July/August 2020

Managing

Measuring Engagement: Team Member Surveys

Thomas C. Grella

Lately, it seems that I receive an emailed survey almost every day. There is one airline that I am loyal to that often sends a survey after I finish flying, but not after every flight. Last year, after getting off a one-week cruise on one of the largest ships in the world and having finished its multipage survey, I headed to the airport to take a prearranged nonstop flight home on a different airline. After sitting on the ground in a thunderstorm in Miami for two hours, the rain subsided, but we were told that the plane was required to return to the terminal and be vacated due to the length of the delay, but that we would be back on after a minor delay. As soon as we walked into the terminal, the flight was canceled. The same plane was instead used to transport another set of passengers, on time, to their destination in Alabama, because the plane to be used for the Alabama flight had not yet arrived due to the thunderstorm. Left stranded in Miami, without options or concern by the airline, I pondered the possibility that the airline had made the change in passengers for the sole purpose of enhancing its on-time statistics. On my Uber ride to Fort Lauderdale to catch a discount airline home the following day (since my first airline had offered no available option within 24 hours), I hoped that I might receive an airline survey about this terrible experience in customer service. I never did.

In many cases we receive surveys from vendors, not understanding if they are being sent to merely convey the idea of concern. I always wonder if the time spent by thousands in completion of surveys leads to positive action. Like other industries and professions, some of those in the legal profession have tried to employ surveys. Over the years my firm has conducted surveys of clients, shareholders, attorneys and staff. In each process, we have discovered that a survey can be a valuable tool, but only if those leading the process stick to a few important principles. This column will focus on principles applicable to internal surveys of professionals employed by a law firm. In my firm, the questions asked of lawyers differed from those asked of staff.

Survey Content

Purpose.

The first principle is that the survey itself needs to serve a legitimate purpose, and that should be obvious within the content of the questions posed. The message firm leadership should send is that those who lead and manage desire to know how they are doing to achieve firm mission and vision, and whether they have been successful in promoting an understanding of desired culture. Here are a few sample inquiries (all simple yes or no):

  • Staff:  I understand what goals the firm was working to accomplish in 2019 and my role in helping the firm reach those goals. Another query: I appreciate firm management sharing the firm’s goals last year and insight into how they were to be accomplished.
  • Lawyers:  Do you believe firm management clearly communicated the firm’s goals for 2019 to everyone at the firm? Another query: I believe the firm’s leadership is strategically moving the firm in a positive direction.

Perception.

As a part of my firm’s management team for over 17 years, I understand that my own perception is not necessarily reality. I also understand that my desires and intentions do not always result in successful implementation. The questions asked in a survey should seek to determine the perception others have of management, and perhaps themselves; not only how the firm is doing on achieving its mission, but whether those led follow out of a sense of duty, or as a result of the type of team cohesiveness that results in organizational success. We like to use both subtle and direct questions to discover how our management team is perceived. Our firm uses the following queries to dig deep:

  • Staff: I feel my comments, expressed or given to management, are considered and taken seriously. Another query: I am appreciated by the attorneys and management of the firm.
  • Attorneys: On a letter grading scale, I would give the firm’s management team the following grade for 2019. Another query: Do you believe the firm’s attorneys exemplify the value of responsiveness?

Provision.

Asking members if they understand the mission and vision, and how they view management’s intentions and conduct, is helpful. Equally important, however, is inquiring of team members whether the firm is adequately supplying them with the tools and resources necessary to accomplish the strategies they are being asked to help achieve. This might include questions about tools, training, operations or even operating structure. A few inquiries might include:

  • Staff: The firm’s training for staff can best be described as (choose one): great, good, could use improvement, poor, training? or what training? Another query: Was the “all staff and attorney” retreat valuable to you?
  • Attorneys: If we offered additional training during the coming year, in what areas do you feel the firm would benefit? Another query: Do you believe your practice group(s) is functioning well and providing value?

Survey Process

Finally, a few words about the process you employ in conducting a survey of firm members. Obviously, the decision on the form of survey will be influenced by the size of your firm and the technological savvy of its members. At my firm we use SurveyMonkey with questions that are simple, easy to respond to and allow for additional comment. From time to time, we have clear outlier responses, and it is our desire to not limit or suppress full and honest input. Over the years we have hired outside consultants to help us with many aspects of firm operations. For our process of conducting these annual surveys, we have hired a consultant who has worked with our firm for years in several different areas of operations and who we believe has a good reputation among both staff and lawyers. The survey is anonymous, and no employee of the firm—management team, administrator, lawyer or shareholder—has access to the specific responses by any individual. The survey is conducted in the fall of each calendar year. Once the collective results are tabulated and turned into a PowerPoint presentation, the managing partner presents them at a full firm meeting. Individual additional comments that were included in the surveys are not read or disseminated except within firm management, where they are shared anonymously.

Obviously, to be successful the annual process a law firm employs will require a commitment of both time and resources. It is not a process to be considered if the purpose is to simply check off some box to show that firm management is sensitive, understanding or caring of its members’ needs. You cannot fake that through implementation of a survey. It is simply a tool to help law firm leaders understand where they are and chart a course to the place they want to be. At our firm, management has found that this commitment of time, energy, effort and resource has not been wasted, and is invaluable to the firm achieving both its present mission and future vision.

Thomas C. Grella

Attorney

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA, in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years.

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