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The truth about your firm's culture

"OUR CULTURE is quite easy to describe... no dickheads around here!" Given how many firms quote this line, you'd expect almost all firms to be culturally compatible with each other. You'd expect any non-dickhead lateral hire to fit in anywhere. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Peter Drucker asserts that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If the level of sophistication of thinking about your firm's culture starts and stops with dickheadedness then you have a problem.

Many firms have tried to get a better handle on their culture by defining a set of organisational values and associated behaviours. This is good, but if one lined up the stated values of Australia's top 30 professional service firms it would be pretty hard to distinguish one list from another. Words like integrity, excellence, respect, client-focus, team or equivalent would appear many many times.

So again, if firms have similar sets of stated values then their cultures must be similar and compatible? I don't think so.
I think we need better measures of culture. We need more sophisticated but accessible ways to distinguish the thing that eats strategy for breakfast. The power of easily and accurately mapping our firm's culture would be immense. It would help greatly in hiring new talent, staff/partner promotions, choosing the right M&A targets and enabling faster and more precise strategy execution.

While there has been a lot written on this topic by organisation theorists, like Gareth Morgan, in my experience not much of this thinking is applied in the modern day law, accounting or consulting firm. Tools like LSI, MBTI, DiSK etc. are helpful but tend to focus on individual rather than organisational traits. I think that the problem of accurately mapping firm culture starts with a positivity bias. When asked to describe culture there's an immediate tendency to focus on all the good bits. The darker sides are largely ignored because we'd prefer if they weren’t there.

One tool that I'm working on, affectionately called the BAROLSKY BLOB, asks firms to describe themselves, their beliefs and their behaviours on a range of positive and negative attributes. With the BLOB in front of them I ask them to pick and elaborate on the phrases that best describe the firm's culture. If nothing on the right hand side is volunteered, some deeper probing is sometimes required. The response I generally get is a much richer and more honest account of the firm's culture.

As Professor Geoff Lewis, my former colleague at the Melbourne Business School, states, "change is the pivotal source of competitive advantage. There can be no real change in the absence of an agreed strategy. The process of change is a process of ‘giving up’. It involves loss. You cannot grasp the future until the past is let go. All change starts with the truth."

It's time to get truthful about your firm's culture. 


Credit to Authors: Steven Nunn, CKG & Joel Barolsky, Barolsky Advisors