Changing perceptions Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

When Tad Decker took over as the president and CEO of Cozen O’Connor in 2007, he took over two different law firms.

There was the Cozen O’Connor that had been a full-service law firm for more than a decade, offering services in a wide variety of legal fields. Then there was the Cozen O’Connor of public perception — a litigation firm specializing in the insurance business.

“That was the biggest challenge I had upon my return,” says Decker, now in his second stint with the firm. “As an entity, the perception wasn’t meeting the reality of what the firm had become. We have been a full-service firm for at least 14 years, but people still sort of thought of us as a litigation firm within the insurance business. So the biggest challenge was to get clients, other lawyers who could be potential lateral recruits as well as the general public to understand that we are a full-service firm.”

A recent acquisition helped increase the breadth of Cozen O’Connor’s legal services, helping to drive the firm’s image as a full-service entity. But most of the task still fell on the shoulders of Decker and other high-ranking officials within the firm. He attacked the issue through communication, using an ongoing dialogue to focus the firm’s more than 1,100 employees on a uniform vision for the company, so that every employee would feel empowered to promote Cozen O’Connor’s entire package of legal services to current and potential clients and potential recruits from law schools and other firms.

“What I did was take charge of the process and make sure that we had input from everyone, that we had agreement moving forward as to the plan and as to some of the interim goals we were trying to achieve,” Decker says.

Take stock

The decision to refocus the identity and image of Cozen O’Connor was more than a branding matter. It was a question of growth and of the path the firm would follow in the coming years.

To gain a comprehensive picture of where the firm was and where he wanted it to go in the future, Decker needed to get input from all levels of the company. That meant a great deal of meeting, talking and listening.

He says there is no substitution for putting both shoes on the ground — taking to the air, if necessary — and visiting your people wherever they are.

“You have to do it face to face,” he says. “It’s really a way of communicating. You start with the managers and major leaders of the company. You’re listening, but you’re also presenting ideas to your people and seeing how they react to them.”

Decker asked a number of overarching questions with the intention of forming a picture of the company’s status and future and how employees’ individual goals aligned with the big-picture goals of the organization.

“I asked a number of recurring questions,” he says. “‘Where do you think we are now as an organization? What is your perception of where we are now, and how do you think others perceive us? What major challenges do we face now? How do we move our firm forward, and what do you want to see this place look like in the future?’ I asked them what they considered our strengths, our successes and our weak points.

“You gather all that up, but at the same time, as you’re asking those questions, you’re really judging people. That is the most important thing. You’re assessing your people as you go, and you’re getting to know them.”

As you talk about the future of the company with your employees, you and your management team will start to develop an idea of how each person would best serve the company. You can gain an accurate picture of their talents, skill sets and shortcomings.

“You do have to get an idea of where your employees fit in, not just now but in the future,” Decker says. “At some point, you need to spend some time with the folks you’ve identified as high-potential, because they’re going to help you drive your vision in the future. You are helping to guide people toward a consensus on the company’s future. You have to be willing to let people grow but also get them out of their comfort zone, because people basically don’t like to change. That is especially true if things are going well.”

As part of his overall communication and feedback strategy with employees, Decker gathered his managers and potential future managers together and painted a verbal picture of Cozen O’Connor’s future as a full-service law firm with a vast array of clients. He wanted their input, and he wanted to know early on if there was a high level of buy-in among the firm’s present and future decision-makers.

“Throughout the firm, I started with the folks who run the management committee,” Decker says. “The management, the department chairs, the practice group leaders. I also communicated with other people who might be clear leaders but might not be in a managerial role. You make them look into the crystal ball, you show them what the business might be in the future, what is possible, what can be achieved, how do you grow. Because it’s all about growth, and everyone has to understand that. Nothing can stand still. If you stand still in business, you die. You’re either going forward or backward.”

Create alignment

To maintain the focus on promoting Cozen O’Connor as a full-service law firm, Decker placed an emphasis on continual training, particularly in the area of marketing.

Lawyers on the firm’s lower and middle rungs are coached in how to present the firm to both current and potential clients. They learn how to identify and capitalize on cross-selling opportunities.

