Peter H. Griffith is far from old, but he understands his employees today live in a different world than he did when he was starting his career at Ernst & Young LLP.
“I started in 1981,” he says. “That’s a different environment, and a majority of our people in our firm have started within the last five to six years, so when you think about those people, that does create a challenge.”
But that challenge is one Griffith, who today is vice chair and managing partner of the Pacific Southwest region, has actually spent a good portion of his career thinking about. He’s twice come back to the greener pastures at the professional services behemoth that employs more than 135,000 people, and he says the reason is simple.
“Ask anyone at the firm why they stay here, and they all say the same thing: Our people and the culture that they’ve created,” he says. “We’re very proud that we’re consistently recognized as a great place to work. I have the cover of BusinessWeek from last year where they named us the No. 1 best place to launch a career, and that means a lot to me, because I have a daughter graduating from UCLA, so I know students scrutinize these things.”
But while Ernst & Young continues to pile up best place to work accolades, Griffith can’t take his eye off his evolving work force. Beyond a more diverse employee base, the firm estimates that by 2010, approximately 60 percent of its client-serving work force will be from Generation Y, which is loosely defined as those born between 1980 and 1999.
So Griffith has taken a close look at the 2,200 people in his region and found out that flexibility is a key component of retention. He started by communicating to Gen Y employees on their level, created systems to promote flexibility and learned what it meant to be a leader who accepted the terms of a new work environment.
Figure out what your employees want
Griffith has four children, so he has experienced and mastered every new communication outlet short of Twitter. But even though he understands the changes, he still spends a good bit of time learning what younger employees want.
“I try to understand what they’re looking for,” he says. “I speak to our new-hire groups and have a two-way dialogue (to learn) what are they trying to get out of their experience and their career at Ernst & Young.”
Griffith realizes the best thing he can do in his endeavor is to get help, since he can’t regularly speak with 2,200 people. Ernst & Young has a lead people development consultant, something most companies wouldn’t swing for, but that has led them to a practice anyone can afford. The firm has partner-Gen Y panels, which pair a half dozen younger employees with several senior executives for a conversation about the work atmosphere. The key is realizing the best way to get more from your younger employees is to start a dialogue about what they expect from you.
“I find the way that we solve a lot of things at Ernst & Young is we create a lot of awareness around an imperative and then we move to action,” he says. “It’s not always an easy thing. Sometimes you’ve got to make people aware of the issue and make sure it’s on the front of their mind.”
Using his comfort with modern communications, Griffith also likes to “play on their field,” creating the company’s first Facebook page, texting potential job candidates and creating a blog. It is in these communications where he began to realize what many leaders fail to see: Younger employees want to work hard, but the old rules are out. Griffith uses his blog to create a two-way forum where he can get real-time feedback on issues they see in the firm.
“One thing I know about the blog is, it’s available to our people, I know that I can control the content, so that it’s accurate, timely, virtual, and it gives us the ability to message what we want to accomplish in the sub-area and in the firm,” he says. “Leaders need to think about this because the people that I’m trying to communicate with, they expect a two-way platform.”
You can use whatever forum you like, but Griffith says the key is sparking a two-way conversation. He helps push that on his blog with things like Starbucks gift cards to the first five or 10 responders who respond to posts with viable ideas or suggestions, giving him fodder for ongoing dialogue.
“Sometimes you need to encourage and enthuse them to create the two-way platform,” he says. “But, remember, it goes both ways, and then I can respond again if something’s not perfectly clear with my own comment to their comment on my original blog entry.”
Put programs into action
To Griffith, his connection with employees reiterated one key thing about the mushrooming Gen Y work force.
“You’ve got to give people some flexibility,” he says. “You’ve got to develop a culture of flexibility to allow them to team together. And so we redefined how our people work. We provide all of our [employees who directly serve clients] with laptops and with 24-7 access to technology assistance anywhere in the world. And we have provided resources for our people to have flexibility in their professional and their personal lives.”
Flexibility is about making your people’s lives easier by adjusting their work-life balance, which Griffith says clears their mind and allows them to spend more time at work worrying about, well, work. Among other things Ernst & Young did, beyond giving flexible hours, was create a concierge service for traveling employees, help employees handle personal financial planning, and create backup child and elder care programs.
