Courtesy of La Salle
By Ed Frauenheim
April 24, 2018

Sonya Erickson was puzzled and perturbed.

About two years ago, the attorney at law firm Cooley took over as chair of the Partnership Nominating Committee, and the numbers weren’t inspiring when it came to women’s progress. The percentage of Cooley partners who were female was in the low 20s, and the figures for this critical career milestone hadn’t grown significantly for about a decade.

So Erickson did some digging at the 2,000-person firm.

She asked leaders in different legal practice areas how they selected candidates to be considered for partner. And she learned that Cooley leaders often nominated the junior attorneys who “raised their hands and banged on the table,” she recalls. Rarely did women show up as those “squeaky wheels,” she discovered, even though plenty had excellent performance records.

“That was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” Erickson says.

She then talked to some of those high-performing female lawyers. One told her that “I’m waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder” before pursuing partner status.

Erickson’s response: “I said, ‘I’m here to tap you on the shoulder, and you should go for it.’”

Since then, Erickson has led an effort to more actively seek out and support qualified women candidates for partner. This work is part of a broader push in recent years at Cooley to diversify its leadership ranks. With the support of Cooley’s CEO Joe Conroy, the initiative includes a fresh look at how attorneys are assigned work after returning from parental leave. Whereas in the past those new parents—both women and men—may have slipped through the cracks, Cooley is now ensuring their career momentum continues with meaty client work. Cooley also is holding its leadership ranks accountable for advancing women and people of color. Each quarter, the diversity statistics of all practice groups and offices are shared with partners openly.

This causes some “squirminess” when leaders lose ground, Erickson says. But it has contributed to striking achievements: nearly 70% of Cooley’s C-Suite executives are women, as are 39% of the firm’s key management committee members. What’s more, women make up 33% of the firm’s 2018 partner class.

These aren’t just feel-good figures. They represent good business sense. Elevating more women and underrepresented minorities to positions of power is becoming a business imperative for the firm, with clients demanding diversity in their legal teams, Erickson says. And as more women and people of color have been promoted into partner and leadership roles, it has correlated with increases in internal performance measures.

The gender equality push also has come at the same time that the firm’s revenue has jumped—it rose 18 percent from 2015 to 2017, to $1.1 billion.

“I don’t think businesses will compete in the next 10 years if they don’t tap the full potential of their human talent,” Erickson says.

Maximizing Human Potential

Maximizing everyone’s human potential is a key feature of the 2018 Best Workplaces in Consulting and Professional Services. My organization Great Place to Work just published the ranking of these top organizations with our partner Fortune.

Cooley, a list winner, and other professional service providers have a clear interest in bringing out the best in their people. Their businesses, more obviously than in other industries, depend directly on the knowledge, skills and efforts of their employees. The leading professional services firms recognize that maximizing their full human potential means working to close the leadership gender gaps that have long existed in the industry.

Narrowing the gender gap is part of the broader push companies like Cooley are making to create workplaces where everyone thrives. And the data demonstrates the payoff of a great workplace culture for everyone, no matter who they are or what they do for the company. In our new book, A Great Place to Work For All, we discovered that organizations that foster the most consistently great experience across all demographic groups grow revenue three times faster than their less inclusive counterparts.

One of the key elements of a Great Place to Work For All is what we call Innovation By All. This means encouraging everyone in the organization to contribute new ideas for products, services and processes. A great example of Innovation By All is another Best Workplace in Consulting and Professional Services, Kimley-Horn. The employee-owned, Raleigh, North Carolina-based planning and design consulting firm stands out for including people of all job titles, roles and geographies in shaping strategy. In 2012, for example, the whole workforce was invited to participate in the creation of a 10-year company vision. This resulted in a 60 page document that was custom printed with each employee’s name and included space for them to capture their own ideas.

Today, Kimley-Horn is nearing the end of an updated planning process. This initiative, focused on Kimley-Horn’s growth strategy, kicked-off by surveying all of the 400-plus owners of the organization and engaged many of the 3,000 employees through interviews and focus group sessions. The 18-month effort will result in a long-term growth plan introduced this fall. It might appear to outsiders to be a slow approach to strategy. But there’s a magic to giving everyone a chance to make their mark, says Steve Lefton, the Kimley-Horn Executive Vice President who will become the firm’s President and CEO at the end of April.

“We want the growth strategy to be owned by the people who will be implementing it,” Lefton says. “Seventy to eighty percent of the work’s been done already. We have inspired our people. We have rallied our firm.”

The Power to Innovate

Jill Capelli agrees. Capelli, a transportation engineer and vice president at Kimley-Horn based in Fort Lauderdale, says she recently had conversations with colleagues in Florida about the kinds of skills and backgrounds they needed in new hires to carry out the growth plan—even though it’s still a work in progress.

This grass-roots energy and authority is nothing new to Capelli. About a decade ago, she felt the freedom to explore a new line of business for Kimley-Horn. Thanks to her background as a Coast Guard Academy graduate, she learned of a project related to communication systems at PortMiami, the largest passenger port in the world. Capelli convinced Kimley-Horn leaders that she should pursue the novel work, and the initial Port project has expanded recently into roadway and transportation business.

Capelli’s PortMiami experience is in keeping with Kimley-Horn’s flat structure. “Practice builders” who are working engineers and planners—rather than sales people—lead the way. “We fundamentally turn that conventional arrangement upside down,” Capelli says. “The practitioners get to follow their passions while serving our clients.”

Those passions are fueling business results. Kimley-Horn’s U.S. revenue grew more than 12 percent in 2017, to $809,000,000.

At Cooley, more and more female attorneys are now able to follow their career passions. And that has Sonya Erickson smiling.

Her work to advance women and underrepresented populations is a perfect example of why it is important to diversify those in the seats of power. Not only did she uncover the subtle ways gender disparities get perpetuated, she has no plans to let up on an issue that is deeply personal: helping women have a smoother journey than she had. Now in her 28th year of legal practice, Erickson remembers a tough, isolated road to become a partner at a different firm.

“We set out to make this place a little less lonely and offer a few more role models of success,” she says, “and along the way we learned that just a few modest changes have generated immediate gains for the entire firm.”

Ed Frauenheim is director of research and content at Great Place to Work, FORTUNE’s longtime research partner for Best Workplace lists, including the Best Workplaces in Consulting and Professional Services. Ed also is co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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