“A litigator in Dallas, for example, is trained to understand what other services we can offer,” Decker says. “When they’re with clients, it behooves them to make sure the client understands what else the firm can do for them, maybe not just in Dallas but other locations, as well. You have to educate clients and customers on what services you can provide and not allow your people to think in a silo kind of fashion. They need to think beyond what their group or skill set can provide to the customer. That’s a challenge in any business.”

Decker and his management team continually reinforce the concepts of cross-selling and alignment at company meetings. It’s more than just a message from management. In order for employees to truly embrace a team approach to customer service, it needs to be part of the culture that each person begins learning on his or her first day at your company.

“We talk about it at retreats; we talk about it at management meetings,” Decker says. “We let people know what is expected of them, and the managers of the particular groups reinforce that. That is a part of each manager’s responsibilities. If I get a sense that’s not happening, we need to have some training in the areas that need improvement.”

Training on the overarching goals of the company is part of getting employees to develop a big-picture mindset. It can be a difficult task for a leader to get employees to think beyond their day-to-day work, but if you’re going to drive your vision and culture, particularly in a transformational way, it’s a necessary ingredient.

There is no magic potion. Decker says it all comes back to the principles of clear, consistent communication.

“You can never communicate too much on your cor e values and strategic plan,” he says. “It is simply not possible to communicate too much on that. It’s because people have their day-to-day responsibilities and they don’t always have time to think about the business plan and how it works. They’re too busy implementing their individual plans.

“That’s why, when you go out among your people, you have to keep answering questions, keep making sure that everybody understands where you’re going. You learn an awful lot when you do that. You learn what people are thinking; you learn if some improvements need to be made in how you handle some things. You learn if you need to provide better communication.”

The need for feedback is ongoing if you are to keep employees on message and rally them around your vision. Decker began his tenure as president and CEO by creating a dialogue with his employees, and he has made it a point to keep that dialogue going as he has become more established in his role.

Creating alignment is about getting employees to listen, but it’s also about teaching yourself to listen. Your employees can teach you as well as you can teach them.

“You’re listening, because that is part of communication,” Decker says. “It’s not just talking. You might be correcting some of the things you hear, but a lot of times, someone might bring up something you never thought about.”

Through his continued dialogue with others in the firm, Decker has been able to make a few key adjustments to Cozen O’Connor’s strategic plan.

“We adjusted our strategic plan because people kept telling us that it’s getting harder and harder to recruit commercial litigators if you don’t have a corporate practice to go along with it,” he says. “With that in mind, we’re making adjustments in certain cities with regard to the plan.

“When you’re listening to feedback and ideas from people, sooner or later, it will sink in that this is the right way to go or you come to the conclusion that the suggestion isn’t the way to go and you’re not going to change. Sometimes, you do get some half-baked stuff when you’re throwing ideas around. But it’s still worth it to listen to the half-baked ideas for two reasons: One, it’s not half-baked to the person telling it, and two, it’s worth it just to listen to people. The mere fact that you’re listening and being open is a real plus for your employees.”

Employees have to feel engaged if they’re going to help drive your vision and live by your corporate values. That is why you need to listen. Even if you can’t use their ideas, you still need them to feel like an engaged part of the team.

“You want people to feel invested, and you want people to be able to express themselves, to feel like they’re part of something,” Decker says. “Otherwise, it’s easy for people to become disaffected and disinterested. That is a key thing. Arrogance breeds that disaffection, and it’s arrogant to not be listening.”

Today, Cozen O’Connor has succeeded in re-fashioning its outward image, and it is now widely known as a full-service legal firm, a fact that plays a role in its recruitment of new clients and new lawyers.

“Since 1995, we’ve been a full-service firm,” Decker says. “You name it, we probably do it. But what is different now is that the public understands as much about us as they do about competing firms. That might not have been the case a few years ago. We’re not considered a niche firm anymore. More people know who we are and what we do.”

How to reach: Cozen O’Connor, (215) 665-2000 or www.cozen.com