Fiona Ong | Crain's

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

Fiona Ong

Background:  

Shawe Rosenthal represents and advises management in employment and labor law matters. The Baltimore firm has been ranked as one of the top labor and employment firms in Maryland for 14 consecutive years by Chambers USA, a prominent research and publishing organization that ranks the best lawyers. Fiona Ong, who is celebrating 19 years with Shawe Rosenthal this year, was recently named an Acritas Star in an independent global report that recognizes stand-out lawyers according to client nominations.

The Mistake:

The mistake I made early on, and it has come up occasionally throughout my career, is not being proactive about seeking feedback.

For me, as a young associate, and for most people, it’s hard to be proactive about seeking feedback. And people don’t like to give feedback, particularly if it’s negative—they just don’t want to take the time.

I began as a young associate in a very large law firm. There were many partners, and many, many more associates. Partners can choose who they want to work with. If they have a project or a case or work that needs to be done, they’ll go to an associate and ask if you have time to work on it. As an associate you always say yes if you can. If you end up having a reputation that your work isn’t good or you’re not trustworthy or reliable, then the partners just don’t come to you, and you end up not having any work. If you don’t have work, your billable hours go down, you're not productive, you’re not valuable to the firm, and you’re not bringing in money.

As a young associate I learned I wasn’t getting great work, and I felt like there wasn’t a trust in my work by some of the partners. For a year or two I was stuck in this rut, and I wasn’t feeling like I was being appreciated. I felt like I was doing a lot of work and wasn’t being recognized. Finally at one point I said to one of the partners I worked with, “Can we sit down and talk about what’s going on here and how I’m doing?”

We went to lunch and he explained what he saw as some of the issues with my work. I was able to clear up some confusion and misapprehensions that he had about what I had done incorrectly. And in fact, some of the things that he attributed to me as being problems were actually being caused by a different associate. It was good for me to be able to clear that up with him.

After that we had a much stronger relationship, and he really understood that I cared about how I was doing. He said that was the first time he’d ever had an associate approach him about how they were doing, and wanting to know how they could improve, instead of just waiting for the annual performance evaluation.

The partners talk to each other, and if somebody doesn’t have a good experience with an associate they’ll share that, and it becomes a situation where you have a reputation within the firm and people will say, “Don’t work with her” or “You should work with her.” By clearing up the misperceptions with that partner I do think it improved my standing in the firm, and how the other partners viewed me, and whether or not they were willing to work with me.

By asking for the feedback you’re getting information that people wouldn’t give you otherwise.

The Lesson:

The lesson is ask for feedback and be proactive about getting feedback from colleagues, mentors and clients. The information you get back from them only helps you improve and helps you grow.

From day one working on a project, it’s important for associates and people early on in their career to ask, “How did I do? How can I do better?”

It’s hard for people to give feedback—they don’t have time, they don’t have interest. Or if it’s negative, they know it may not be well-received. By asking for the feedback you’re getting information that people wouldn’t give you otherwise.

As senior attorneys we need to take the time to sit down with junior attorneys, particularly if the work hasn’t been satisfactory, and explain: “Here are where the issues are, and here’s what you need to do in order to improve.”

We’re always interacting and working with others, whether we’re making a product or providing a service. We’re all performing tasks and somebody is the recipient of that. It’s important to know that what we’re doing is what is needed and accepted.

Shawe Rosenthal LLP is on Twitter at @ShaweRosenthal.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Baltimore.