But Ernst & Young is careful not to just give people such freedom without taking into consideration how it benefits the business. Griffith says you have to know where your core success is and tie accountability to flexibility.
“The most important thing we do is we assess our client service satisfaction,” he says. “We have a client service quality program with our clients, and we ask them how happy they are with our team and the relationship and how much time our team is spending on it, are they responsive and so on and so forth, and our people would be held accountable for that. So if there was an issue there relative to somebody maybe using flexibility to the point that it might disadvantage our service to a client, then we’re going to hear about that really quickly.”
If and when something like that does come through, Griffith cautions that it’s not cause for an instant suspension of flexibility. Instead, he says you need to do a sit-down with those involved to reiterate that flexibility has to go around the vision. Ernst & Young also pre-empts that by doing what is called acceleration sessions.
“Before we even start serving the clients, we’ll get the team together,” he says. “We’ll run a big calendar on what everybody has going on during that project, so let’s say we have a six-month project that has 30 people working on it, we’ll sit down and create a master calendar.”
During that session, employees are asked to think about their upcoming schedule. While you have to realize there will still be emergency situations, mapping out people’s personal lives in conjunction with a fair and accountable work session can keep everything on track.
“Maybe we’re coming up on graduation season, so maybe somebody has their child graduating from school. … We can’t expect them to work that day,” Griffith says. “But if we plan that all out for all 30 of those people, and be thoughtful about it, we will accelerate our success as a team delivering service to that client. So there’s a loop there that we’re very careful about to make sure flexibility is working and clients are getting passionately served.”
Understand your flexible culture
Griffith is a family man, which is where he uses the flexibility in his own schedule, but he learned a lesson from an old boss that he never forgot.
“It’s critical as you’re developing this to realize that as a leader, it’s vital that you suspend judgment on what people do when you provide them with flexibility,” he says. “People do different things. You cannot have any opinions on, ‘Gee, they want flexibility in order to do X, and I only think you should have flexibility in order to do Y,’ OK, because we have lots of people in our work force that don’t have children, so you don’t need flexibility for that. Maybe they need flexibility because they want to go do an Ironman competition. That’s not my business to judge. If they get their work done, and they get it done in the highest quality manner, and that client is really happy, that is what we want to drive. So I would recommend to leaders they think about it that way.”
Moreover, if you want to implement flexibility, you have to give that open mind to everyone — even your senior leaders. Watching a normally hardworking vice president take off at 3:30 one afternoon may be hard to swallow, but that’s part of fairness to the program.
“If you have key executives that are on flexible work schedules, you have to support that,” he says. “It’s really important that they have the opportunity to be exceptional performers and leaders just like everyone else.”
And exhibiting that has to go all the way up to your office. Griffith works a lot of hours in a high-demand business, but he makes it a point to flash his own use of flexibility.
“Flexibility has to be something that you begin to get into your DNA,” he says. “Leaders have to demonstrate how they utilize flexibility. So, in other words, if I’m going to watch my daughter’s swim meet … I let people know. I might say to someone, ‘I can’t do that conference call right then, but can we do it an hour and a half later, I’ll be done with the swim meet, I’ll be at a landline, and it will work just fine.’ And I’m honest about it, and I work it out, and I demonstrate that type of flexibility.”
It’s not always easy for Griffith to exhibit that, but he does his best to do what he expects of his people, keeping a smart calendar and using his 24-7 access to his work files.
“If I need to go home and leave the office at 4 and get home and have dinner and then fire up the e-mails later that night, then I do it,” he says.
That attitude hasn’t just kept home life on the up and up for Griffith, who is closing in on 30 years of marriage, it also improves his leadership abilities at Ernst & Young. His use of flexibility shows his young talent their career can be satisfying on a personal and professional level. That, he says, is what keeps the firm on everybody’s best place to work list.
“Our people want to see that,” he says. “These are really smart people here, and to make this thing a career and become a great leader and to take this firm over from myself and my peers, they need to be excited about what they see. And balance is something I’m proud of and I hope that people say it’s the biggest success that they observe in my career so far.”
How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (213) 977-3200 or www.ey.com