Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Giving Of Yourself To Improve Employee ‘Engagement’

I went through my first 360-degree review — where those above, beside, and beneath you in the organization all anonymously evaluate your performance — two years ago. Never one to shy away from abject public self-humiliation, I shared the result of that review in this column. I revealed that my biggest “blind spot” two years ago was in the area of celebrating the accomplishments of folks on my team: I thought I was pretty good on that score; those who worked under my supervision begged to differ.

I told you that I would fix that problem, and I did. During this year’s 360-degree review, my score for celebrating our accomplishments was a solid 4.0 — 0.9 better than two years ago, and precisely how I’d graded myself this time around. It had actually been pretty easy to solve this problem: I distributed emails celebrating our victories more often and to wider audiences; I stopped by folks’ desks to congratulate them on wins; and I was otherwise more sensitive to letting the world know when my merry gang of litigators did nice work.

Now that I’ve solved one management problem, however, another one naturally reared its ugly head during this year’s 360-degree review . . . .

Last year, I was asked to take on the role of my company’s Global Chief Compliance Officer, in addition to serving as the global head of litigation. The litigation role involved managing a relatively small group of people; the compliance role is quite different: We have about 150 compliance professionals in this company, scattered in many countries around the world.

We’ve had some turnover in our compliance ranks recently, including both the global chief and deputy chief compliance officers. Turnover naturally unsettles people and makes them uncertain about their futures. As I’ve written about in other columns, my employer uses “engagement surveys” to assess whether our employees are happy with their jobs, likely to stay put, and likely to say good things about our outfit to others. With the change in personnel in the top ranks of our compliance department, the engagement scores in this department had dropped some.

The results of my 360-degree review suggested that I wasn’t doing enough to solve this problem, because I received relatively low scores in categories such as “presents a compelling vision for the future” and other areas in which a manager is obligated to . . . well . . . manage.

My employer is in part a human resources consultant, so I reached out to one of our in-house “employee engagement” specialists to ask what I could do to address this issue. Part of the answer is simply to communicate with people more frequently. People who receive praise once per week have statistically significantly higher levels of engagement than those who are praised only monthly, and folks praised daily like their jobs even more than those praised weekly. Shower people with praise, and they’ll be happier!

(The cynic in me says that not everyone deserves such frequent praise — let alone any at all — and I’m not sure that people will be pleased when they’re praised weekly and then receive only a small performance-based raise at the end of the year. But who am I to argue with empirical data? If praise improves engagement, then get out the shovel.)

Alright, alright: I went overboard there. I can surely pick up the phone and touch base with people more often than I have in the past, and improved communication alone — even without unwarranted praise — also improves employee morale. That’s not asking too much of me.

I’ve now asked folks if I can participate (either in person or by phone) in some of the meetings that people who report to me hold with the people who report to them. Those are not meetings that I’d naturally attend in a law firm environment: “We can’t bill the client for having the senior, expensive guy unnecessarily attend meetings at which he’ll add no value.” But, if I can make the time, those are actually great meetings for me to attend in a corporate environment: I get to spend more time working with people on my team; I learn more about what my folks are doing on a daily basis; and the people on my team appreciate that I’m taking personal interest in what they do every day. In a law firm, pursuing those softer goals would be viewed (perhaps correctly) as over-billing the client; in a corporate environment, pursuing those softer goals is viewed as “doing your job, Herrmann, you idiot!”

I may be slow, but I’m not uneducable. I led teams of 20 or 25 lawyers back when I was defending mass torts in my relative youth, but that’s not the same as leading a team of 150, and junior lawyers at firms (rightly or wrongly) simply don’t expect senior people to spend a ton of non-billable time at the office building personal relationships.

At law firms, I gave people my ideas; at a corporation, I’m also obligated to give people of myself. What a curious difference between life at a firm and life in-house.

Earlier: Inside Straight: Learning From My 360-Degree Review

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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