If Kevin F. McKeegan didn’t have a rein on communication in his law firm, things might turn into a zoo — or at least a rowdy game of telephone.
“Sometimes being a managing partner is a little bit like herding cats,” says McKeegan of his position at Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP. “I have ideas and goals and aspirations for the firm. But to make them happen, I’ve got to get everybody rowing in the same direction.”
He repeats messages to make sure the 80 employees and 19 equity partners are hearing the same thing.
Smart Business spoke to McKeegan about how to communicate consistently with your employees.
Q. What are the keys to communicating across a company?
It’s important to keep in mind that what you say to one group doesn’t necessarily filter through to other groups. If it does filter through, it doesn’t necessarily filter through in the way you intended it. So it’s important that you don’t think that just because you’ve talked to one constituency and communicated what needs to be communicated, that that message has gotten across to everybody in the organization. Communicate up and down and across the lines.
I make sure that I attend as many group meetings as I possibly can. I think that’s important for a number of reasons, particularly for the staff and the associates. They know that I’m there if they have an issue or complaint. I’ll hear it directly rather than second-hand. And it gives me an opportunity to repeat the same message that the owners have heard and discussed.
Q. How do you keep your message consistent?
You try to work out the articulation of it in advance. Aside from using the same words, you have to make sure you’re articulating as much as possible the same goal all the time. No plan remains the same once it starts meeting reality, but articulating the goals consistently is the important thing.
It’s critical that you don’t just walk into a meeting and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ You have these discussions ahead of time — for example, with the COO, with the management committee — and, frankly, even outside of those formal meetings: informal discussions. Take a partner to lunch, kick an idea around, stop somebody in the hallway, ask if they have a few minutes to discuss it.
Out of those sorts of discussions, you tend to get an idea where people’s thoughts are, where a consensus can be reached and, oftentimes, maybe even better ideas as to how to implement something. Very seldom do I expect anything I say to be met without a question or a comment. You talk to as many people ahead of time as possible so you hope you’ve anticipated all the questions.
When you’re reporting to owners, they expect that you be more forthcoming — which isn’t to say you’re not transparent with other constituencies but maybe not quite as detailed. Financial information, that’s information that, with a private partnership such as ours, should be limited mostly to the ownership group. But you can tell people in general terms, without revealing specifics, how the firm is doing: ‘We made budget this month. We were profitable last year.’ That’s sufficient usually to get the point across.
Q. How do you gauge whether your intended message is getting through?
I keep my door open. I listen to what people are saying. I try to get around the office. I try to have as many informal contacts with people as possible during the day. You just have to be out there and be seen and keep your ears open. Communication is a two-way street, and oftentimes you learn as much by keeping your mouth shut and listening as you do by talking.
Are they repeating, in their own attitudes and words, what you’d like them to be saying? Are people upbeat or are they down? Is the griping more than usual? You can have a pretty good sense of where people’s attitudes are just by paying attention.
People sometimes have different views of where priorities ought to be. Making them understand that their individual priorities might have to be subordinated to what’s good for the whole firm is probably the most difficult challenge. How do you do that? You keep talking. You keep explaining. You keep listening. I’m not in a situation where I can just demand blind allegiance. So patience is probably the biggest virtue. You gradually explain and you build consensus with the other owners. So at the end of the day, the more people that have bought in, then sooner or later everybody gets the message.
It’s just a constant process. There’s just so much information available to anybody who turns on their computer these days, so much information that may, frankly, be wrong. If you just expect people to buy in without constant explanation and constant repetition, it’s not going to happen. You keep coming back to it at subsequent meetings, subsequent discussions. You just don’t let it stop at one. We’ll have items on the agenda three or four months until everybody is fully aware, [until] you start seeing some actual objective results.
At some point, you can only work the soft side so far. You just have to lay down some hard and fast rules: ‘You will get your time sheets in every week or maybe you don’t get your paycheck at the end of the week if that’s not done.’ So at some point, you just have to draw a line and say, ‘Look, we’ve talked this thing to death. Everybody’s on board with it but you. Now you’ve just got to get in line.’ You hope it doesn’t come to that too often, and usually, it doesn’t.
How to reach: Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP, (412) 456-2800 or www.muslaw.com