Smashing the System
RUPA PATEL IS A FEMALE GENERAL COUNSEL who has developed a successful career through several exciting general counsel roles, often as the first law...
I’d love a dollar for every managing partner that says they want to recruit a new person, or acquire a new practice, that has the right cultural fit. What does that really mean? When push come to shove, in most firms cultural fit is a proxy for “no dickheads” (to quote a client or two). It means a person like us who won’t disrupt the status quo. It’s not really cultural fit, but rather no cultural misfit.
I think viewing cultural fit in this way is a missed opportunity and doing a disservice to your firm’s strategic potential.
Your firm’s culture club can be divided into three groups: Misfits, Colleagues and Catalysts. Misfits are unmanageable non-team players who have been retained either because they’re major rainmakers and/or the firm’s leadership hasn’t had the guts to have the hard conversation. Misfits are sometimes referred to as cultural terrorists.
Colleagues are those that fit in and play by the tacit and explicit rules. They are solid performers and contributors within the current cultural norms.
Catalyst are those that will help create the firm you want to become. They’re the agents of change that enable the firm to adapt to new client demands and competitive realities. Whilst Catalysts are collegiate and respectful of others, they are disruptive in that they act as symbols and sources of energy for new ways to operate and compete.
Misfits and Catalysts are sometimes confused in they both discordant, and therefore risky and confronting. The critical difference is that Catalysts are willing to put the firm first, their motivation is less about ego and personal power.
During recruitment, most Misfits try their best to present well, however, one can try discern their true colours via a combination of personality profiling, personal references and behavioural-event interviewing.
A firm with 100% Colleagues, and therefore no Catalysts, will feel like a cosy club but is likely lose ground to competitors over time. In a turbulent environment if you’re not adapting at the same speed or faster than the market you’re going backwards. Catalysts help you adapt but with a level of control and discipline. They enable the firm’s culture to move beyond nice and to develop real cultural differentiation.
When you are about to do your next round of partner appointments or a senior lateral hire, think less about general cultural fit and more about whether you want a Colleague or a Catalyst?
Another worthwhile exercise is to map your current partner cohort into Misfits, Colleagues and Catalysts. It’s probably time to bite the bullet (and load it at the same time!) and address your cultural terrorists. In asking firms if they’ve had any regrets in letting their Misfits go, the universal response has been, “just one - we should have done it ages ago”.
The really tough question is whether you have the right number and type of Catalysts that will create the firm of the future?
Author: Joel Barolsky, Professional Services Strategy Consultant