If as managing partner I distributed a pot of Yakult* to every employee, I could say that I was disseminating the firm’s culture. (*Other probiotic yoghurts are available.) That may be an easy win, but I would be paying lip service to a very important and challenging issue: how do you craft, maintain and propagate a firm’s culture?
Culture in this context is not a probiotic yoghurt, though if your organisation has a good one, like good bacteria it can keep your ‘insides’ healthy. Of course every firm has a culture, whether the management team want one or not.
It is in the way you collectively behave, think, and respond to a problem or an opportunity. It is in the way the firm’s partners walk the walk and talk the talk. It is what you choose to spend (or not spend) your money on, the values you espouse (and whether you stick by them), how you deal with mistakes and celebrate success.
If your firm was a stick of rock, the word running through it would be emblematic of your culture: are you Brighton or Blackpool?
Talent and clients
So every firm has a culture. In a world where, externally at least, there may be very little to differentiate between one firm and the next, it may be the only thing which truly sets you apart. It is also the one thing which is impossible to copy.
If you have a good culture – perhaps being known for respecting staff, giving them responsibility and support, paying them well and rewarding those who go above and beyond, this is a priceless commodity. It will attract talented individuals to work for you. If you promote an atmosphere where leadership is valued at every level, and mistakes are owned and lessons learned, your business can thrive.
A toxic culture will lead to problems with retention, morale, closed behaviour, cover-ups, internal politics, back-stabbing and general unpleasantness.
And know this: whether you have a good culture or a toxic one will filter through into the way staff treat clients, and if ultimately you do not treat your clients well, or enough of your staff do not care about your business doing well, you will not have a business worth having in the long term.
Evolving, even through lockdown
A firm’s culture is something which constantly evolves. I feel I am forever judged on what I just did or did not do. Everything is weighed in the balance, a plus or a minus logged in the grand register of how my firm is perceived.
It is naturally easier to walk the walk and talk the talk when we are in the office, or out seeing a client, or enjoying some down-time with colleagues in the pub or a bowling alley. But how do you continue to promote your firm’s culture over Zoom? Enforced remote working is difficult. How each of us has responded professionally to the challenges we have all faced will in some ways have been a product of our firms’ culture, and this may well have had to evolve to cope. Did your disaster recovery plan work? (Did you even have one?) Did you splash the cash to ensure employees had all the equipment they needed to work from home? Or did you penny pinch? Was the infrastructure for remote working already in place? How did line managers respond? Were you already comfortable with trusting staff to work flexibly before the pandemic, or was this a real challenge for you?
Your firm’s culture will then have informed how it was able to rise to the challenge of the last 12 months. If your firm promotes a supportive and inclusive environment many different ways of bringing people together (albeit over virtual platforms) will have been tried. You may have failed at some – fine, just make sure you fail fast and learn the lessons. Keeping in close contact with your people, being honest and brave, will have stood your firm in good stead.
How to ‘on-board’ the culturally raw
That is all well and good for existing staff who may already ‘get it’ in terms of your culture, but what about recruiting new employees during a pandemic? Whoever you are, starting a new job at a new organisation is always a challenge: learning to use the idiosyncratic IT system, trying to memorise an unfamiliar office manual, negotiating relationships with new colleagues – it is always a steep learning curve, in lockdown doubly so. The solution? Team up your culturally raw recruit with a trusted person who has been with you a while, someone you regard as a ‘cultural ambassador’ to show them the ropes – we call it a buddy system.
Indeed, as managing partner I see it as my job to identify and seek out these cultural ambassadors, those people we employ who really have a passion for our work and what we are trying to achieve as an organisation, who get the vicarious thrill of developing others, mentoring them and seeing them succeed. These are the true stars of my firm’s future. With enough cultural ambassadors on your payroll, every interaction with your people will inform the newbie of the sort of outfit they have joined and – hopefully – endear them to you.
A good culture is the glue that keeps a bunch of professionals together, working towards common goals. It will keep a firm tight in times of change, whether planned or not. Once we return to some semblance of normality it will be those firms with a sound culture which will have successfully adapted, while the culturally flawed will falter and possibly fade altogether over time. This is why a good culture is so vital to ensuring long term success, which means free yoghurt for everyone!
Jonathan Wheeler is managing partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp