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Selling the big picture Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2008

It is a tradition at just about every company. The new guy comes in on his first day and gets paraded around the office to meet all of his new co-workers. Perhaps he will remember a few names and faces, but, more than likely, they will slip into the blurriness that is the first day on a new job for most people.

But if you can provide opportunities beyond the first day for an employee to get to know his or her colleagues, your new person will stand a much better chance of fitting into the culture, says Peter Van Cleve.

Van Cleve, managing partner for the St. Louis office of Bryan Cave LLP, a $411 million law firm, says the opportunities start at his organization with first-year lawyers having a chance to go to lunch with any other lawyer in the firm on the company’s tab.

“There is a lot of informal learning that takes place,” Van Cleve says. “Not only are they meeting people, but they are learning about the organization through those people. It really pays dividends in terms of getting to know other people and being able to have the availability and the access to ask questions they did not learn going in.”

Van Cleve himself has played a prominent role in welcoming new employees by serving as a mentor to newcomers. He says that he probably gets more out of the interaction with rookies than they do.

“I get a perspective from them about their view of things that is very hard for me to get otherwise,” Van Cleve says. “When you develop a close relationship with somebody, just like I am telling them things that I perceive, it’s a two-way street. I am learning brand-new things about the way some of our programs or policies are perceived by people. It is very much a two-way learning process.”

Being an effective leader means gathering a group of individuals and maximizing each person’s value by building all of them into a cohesive team that can move your organization forward to serve its clients.

Van Cleve likens his role to that of former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre or Phil Jackson in his first tour of duty as head coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“It’s very debatable how much he was responsible for versus the superstars,” Van Cleve says. “It’s really about getting the superstars to play well together and maximize their potential.”

Bryan Cave has succeeded by being able to find people that thrive in a culture where they are part of the big-picture goals of the organization. Van Cleve says the key is recognizing your place as the leader in your company.

“You start off with an understanding that it’s about them and it’s not about you as a leader,” Van Cleve says.

Look past the resume

The first step in building a winning culture is to hire people that fit into it.

Van Cleve says academics are important when considering a prospective new employee, but statistics should not be the sole determining factor when deciding whether or not to hire a particular person.

“It’s not a formula where you say, ‘This person is in the top 5 percent of their class, and they had a good academic record otherwise, and we check all the boxes, and we’re going to hire them,” Van Cleve says.

“It’s about whether we think they can fit into our organization. Lawyers are smart folks, and they are independent, but we work a lot in teams here. It’s about attracting people and evaluating people who we think will work well in teams. They understand it’s not about them. They can buy in to an overall vision that our group arrives at, and they are willing to sacrifice at the appropriate time for the team goal.”

You need to take the time to get to know the person behind the resume and evaluate their personality and how it might fit with your organization.

“Ask them for examples or experiences in their lives where they have worked in teams and if it has worked out for them,” Van Cleve says. “You can learn a lot about a person by examining their past experience and asking for specific examples.”

One of the ways to see different sides of a job candidate is to have the person interview with multiple people in a variety of settings.

“There are the people who really like to challenge the interviewee,” Van Cleve says. “There are people who are like, ‘Tell me the biggest challenge of your life and how you overcame it.’ And there are people who do interviews that are very laid back and you’d hardly know they were interviewing them. One of the keys ... is to try to delve into that person’s life and ask them for examples that I think are going to work well at Bryan Cave.”

Get together a variety of people from your company to handle employment interviews. The varying styles will help you get a broader picture of what the person is all about and how they might fit in at your company.

“We have a whole variety of people on our recruiting committee doing those interviews who are everywhere from first-year lawyers to our senior partners,” Van Cleve says. “They all have a different view and understanding of our culture and are measuring that person as to how good a fit they will be.”

Share your vision

Once you get people in the door, they probably have at least a surface-level idea of what your organization is all about. But you need to reinforce that message again and again to make sure they are clear about it.

“One of the best thinkers and writers about law firm management is this guy named David Maister,” Van Cleve says. “He is a former Harvard Business School professor, and he is a consultant. He answers the question, ‘How do you influence people?’ His view is that you can only influence people by convincing them that whatever you want them to do is in their own best interest.”

Van Cleve says this is best done on a one-on-one basis. “It’s individual contact,” he says. “It’s not mass e-mail communication. It’s not speeches. It’s not inspiration from on high. You need to listen to where they are coming from. Understand where they are coming from. Communicate to them what you think the overall vision is or how the overall vision relates to the particular issue you are talking about.”

In addition to the one-on-meetings, get out of your office and talk to your people. While there are some people who need to schedule a visit because of their own workload, others prefer impromptu visits and casual chats by the watercooler.

“You have got to be able to listen,” Van Cleve says. “Have a firm understanding of what your culture is and be able to reinforce that. When you have issues, you need to be both positive and creative about having to deal with those things. Integrity is an important part of leadership traits. I believe that part of my job is to see and recognize the best in our people and be an advocate for them, both internally and externally.

“This is not a top-down organization. This isn’t the sort of thing where the managing partner in St. Louis or the chairman of our firm says, ‘This is my vision and I deliver it to you.’ It’s much more understanding our culture and arriving at a common goal with our partners in terms of where we want to be as a firm.”

By talking to people about organizational issues and getting them involved with the bigger picture, you stand a much greater chance of earning their support of the company’s vision.

“None of these concepts are developed in a closed room and delivered to people,” Van Cleve says. “It’s about getting people’s buy-in. How you get that buy-in is by involving them in discussions that lead to the vision and lead to the view of what the team is going to do.”

Promote the team concept

One of the best ways to ensure success at your company is to remember that both you and your employees have lives outside the workplace.

“It’s crucial,” Van Cleve says. “If all of your life is coming in and figuring out how many billable hours you have, that’s not very satisfying over the long term. In any successful organization, you need a strong mix of what you do professionally and being able to relate to people on a very personal basis.”

When your company does something great, make sure you allow time to celebrate the victory. It could be through a formal gathering or just a simple e-mail blast to all your employees.

This environment where work is the most important part of what you do but not the only thing you do can be reinforced again by getting your organization involved in the community.

In supporting these types of activities, you are actually fortifying the foundation of your team.

“Any organization, once you get beyond 25 people or maybe 50 people, you can’t know everybody very well,” Van Cleve says. “What happens is in those larger organizations, smaller interpersonal relationships are developing. As a young associate coming in here, maybe you are coming in with 18 other lawyers who are starting that year. That’s one group for you.”

When you get to know these people and bond with these people, you feel better about yourself and the organization. And when you feel better about those things, your chances of doing well at the company are a lot better.

The firm’s mentoring program is one of the best examples of this idea.

“All of our associates have the opportunity to have a formal mentor and to see that mentor on a regular basis,” Van Cleve says. “The mentors are encouraged to meet with them and share intergenerational perspectives. As organizations get bigger, they need to do that.”

Van Cleve says Bryan Cave has succeeded because of its strong focus on relationships throughout every aspect of the firm’s operation.

“Initially, you’ll have a contact, and you’ll have a relationship,” Van Cleve says. “We have found that by making sure they know what else we can offer and getting more lawyers involved at every level with that client, we build relationships throughout that organization. We have found it works both for us and the client exceptionally well.”

HOW TO REACH: Bryan Cave LLP, (314) 259-2000 or www.bryancave.com