If you run your own firm, then you likely take a lot of pride in what it has become. While not nearly the same as a child, your firm is still something that you’ve nurtured, sacrificed for, stayed up late worrying about, held its hand as it navigated tough times, and perhaps even worried as it took on new partners. With your guidance, your firm has grown into the mature business it has become, developing its own personality and style in the process.
At the end of the day, your firm has a culture all its own. Hopefully, this culture is an asset that gives your firm an edge over its competitors.
What Is Firm Culture?
So, what exactly does “firm culture” mean? Essentially, it’s the amalgamation of the personalities of your staff , how they proactively approach challenges, their behaviors, their shared values, and the mission, coupled with ethics and goals. It is a shared esprit de corps: the feeling of membership in a group that is dedicated to a mission and to each other. It is very similar to a family, but with a work-focused goal.
If this seems too idealistic, you simply haven’t taken a step back and viewed what you’ve created from a bird’s-eye view. Your firm should represent more to your staff than just a paycheck. It should be a place where they have meaningful relationships, broaden their experience, and help clients in achieving their goals.
And yes, we’re still talking about professional firms, such as accountants, engineers and architects, amongst others. It may not always feel like it, but the work your firm does positively impacts your clients, their families, and the community at large.
The firm you’ve created has evolved over time, and now has its own character. What’s more, you probably didn’t even realize it was happening. This culture was developed while you went about establishing workflows and firm policies. Sure, firm cultures can be intentionally shaped, but more often than not, they are naturally occurring as the result of how your firm has handled clients over the years, including both the good - and the challenging - experiences.
Firm culture encompasses the small and the large, and includes:
- Dress Codes: Casual, mid-level, or formal? These policies may reflect your clientele, but they may also reflect your firm management’s style.
- Remote and In-Office Work Policies: Even before COVID some firms were more embracing of remote work. It demonstrates trust and confidence in staff members, and motivates them to do better. Depending on the nature of the work, however, not all firms can adopt remote work policies.
- Workflow and Reporting: Do junior staff feel comfortable directly engaging with the most senior partners? Is there an attitude of comradery that supersedes rank and engenders a team spirit?
- Mentoring: Are junior staff guided upward through their careers, learning how to fill the roles above them, while also helping those below them? How does the company celebrate business successes? How often are employees promoted from within?
- Office Visitors: Are clients greeted with coffee/drinks? Is there a comfortable waiting area? Do staff engage with them while they wait? Do staff know your clients' names by sight? Smaller firms are more likely to be more cordial, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
- Willing to Change: This can be measured in behavioral attitudes that evolve over time, as well as in the firm’s readiness to try new technologies. A willingness to change demonstrates that the firm is ready to learn and improve, while also embracing the past.
- After Hours: Do staff get together outside of work for entertainment, team building activities, sports, or other activities that are purely voluntary?
A firm’s culture can help attract high quality staff if the work environment is productive, enjoyable, and respectful. This helps individuals build stronger relationships with their coworkers, which translates into greater productivity for the firm itself.
Growth versus Performance
There are two broad types of culture in workplaces: growth cultures and performance cultures. While the former is more ideal since it blends individual and firm needs together, the latter focuses mainly on “winners vs. losers.”
“In a growth culture, people build their capacity to see through blind spots,” says Tony Schwarz, in an article in Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2018/03/create-a-growth-culture-not-a-performance-obsessed-one). Schwarz is president and CEO of The Energy Project and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.
In growth cultures, he says, people “ … acknowledge insecurities and shortcomings rather than unconsciously acting them out; and spend less energy defending their personal value so they have more energy available to create external value. How people feel — and make other people feel — becomes as important as how much they know.”
For professional service firms, building a growth culture means firm leaders need to take a more honest look at success, failure, communication styles, wellness, agility, and other factors.
“In a growth culture, people feel safe taking risks to drive innovation,” says Sandra Wiley, president of Boomer Consulting (www.Boomer.com). “They know they won’t be penalized for failure because firm leaders recognize that failure is an essential part of growth. Failing forward and failing fast is not only accepted; it’s encouraged.”
Innovation is also a key driver and indicator of positive cultures. By embracing new technologies and helping your staff become more productive, you are giving them the ability to grow and further develop their own professional growth.
“To get an edge over your competition, your firm needs to constantly evolve your services, marketing and business development practices and processes,” Wiley added. “There is no way to succeed other than to innovate, yet many firms struggle to get people thinking in innovative ways.”
So, how do you measure your firm’s innovation? Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Does your firm have a planned investment in new technologies as a platform for its growth and development? If you don’t already have a plan in place for embracing new technologies, it will be more painful to do so when you finally get around to it.
- Is your staff using modern (created within the last 4 years) technologies for client service, communication and other workflows? If they are working with old technology, it will decrease productivity across the board.
- How efficient are your workflow processes? If there are constant bottlenecks in your processes and/or delays when working across departments, your culture is not adapting to everyday needs, and will have even more difficulty meeting occasional challenges.
Firms either intentionally or organically develop cultures that are based on the principles and styles of the firms’ leaders and staff from the bottom up. Firms with successful growth cultures achieve higher productivity levels, as well as a work-life balance. Staff members are also healthy and engaged, with a positive outlook on their professional growth potential.