A culture of we versus I at firms

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Every organization — from the family unit to the largest corporations in the world — has a culture, formal or informal, written or not. Another way to look at culture is expectations. Culture establishes the expectations of the unit's members in terms of how they behave — what actions they take and what actions they refrain from taking. Culture also establishes how unit members communicate inside and outside the unit. Finally, culture is understood and internalized by the unit's members based on what they see in terms of how the unit leaders (parents, firm leaders, department leaders, practice leaders, etc.) act and communicate.

To understand any organization's real culture, you have to look beyond the posters on the wall and their core value statements to observe how people in the organization actually behave and more critically, how the unit leaders behave. Behavior is the best and truest indicator of what an organization's culture is. There are many roads that this perspective can take. Let’s focus on the concept of "we versus I."

Are the actions of your firm members motivated by "we" or "I"? What is best for the individual or what is best for the firm? Let's look at one example within a professional services firm, although the example applies equally to any organization. One of the major challenges faced by many firms is creating a firm-first behavior model — doing what is best for the firm versus what might be best for the practice unit or individual partner. Silos are the norm in too many firms driven by both the leader's acceptance of "I"-driven actions as well as the way compensation is awarded and the metrics that firm leaders’ value. When the book of business or new business development are the major metrics valued by firm leadership, it creates a culture of "I" — what's best for me versus "we" — what is best for the firm. "I" creates silos and "we" creates firm-first. In the long run, “I” creates stagnation while “we” creates growth.

So, how do you create the "Culture of We"? Let's first look at what doesn't work:

  • Leadership makes a declaration saying, "We are going to be firm-first from now on."
  • Doing a culture survey. Ask your employees what they think and then respond with posters but no change in how leadership acts and communicates.
  • Talking about firm-first but accepting actions that are in conflict with that model.

So, what does work? Leadership has to believe in a culture of "we" and ensure that all their messaging, communications and actions reflect the firm first. The firm leader must communicate and train the leadership team in what a culture of "we" means and what the expectation is relative to how the leaders interact with, communicate with and personally lead their team members.

Firm compensation must reward firm-first actions. When the book of business and new business development are the metrics that are rewarded, it creates the culture of "I." With that said, obviously generating new business and effectively managing current clients are both critical to the long-term success of the firm. But who does it help when a partner takes on a new client that has an unacceptable risk profile or a fee proposal that is too low in order to grow their book of business? A culture of "we" and putting the firm first does not mean that business development is less valued. It means that everyone will pursue new business that is best for the firm and not accept a client simply to increase their book of business.

The firm should celebrate firm-first successes to motivate and inspire everyone to focus on "we" versus "I." It takes time for a culture to take hold and become the DNA of the firm. It is important that firm leadership celebrate great behaviors of "we" versus "I" to demonstrate their commitment to the culture of "we" and to motivate others to practice similar behaviors. It is equally and maybe more important that leadership take action and communicate when behaviors do not reflect a culture of "we". When a partner takes an action that is inconsistent with firm-first, the firm leader should talk to the partner, explain why it is not consistent with a culture of "we" and coach a new behavior pattern for that partner.

You can look at a number of examples outside of business that clearly reflect how a team-focused effort will always win, instead of individuals who look to exaggerate themselves over the team. Sports is one of the best and most visible examples of team effort (we) versus individual efforts (I). Every team that ever won a championship did so when the team worked together as one unit. As Michael Jordan stated, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” It's no different in business. Firms with silos, even talented silos, just don't perform as well as firms that have a firm-first culture, a culture of "we" versus a culture of "I".

If you are a leader in a firm, look at how your partners behave and how your staff behave to understand the culture that exists versus the culture you might think exists. If actions are driven by "I" and silos are the norm, that is your call to action to take the steps and have the courage and commitment to change to a firm that celebrates and lives through a culture of "we". It will take time, but the firm will be significantly stronger through any filter you want to measure.

It takes courage to face this issue and move the firm to a culture of “we” when the firm has operated within silos for so long. As one managing partner tells it, the leader of a firm has the responsibility to move the firm’s culture to drive positive change. Another managing partner captured it when he said culture completely affects the way people perform. Moving your firm’s culture to a culture of “we” will create a much stronger, more successful firm and a firm that will positively affect your clients. A culture of “we” means that every client will be serviced by the best, most qualified partner and team regardless of what partner created the opportunity. A culture of “we” will also value growth of the firm but not be so focused on each partner’s book of business. Finally, a culture of “we,” coupled with leadership that inspires success by giving directions, will be a firm that everyone will be proud to be part of.

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Practice management Practice structure Workplace culture