“You develop to high performance; it doesn’t just happen,” Corbett says. “It’s all supported by coaching and developing and feedback. And that feedback loop is a big part of that.”

She uses a 360-degree survey process and asks employees to give feedback on their peers and their direct reports.

Questions on the survey cover how employees communicate with questions such as, “Do you voice your opinions?” The survey also tries to uncover what kind of relationships their managers have built with them by asking, “Does your leader inspire you?” It also asks if they’re getting all of the tools they need to improve those areas through coaching and development.

“Our values and behaviors are imbedded in our coaching and development and evaluation process, so they illuminate the standards that we have as a profession,” she says. “They’re observable behaviors and they’re coachable behaviors.”

“It’s somewhat cultural — the importance of that relationship and the basis for establishing those relationships around our values and the way that we treat one another.”

How to reach: PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, (213) 356-6000 or www.pwc.com