Sometimes a convergence of ideas, none of which relates to law firm management, provides food for thought about how law firms (and other businesses) operate. That’s the case with this post, whose theme is the importance of listening, and how avoiding a dictatorship can help your firm grow.
Let me provide four examples. First, there is my local florist. The owner could not figure out why her business wasn’t growing and why she wasn’t more profitable. After all, she was getting numerous sales from her participation in one of the national flower cooperatives (you know them as FTD, Teleflora, etc.). But someone suggested that she was spending so much time and focusing one full-time employee on filling the orders that were coming in, orders that were most for low-priced and therefore low-profit items.
The florist was nervous about stopping this steady flow of income. After all, the online and telephone sales were significant and they paid for her employee. But she knew that she needed to make more profit, and to do so meant focusing on higher-end sales. So she pulled the plug on the national business source (and after all, most of those customers were one-time only buyers), and began to emphasize the more expensive, more attractive and more durable floral items she sold. Guess what? Her sales went up because she could focus on obtaining the customers (who were local, of course) who wanted those items, and who would become loyal repeat customers. Her sales went up, she retained her employee, and her profits have increased.
Consider a second example, outlined in the May 2013 issue of Entrepreneur magazine. The article, “When right is wrong,” focused on BuildDirect, a British Columbia-based retailer of flooring and other building materials. The founders started the company in 1999 during the dot-com boom. The company grew dramatically, and everything the owners did showed their Midas touch. That is, until the real estate market hit the brakes. They ignored the market and also ignored the advice of their management team. Their business “tanked,” according to the article.
So what did the founders do? They realized that they needed to listen and widened their “circle of trusted advisors.” The result is a company that remains in business, albeit with a management team they encourage “to ask hard questions and offer honest answers.”
Next, consider RetroFitness, a successful chain of fitness centers recently featured on Undercover Boss. Generally, executives who go undercover at their businesses do so to learn how to improve their companies, yet this company’s CEO, whose grandiose home demonstrates his massive success, seemed to focus only on those things that his staff wasn’t doing “according to the book” he clearly wrote, and which he seemed to believe could not be improved.
While I’m sure his “book” isn’t Shakespearean, I do wonder about his perspective. The CEO, Eric Casaburi, for example, went to one club where the front desk manager demonstrated an attitude and customer focus that was clearly unacceptable. But that’s where Casaburi left things. He didn’t listen to this employee, who explained that she was making “protein shakes” the way her customers liked them, not according to the formula that the CEO clearly believed could not be improved upon. He also didn’t listen to her when she explained that she knew her customers; he didn’t care. And guess what, while the employee’s attitude needed to be adjusted, to say the least, maybe his shakes could have been improved if he listened to her. Of course, his shakes might be the equivalent of “Coke Classic,” but heck, even McDonald’s changed the oil it used to make its legendary French Fries when the public demanded healthier ingredients.
The lesson I took from this episode of Undercover Boss was that this CEO knew everything and didn’t want to learn what could be improved. He should watch the episode with Mitchell Modell, who runs the Modell’s Sporting Goods chain. Mitchell discovered problems with providing merchandise to stores, difficulties his drivers had making deliveries, and wage disparities that were causing him to lose good employees. Mr. Modell did what I think a good CEO should do, he listened, and he made immediate changes designed not only to improve his business, but to also improve the morale of his staff, i.e., the people who are the face of his company.
Finally, I’m in the process of completing a book, The Wise Legacy, about my former college professor, Sidney Wise, who has inspired countless students by focusing them on careers doing what they’re good at, and by creating networks to help them grow. Professor Wise, who taught Government at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had an uncanny way of spotting a student’s strengths and channeling those abilities so that the student eventually thrived in their chosen professions.
The result is that nearly 20 years since his passing, Dr. Wise’s students remain leaders in government, business, entertainment and numerous other arenas. And what did his students learn? To listen, to be collegial, not to judge people based on labels, but to instead judge them on their abilities. He always explained, for example, that successful politicians and others thrive by compromising and by working with friends and those whose views differ from theirs. And of course, Dr. Wise famously would talk to his minions and remind them they had become the teacher, and he was now their student.
How do these lessons transfer to law firms? Actually, quite easily. The lesson is simple: Listen. As the founders of BuildDirect learned, “When you’re right and have crazy success with that right, you can become jaded – and quickly.” But things change quickly, and sometimes management either doesn’t realize it or refuses to accept reality.
I operate two businesses, a law firm and a technology consulting firm for attorneys, and we have been refining our practice areas and our business foci based not only upon my presumably infallible judgment, which is far from perfect, but from my staff and from consultants who have helped us realize that we cannot be all things to all people. To the contrary, when we began to limit our law practice to providing writing and appellate briefing services to other attorneys, our work increased, our work product improved, and we began to grow in a way that I, the all-knowing founder – had never contemplated, and might never have considered if I had not listened.
Similarly, our consulting business began with the concept that we were all things to all people, and we instead had no focus. To the contrary, the business was a classic example of an ADD operation – trying to do too many things rather than focus on what we do well. We’ve now refined our focus, and we have streamlined our client services model to focus on helping litigators with technology.
What is the lesson for you? First, listen to your staff. They tend to know what your clients want, what your clients are thinking, and what you need to do to achieve your goals. Second, listen to your clients. Ask them why they use your services, and what you do for them that compels them to continue to use your services. Third, don’t assume you are invincible – you aren’t the Wizard of Oz. To the contrary, those of us who operate businesses, regardless of what type, often wear blinders and need the guidance of staff, of management, and of consultants who know how what you need to do to achieve more.
This doesn’t mean that you cede control of the firm to others. It merely means that you remove your cloak of invincibility and open your ears.