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Out in the Open: How to Engage Employees


Interviewed by Carolyn LaWell, Smart Business Magazine

Tax BreaksBrown Smith Wallace LLC made decisions in 2009 that many companies probably can’t say they replicated. The accounting and business consulting firm didn’t have large layoffs, it didn’t cut back contributions to employee 401(k) plans, and it didn’t renege on employee raises.That doesn’t mean the firm didn’t face a year filled with difficult choices. Many changes were made as the company worked to keep revenue steady at $26.4 million. Regardless of whether your company is facing good or bad times, there are essential elements of leadership you must maintain, says Harvey Wallace, co-founder and managing member. You must keep employees engaged and informed, perhaps even more so during financially tough times.“You need to work a lot harder in down times than you do in good times to get the message out there,” he says.Wallace stays connected with his 212 employees through multiple streams of communication and setting a context for how the firm is performing financially.Smart Business spoke with Wallace about how to keep employees engaged.

Communicate to engage.

It starts by being out front with employees and communicating what your vision is, letting them know what the expectations are. Our vision is to be recognized as the premier firm in our chosen market as demonstrated by the pride of those associated with us, our people and our clients. It’s setting expectations, communicating with people and continuing to work to move the organization forward.

No one wants to be with an organization that is either stagnant or moving backward, and so 2009 was one of those years where it was incumbent upon leaders that they keep that mood in place. Negativity is not something you can afford to share with your people.

Stay in front of employees.

The word that we all like to talk about is communication, and it comes in many forms. At one of our firm meetings in late 2008, we, as most other companies, did realize there was a recession. It was either there or it was about to arrive. At our firm meeting, we addressed that head on, and our words were, ‘We choose not to participate.’ It gave the message to employees that we’re going to continue to keep heading in a positive direction and we understand that it may be difficult, but, as I said, we choose not to participate. That’s just an example. E-mail messages from me as managing partner, trying to update people on things that are going on, communicating any major changes in the organization.

It needs to be something that comes through not just the top management, but I think it needs to come through different levels of management. For example, in our firm, we have five different operating units and each of those operating units has a partner who is responsible for that practice. It certainly is coming from me as the managing member, but as we go down through the organization, it needs to come from direct supervisors of people in different practice areas so that they’re getting a consistent message that is communicated through technology, through e-mail, because that is how we all communicate these days, but [also] on a one-to-one basis so that the message is constant, it’s repeated and you avoid mixed messages.

It is important to make clear to the managers what our goals are and how we’re going to achieve it so that they are knowledgeable and can share that message with the people who report to them. That’s my job to make sure that our managers are informed and a part of the decision-making process and keeping everybody positive. I can’t repeat that enough. You have to continue to keep people positive because a culture that has been built over 30-something years in business can easily come tumbling down. We spent 37 years building our culture and building our firm, and we couldn't — and no business should — allow one bad year to change the direction and the message.

Share financials.

The annual report, as an example, we started doing that four or five years ago. It’s a summary of our performance during the year that’s just ending. We publish it in December; we send it to the homes of our employees so that it’s something they can share with their families.

It’s everything from financial statistics to information on major new clients, to practice areas, new individuals that come into the firm, we highlight people who have had significant anniversaries with the firm. The annual report is just that; it’s a state of the firm in the past year and, of course, ... how we’re doing compared to other years. I certainly think that’s one thing that is important to provide to our employees.

(A) firm meeting is ... the spoken version of the annual report. Our goal at that point is to provide a lot of the same information to employees.

Even in bad times, employees get comfort looking at our statistics, our revenue goal achievements, so that they can see that the organization is moving forward. It makes them feel a part of the organization. As I said, we want to share that with the families because there are 200 families who are a part of this organization, and we take seriously our responsibility to those 200 families. It brings them into the process, understanding who the firm is, what our values are, how we’re moving forward.

It is just so vital to everyone to understand the finances of their organization. Our information tends to be high level as opposed to every detailed line item, but certainly what I think employees, and every member of an organization, can certainly appreciate and understand is the revenue. Is the firm growing? Is the firm headed in the right direction?

Obviously, many public companies, all of their information is available, but I think more and more private companies are going to share information with their employees. <<

© 2010 Smart Business Network Inc. Reprinted from the September 2010 issue of Smart Business St. Louis.



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