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  Management Feature

Starting the New Year with Optimism

January 2009

Although the current economic situation is daunting, there are still reasons to be optimistic as you look forward in 2009, not the least of which is that your attitude may impact outcomes for you and your firm.

We really can’t help it. When it comes to January, we think about starting the year with a clean slate, filled with hope and optimism. Most of us have had a break of at least a few days, and hopefully we have closed some work files as well. We are all anticipating a change in administration at the top of our government which will be encouraging to some and discouraging to others. But it does represent an altering of the status quo for all of us. Local federal positions will change hands and new policies will be implemented. We have all read of bailouts, layoffs, and a difficult economy. While this is the backdrop to our lives, what will we be doing in the forefront of our work to make 2009 a better year?

Impact

There is no doubt that the difficulties in the economy and job loss nationally represent areas of deep concern to everyone. If you, a spouse or partner has lost a job as a result of economic factors, you are no doubt worried, and the economic downturn is no longer a national issue – it’s personal. If your area of practice has been impacted negatively by the economic climate you are probably likewise alarmed about what may be coming (or not coming) in 2009. With economists forecasting a continuing downturn into 2010, it may appear that there will be not be a significant positive change this year. So what can you do?

Recruitment and Retention

When the job market is flush, most employers are working hard to recruit and retain the best and the brightest employees for their organizations. But when the market turns and the job market is filled with many more highly qualified candidates than positions, employers sometimes fail to utilize the same recruitment and retention strategies that were generated to hire and retain the best employees during more prosperous times. Remember that everything that you do now will be remembered by candidates when the job market swings upward again, and everything that you do is noted by your current employees. Although you may be hiring fewer employees, it is critical that you hire affirmatively for your culture, knowing the kinds of people who have been successful in your organization in the past. Remember to pay attention to treating job candidates well even if there are no positions available, and similarly to be as humane as possible should your circumstances require layoffs. These non-employees and former employees will be out in the marketplace creating impressions about your firm, positive or otherwise. Your best employees, those who you most want to retain, will still be in demand by others. Signals that you send to them in a tight economy about their value and worth to the organization are just as important as the signals that you send when organizations are expanding and people have many options. Paying attention to their perspective on your organization’s fiscal health and viability is important.

Perceptions of Fairness

If you must make cuts in your organization, and you have a chance to take part in that process, think carefully about those decisions. These choices will make a significant difference to your entire organization, including all of the people that you want to keep.

If you are trying to cut costs, and not head count, ask everyone to participate in making recommendations about cuts that can be made. Morale will be less negatively impacted if you ask employees for recommendations about what they think can be trimmed from expenses, or offer them choices. Although attorneys may have different views about cost cutting, the greater the involvement of those who will be impacted the better. And while it may be understood that people at different levels of the organization may have different perks, in the long run it fosters overall morale if everyone has to give up something for the good of the organization; from the top down. And remember, if you do cut employees, those who remain afterward are also going to be impacted by those changes. Perceptions of fairness will have a significant impact on morale. Remember as well that cuts, in percentage terms, have a greater impact on those at the lowest level of the organization than those at the top of the organizational chart. Sensitivity to what may appear to be something small to some but big to others can have a big impact on morale.

Attitude

One area where you do have some control is over your attitude. It’s interesting to watch how different people respond to, interpret, and act upon the same set of facts. It is unlikely that most of us will have a significant impact on the facts of the economy (we aren’t for the most part setting policy or running large parts of public or private enterprises) but we can make some choices about what we do with the information that we get. While I am not advocating ignoring the reality of what is happening, attitude is one of the few things over which we have some personal control. Each of us probably knows someone who always seems to see a situation with the glass half full, and others who see the glass half empty. With whom would you prefer to spend your time? More importantly for your organization, you have the ability to impact the attitude of others. When the economy was roaring along with apparently no end in sight to growth and profit, our attitude was such that we falsely believed that there was no end in sight to opportunity. As we remember, then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan referred to it as “irrational exuberance.” It is possible that some of the negative attitude about the current state of affairs could be equally irrational. And we have all come to understand that to at least some extent, attitude impacts outcome. If some of the lending and credit decisions made over the last several years were based upon a false sense of optimism and growth, similar decisions not to move forward may also be based on perceptions rather than fact.

This is not to say that we don’t need a place to participate in ‘trouble talk’ or worry about our current situation. Everyone needs people with whom they can share their concerns and worries, safely. But think carefully about where and how you do this. The last thing that you want to do is translate your fears regarding the future to your clients or your staff. They are looking to you for your wise counsel, your judgment, and ultimately your stability. So if you are concerned about lost revenue, limited numbers of deals, or the loss of a client due to their financial troubles, make sure you aren’t conveying these concerns to the others that you serve.

Take Time

People that you work with and those who work for you can benefit greatly from your decision to make some time for them. This can come in a variety of ways. The phrase, “Management by Wandering Around,” popularized in the 19 80’s, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in the book In Search Of Excellence can still be useful today. While many of us find ourselves tethered to the computer, telephone or Blackberry, nothing helps you gauge the mood of your organization better than face to face contact – particularly when people are worried. “Wasting” time with people is often the best way to learn what their real concerns are, and can give you the chance to dismiss unsubstantiated fears and rumors. If it doesn’t come naturally to you to walk around your offices engaging people, put it in your calendar, and do it. If your tendency in troubled times is to just put your head down and work, remember that the perceptions of others about what you are doing may be as, or more important than how you are actually spending your time.

Build Morale

Taking action to build morale need not require significant cost. It does require a sense of purpose. Getting people together in difficult times without a clear agenda can simply lead to greater worries. If you have new operational guidelines, if you are generating new marketing ideas, or simply want to gather input from your staff or attorneys, make sure you let them know in advance what will be on the agenda, and give them time to prepare. If you are putting together new initiatives, do the legwork up front to have an effective meeting. If you make plans at these gatherings, act upon them. Failure to follow through makes employees believe their input isn’t valued and leads to cynicism, and damages team building.

f your firm has a mission statement, now is a good time to remind people of what it stands for, and work to insure that you align your activities with your values. Getting your people together to talk about the successes that they have had in the past year, and the ways in which they can be replicated going forward isn’t patting yourself on the back, it’s setting yourself up for future success. And that’s a good way to start any new year.

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About the Author

Wendy L. Werner is the owner and principal of Werner Associates, LLC, a legal consulting and career coaching organization.

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