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Open your mouth Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

In a challenging economic climate, John Belli and his leadership team spend a lot of time talking about survival steps to keep Ernst & Young LLP’s Orange County office in a good position.

But he also commits a great deal of time to talking about people, specifically the 400 employees who work for him.

“We need to stay close to our top performers,” says Belli, managing partner at the Orange County office for the professional services firm. “We’ve been holding a number of meetings to talk about how it impacts them and what we need to do to survive this down cycle. For me, it’s just really spending time with our people.”

The goal is to lay it all out there for his employees and open a dialogue as to how they can work through the challenges together.

“We’ll have 45 minutes of pure open topic conversation,” Belli says. “We want to make them feel that they are an important part of the firm.”

Smart Business spoke with Belli about how to create strong lines of communication with your employees.

Stay connected. It really starts with spending time with your people. Our partners spend a lot of time with the staff, whether it’s over a beer, going out to lunch, at breakfast. Often, it’s time that is not related to work matters.

It’s about trying to be consistent with people and trying to be upfront and honest about the situation you are facing. Not everybody is going to know the latest about what is happening, so when you have a chance to talk to your people, handle their questions. Show them that they play an important part in the future of the organization.

Spread the word. One size does not fit all when it comes to communication, so you need different kinds of forums. Break them down into groups that allow you to get the right message across.

Leverage the skills of your other leaders to assist with the forums. They are people in your organization that have demonstrated the values of your organization and people who have that ambition to help others succeed.

We want our other managers to take leadership roles in drafting the plans and owning them and then doing the prep and delivering the message.

In our organization, it all drives down from the monthly partner meeting. Everything is linked to our key drivers and there is a similar agenda to ensure consistent messaging.

Be parental. Think of (an employee) as if this was your child. What’s the best way we can help them develop? We’re in an organization where we have an apprenticeship model. Your coach or your manager is sitting right next to you. Your on-the-job training is ingrained in the work process we have. People are our assets.

We need to recruit them, deploy them, develop them, but most importantly, we need to retain them.

It’s making a connection. How do I feel connected to the organization? We’re trying to do so much with our counseling teams and if they feel part of this counseling family and they think that family is there to help them and coach them and make sure they feel mentored, they are going to feel a lot better.

They are going to feel connected, which will keep them here. It’s feeling part of the team that keeps you here for the long term. The money is only a piece of the pot. It’s connecting to other people, helping you customize your career plan and really driving it. That’s when you see the long-term benefit.

Talk about your people. Every organization has some way of assessing job performance, some kind of performance evaluation process. The key to making it work is to have your key parts be close enough to those people to make sure they are getting factual information.

We have an independent file reviewer. We’ll have five evaluations, and we might have Linda go in and look independently at the evaluations. We have a meeting of reviewers, then meet with counselors, and we go to the round table, and we’ll say, ‘Let’s talk about Mark. Let’s talk about the feedback we got. How can we help Mark succeed? How could we deploy Mark more effectively?’ It’s one of the best ways to evaluate an employee. It’s very focused on helping improve employee performance with leaders who want to help.

Do it more than once. There needs to be multiple timely reviews. You can’t just say, ‘Your year is over; tell me how you did.’ This isn’t a once-a-year exercise. It’s built into our culture and ingrained into our day-to-day. We talk about it in orientation, and we do it throughout the year. Even though we’re busy, we understand the importance of this process.

Employees understand that it’s a high-performance culture. The reviewers also understand the importance. The team holds itself accountable to make sure it gets feedback. Your e-mail says you have a feedback request, you know that it’s important to get that taken care of.

We measure that the reviewer responded to the request in under 30 days. By having that rigor in the process, by knowing they need to get it done, by understanding the round-table process, they all see the fairness and the importance you put on it.

Be encouraging. Create an environment that has the best combination of people, experience and opportunity. Encourage people to take responsibility for their own careers. Ultimately, the recognition is promotion.

Encourage them to learn and be challenged and have that experience. What I say to folks is this is why we’re going to be different. Everybody has an opportunity to be a top performer. That has been the secret to job satisfaction.

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (949) 794-2300 or www.ey.com