When Timothy P. Ryan came aboard Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC as CEO more than three years ago, the company’s culture was already set.
“It is a culture where profits are not king, where lifestyle matters, where compassion and family orientation is very much a part of our business,” Ryan says.
While he did not have to implement the culture at the $125 million firm, he still faces the challenge of keeping it going while not screwing it up along the way.
Ryan has to make sure he has the right people in the right leadership positions to influence the company’s 600 employees and the culture they work in. A key component of that culture is being honest and transparent with everyone, and he can’t do it alone. He has to make sure that he has the right people in the right positions so that everyone is communicating the way he would and that they are also listening to what people are saying.
Practicing these two strategies may sound like a lot of time to spend on something that has nothing to do with your bottom line, but it can have a benefit to your company.
“We have a very low attrition rate here,” he says. “Attrition is horrid in the law business. You establish relationships with clients at all levels, be it secretarial, associate, partner, and that attrition is very disruptive. There are learning curve problems as well as friendship relationship issues.”
A positive culture may also stop a valuable employee from jumping to another company for a little more money.
“Our employees know that they may well be able to get a job for 2 percent more, but they elect not to because of the culture that we’ve been able to perpetuate in this firm,” he says. “The clients are the ultimate beneficiaries of that because we don’t have high turnover. They don’t get new lawyers assigned to their matters every other week.”
Here’s how Ryan carries on his company’s corporate culture by putting the right people in the right positions and listening to input.
Find and monitor the right fit
You need to realize that not everyone should be told the same message the same way.
“Where people stand is often a function of where they sit, and you need to understand that,” he says. “That secretaries or paralegals or equity members may view life a little differently. What I’ve tried to do is reach out and infect all of those people with the positive culture of the firm and get them moving in the direction that we want them to get moving. You cannot have a homogeneous message going across the lines. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to reach out to the various constituencies within the organization.”
Because Ryan believes a company’s culture comes from the top, it’s imperative for him to have the right people in charge below him delivering those messages. He needs people in leadership roles who share his vision and his passion and can distribute it down through the ranks.
“We manage through a multipoint system where we have heads of divisions, heads of practice groups and heads of offices,” he says.
When assigning someone to a leadership roll, you may be tempted to look for people who have excelled at their current position in the company. Keep in mind that just because someone excels at one part of your business, doesn’t mean he or she will thrive at a different part.
“Often, you don’t know someone’s strengths or weakness until you put them in there,” he says.
That’s why Ryan has to monitor his decisions and keep in touch with the people being led.
“I continue to spend a tremendous amount of time talking with the people within the offices — staff and lawyers within the practice groups, within the divisions — understanding if the leadership there is effective. If it isn’t, we either fix it or make a change.”
In Ryan’s case, he may have taken someone who was a great trial lawyer and then puts that person in a leadership position, only to find it wasn’t working. While a change needs to be made, you don’t want to write off the person completely.
“We certainly don’t want to cut off that resource if they’re a good lawyer,” he says. “What we try to do then is if they are not real good at interacting with management or (managing people), what we try to do is diminish that portion of it.”
One thing Ryan looks for to find out who is being an effective group leader is by looking at the head count of a practice group, and then listening to what people are saying. If people are leaving that group, it could mean the leader is not doing well or is not exemplifying the culture the way he or she should be.
“Sometimes the secretaries know a whole lot more of what’s going on and are more willing to talk to you about it than some of the lawyers,” he says. “They’ll tell you the people are often acting erratic, they’re heavy-handed, they’re not being very good or very kind. It clues you in on where there is a problem.”
While it may be hard to pull someone out of a position that you thought he or she was great for, it’s something you have to do as soon as you have the information you need.
“Make the change,” Ryan says. “Do not hesitate. Make a decision on the best data possible, have that decision monitored by the best people possible, and then modify the decision accordingly. I am a firm believer that you don’t make a decision and walk away from it particularly when your capital is human because people evolve. They get stretched and tested, and people have different strengths and weaknesses. You constantly have to monitor it.”
Listen to input
You may feel you need to get buy-in for a message, a change or anything else that may need employee support. But Ryan sees it a different way.
“I’m a big proponent of getting input but not merely buy-in,” he says. “I think somewhere along the line, managers have thought it acceptable to get approval or buy-in for a decision. I think it’s far more important to actually get input from people at all levels that either help you make the best decision possible, or if the decision has already been made, to modify it according to the input you are getting.”
To create a culture where you receive constructive input from employees, you can’t retaliate when someone gives negative feedback.
“You have to create a situation where people’s input is valued and there is no fear of retribution,” he says. “Here, the culture is one of civility and respect where people can disagree without being disagreeable. That’s a big part of our culture — that it’s respect above all, it’s professionalism above all. We don’t retaliate; we want the input.”
Explaining the rationale behind a decision can also open doors for people who might want to give feedback.
“(It’s) not just talking with them, but actually taking their input in the environment where they know we have been open in the past and they trust us, and they respect the process,” he says. “The process has taken their input as part of the decision-making and that they respect the decision-makers even if they disagree somewhat with the decision.”
input on the front end of a decision isn’t enough. You need to keep your antennae up and listen to feedback after the decision has been made just in case any changes need to be made.
Years ago, the company decided to switch health care providers for economic reasons.
Ryan and those who work with the benefits within the company started to get a slew of complaints about the change. They heard how hard it was for a doctor to accept it, how distracted the benefits people became and how demoralized the staff had become because of the change. So, instead of ignoring the complaints and focusing on the economic reasons for the switch, the company took action. After about 18 months, Ryan and his team decided they would reverse the decision.
If there wasn’t a culture of open, honest communication, things could have festered a lot more and the situation could have become worse. Since the employees felt comfortable communicating and the leadership listened, the problem was solved.
“Nothing makes (employees) happier than to be part of the decision-making process and part of the monitoring process afterward,” he says. “I think leaders sometimes make a mistake by making a decision and moving on. You need to make a decision and monitor it.”
Though Ryan focuses more on getting input, buy-in is needed for success, and that is why getting the input is so important.
“It’s key to it,” he says. “People will adopt it as their own. It’s no longer me trying to convince lawyers, particularly, that I’m right when they are skeptical by nature. If I can make them part of the process, and it’s partly their decision, it A, improves it — it’s a better decision usually. And it’s joint. It’s community at that point.”
Of course, not everyone will buy in to your decision. In fact, you might even have an employee who is against everything that is proposed. Ryan has run in to a few employees like this, but he doesn’t ignore them. Instead, he will address them separately and listen to what they have to say.
“There is two parts of it, I guess,” he says. “I try to understand if there is a good faith disagreement over a decision or over strategy. If so, I need to understand why and determine if the decision needs to be modified to accommodate the legitimate concern or to improve the process or the output of the decision.
“If I am really confronted with the flamethrower who … brings more heat than light ... I need to move around them, essentially, so they don’t distract the management team. You often will find those people will isolate themselves. They will be standing alone shouting into the wind.
“We often will just tell them we moved on and this is the decision, and we explain the rationale to them and we basically move on.”
Explaining the rationale behind a decision is key for a more open and collaborative culture.
“What they need to do is explain in very understandable terms to whatever constituencies the rationale for why decisions were made,” he says. “(Employees) don’t need to hear about it from a newspaper, they don’t need to hear about it from the grapevine, they need to hear about it not just from the CEO but from the firm’s leadership — why decisions are being made, and be very open about that and get out in front of it.”