Thomas Keech | Crain's Twin Cities

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Thomas Keech

Background:  

Thomas Keech is a retired assistant attorney general for Maryland who served as counsel for 16 years to the Maryland Board of Physicians, where he still works as a consultant. He also served the state as chairman of the board of appeals for the Unemployment Insurance Administration. He is the author of four novels and his latest release from independent publisher Real Nice Books is “Doc Doc Zeus: A Novel of White Coat Crime.”

The Mistake:

I failed to recognize how critical it is to share problems through person-to-person contact.

Years ago I was a legal aid attorney representing individual clients in the administrative law unit, and then I was appointed chairman of the board of appeals for the Unemployment Insurance Administration. I considered myself proactive, and I had planned and hoped to improve the legal quality of the administration and eliminate the backlog they had. But what I didn’t realize was that it was also a middle management position. I’d never thought about or had any training whatsoever in management. I had to play that part by ear.

I was managing about 50 employees. Half of them were lawyers who were hearing officers who had to travel to different local offices across the state. One of the first things that came up, other than legal things, was complaints from the hearing officers about the local offices. I was also hearing complaints from the local offices about the hearing officers.

I promised both factions that I’d try to go to the local offices, which were scattered around Maryland, and scope out the situation. At the first local office I visited the employees were glad I was there, and they had a lot of questions and concerns. The hearing officers, the lawyers I was directly managing, who had complaints about these offices were happy for me to see the conditions under which they had to operate. That was one of only two local office visits that I did.

I told myself, “Well, I really can’t do very much about any of these problems.” I have no control over the space or the conditions, and only a modicum of control over the hearing officers. Meanwhile, there’s an enormous backlog of cases in my own office. I could concentrate my time on clearing up the backlog, improving to the extent I could the legal output of the board, and I ended up spending most of my time doing that.

That was a bad mistake because I had the chance to be a leader. I probably couldn’t have solved most of those problems, but I would have been known as somebody that the people in the local offices, as well the hearing officers, could talk to and trust. I didn’t realize how critical it was to have person-to-person contact with people in the local offices as well as the hearing officers I was managing.

You inhibit your own growth if you bury yourself in work and forget about the human factor.

The Lesson:

Even if you’re in a technical job such as law, and even if you’re only really being judged on the quality of that technical work, you inhibit your own growth if you bury yourself in work and forget about the human factor.

Reaching out of the narrow confines of your job, and understanding the challenges other people are facing is important. Sometimes you can’t help, but you get to know the organization and the people. It’s so important to not forget the human factor.

Figure out what other people in your organization are doing, to the extent they’re willing to tell you. It makes the whole organization, and the whole function of the organization, more understandable and more meaningful.

Even if I wasn’t in control of the buildings or the number of people who are demanding hearings, at least those local offices would know that we were one organization and that somebody at headquarters cared. And maybe once in a while I could have solved a problem. I think I missed my chance to be more of a leader by not continuing to go out and make myself available. I could have become a much more effective person within the department, and had more authority to get things done. I think the whole situation might have functioned a little better had I done that.

I had much more interaction with other people in my next job, and I was much more successful at that job, because I think I had learned this lesson by then. I was the go-to person, the person you could talk to. I don’t know if it helped anybody else, but it was a lot more rewarding to me to feel that way.

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