Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote PC sticks together Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

James R. Miller is trying to keep up with a rapidly growing family.

When he joined Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote PC in 1974, the law firm claimed about a dozen attorneys.

Now, as chairman, president and CEO, Miller presides over 378 employees and eight satellite offices.

“It was almost like a family,” he says. “I try to still make it feel like we are a close-knit group. I don’t think you can as much as you would like, but it may be a trickle-down effect.”

Smart Business spoke with Miller about how to keep a family environment as your company grows.

Q. How do you connect with employees?

I try to do it by letting them know that I’m just like them and I was a young associate at one time. I try to make them feel at ease and let them know that they shouldn’t view me as the senior shareholder or president of the law firm; I’m someone who has gone through what they’re going through and understands it. I try to put them at ease so we can communicate on a one-to-one level.

It’s maybe some initial talk about things other than the law or what areas you’re focusing in on, knowing their likes or dislikes and connecting on a more personal level. The other thing is having an outing for the employees and their families outside the work environment. For example, we have a Kennywood day [every] July. You get to know people outside the work environment, and you get to communicate and interact with their families.

Q. How do you communicate with employees?

One of the things that I’ve learned being the president and CEO is that even making the most basic decisions, there always seems to be some unexpected or unintended reaction or take on what you’ve done or suggested. What you need to do is be totally honest and communicate directly the rationale for the decision. Try to make sense to them about the decision, and try to erase any doubts or concerns that might crop up in their mind.

Every month, we have our shareholder meeting on one day and then we have our associates meeting the next evening and then a social hour after that. It’s something where you can communicate important decisions of the company or provide important or interesting information to them.

For example, we discuss our financial situation with them, we discuss important decisions. So it’s not just, ‘Come to this meeting,’ but it’s making them feel like they’re a part of the overall fabric of the firm. I give them meaningful information that allows them to understand what the company’s doing and what our vision is in the future.

There has to be a willingness to have a dialogue. It shouldn’t just be shareholders or owners or officers speaking to the younger employees, but there needs to be a willingness to have a give-and-take and respond to their questions and their concerns in an honest matter.

Q. What are the keys to getting messages through the whole company?

I’ve tried to be hands-on as much as I can be. I attend meetings of our various committees. But I also recognize that with some 378 people, that can’t always be done effectively. So I certainly rely on my other leaders in the firm ... to communicate directly with people that are on their committees.

The key is to be as direct and personal as possible, but recognize your limitations and then utilize the structure of the firm to take up where you can’t be.

I would directly meet with those leaders and express my thoughts and decisions so that they can know for sure what I’m thinking and how I’m approaching the situation. So I would have certainly directly communicated with them before they would meet with their committee members. I don’t expect them to take what I say word-by-word to their committee members, but what I want them to communicate is the general message. They would always have latitude to do it in the way in which they see fit.

Q. Who do you empower to carry on your messages?

People are either recognized as leaders by titles or by their work ethic and their abilities. So I certainly would not hesitate to go to somebody in the firm who might not be on the executive committee but whom I know has good communication skills and ask them, for example, to chair a meeting of associates to discuss various matters. It’s recognizing abilities and leadership qualities and not just titles.

Your perception that that person is recognized by co-workers as somebody who understands and excels in his position — that would be one way to identify such a person. But also if you could couple that with communication skills, that would be also a large part of the decision-making. Imparting decisions or thought processes about where the company’s going can be best suited to somebody who is good in communicating to others.

Language skills — how to present ideas and thoughts to a group of people — are very important. But also, I envision that there would be a back and forth, perhaps question and answer. So [look for] somebody who has not just the ability to give the initial message but somebody who understands the vision of the company and can respond to questions that are posed by other employees.

... Over time, you get a sense for people who have the abilities to communicate, understand concepts and then pass those concepts along to others.

How to reach: Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote PC, (800) 243-5412 or www.dmclaw.com