Laura Ellsworth inspires employees Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Laura E. Ellsworth’s goal as a leader is to move beyond a certain movie moment.

“There’s this great scene in ‘Casablanca’ where Ilsa leans against Rick’s shoulder and she says, ‘I’m so tired. You’ll have to think for both of us now,’” says Ellsworth, the partner-in-charge of Jones Day’s Pittsburgh office.

Ellsworth could play Rick’s role and make decisions for her 115 employees, but her ultimate goal is to wean them off of her support by encouraging them to think independently.

Smart Business spoke with Ellsworth about inspiring your employees to take ownership of their ideas.

Q. How do you create an idea-welcoming environment?

Avoid falling into the trap that you know more than everybody around you. If you assume that you know less, you’ll learn more.

I always talk about obliterating the inner sanctum. When there is a view that there’s an in crowd or some inner sanctum, people don’t take it onto themselves to be part of the overall operation because they think somebody else is doing the planning and thinking for them. If it is clear that there is just a group enterprise and we are all in this together, you tend to get a lot more engagement from a lot more levels.

Some ways that you can do that can be very personal. Have people over to your house for dinner. Do things outside the office that aren’t necessarily related to office things. You are better off if you connect on many different levels.

Q. How do you encourage employees to step out of their comfort zone?

I’ll say, ‘I would love to see you do X,’ but I’m also very candid with people about what I see as the pros and cons of different things that they might undertake. And I hope that they are also reciprocally candid with me, so if they say, ‘That’s just not something that I want to invest my time in,’ they understand why I thought it would be a good idea, I understand why they don’t think it would be a good idea, and we both move on.

If they repeatedly refuse to engage, you become concerned that it’s the underlying investment of time or commitment to the enterprise. Then you have to deal with it differently.

Giving people an actual opportunity to assume the responsibility and make a project their own is critical. Rather than directing someone to go do a task, explain to them the outcome that you want at the far end and then let them sort out for themselves how best to get there.

Q. How do you respond to ideas?

You look at that person and you say, ‘That’s terrific. I never would have thought of that. I really admire you for thinking of that. What can I do to help you?’

If it’s a bad idea, I typically don’t say, ‘What a bad idea.’ I’ll use it as an indication of a direction that the person wants to go. The next question for me is: What don’t I like about what they’re suggesting? What alternatives can I suggest to them that would get them on a path that makes us both happy? Think about how to tweak the suggestion or how to amend the plan in a way that might be more productive.

If it’s something that I don’t think will work, I try to explain to them why I think it won’t work. I’ll focus on the parts of it that I think are good and positive. I’ll be very forthright about where I see problems with it. I will solicit their input as to how to solve problems that I have with it, so it’s very much a conversation.

A dictatorial yes or no is generally not all that helpful for anybody.

Q. How do you support employees’ ideas?

I make available my resources and the resources of the firm to support those activities. Somewhere in my network of connections, hopefully, there’s somebody or some organization that I can connect you to to help you carry out your idea in a way that you couldn’t have done yourself or I couldn’t have done myself.

I encourage other people to take credit for what they did; I give credit for what other people do. It’s important to do that, not because people need rewards for what they do, but because if they are acknowledged as being good at what they do, other people will want to do it with them.

Talk about their achieve-ments very openly whenever you get an opportunity, whether that’s within the organization or without the organization. Give them the leadership role and say, ‘That’s Mary’s project.’ I refer people to them wherever I can, rather than making a decision myself, if there’s something that’s in a shared zone of responsibility.

Simply thank them for what they did and the change that they brought. It’s funny, in this day and age, we’re all going at a million miles an hour and looking down at our small electronic devices [that] it’s so rare for somebody to just look up in somebody else’s eyes and say, ‘Thank you. I really admire what you did, and I’m grateful to you, and you did a really wonderful job.’

Some people have a management philosophy that praise is inappropriate — that we should all expect this of one another and praise is sort of like the new generation where everybody gets a trophy at the end of the game. I think that an honest acknowledgement of gratitude and admiration goes a long way.

How to reach: Jones Day, (412) 391-3939 or