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Firm and Workflow Management

How to design your firm culture to maximize talent ROI

Natalie Runyon  Director, Enterprise Content

Natalie Runyon  Director, Enterprise Content

Creating a firm culture with leadership commitment, technology investment and employee behaviors is critical for maximizing your firm's ROI on talent.

Firm culture (or organizational culture), according to businessdictionary.com, is defined as the “values and behaviors” that dictate “the ways the organization conducts its business, treats its employees, customers and the wider community.”

There is a lot of discussion about firm culture being the X-factor for the success of any employer as well as the glue that binds an individual employee and the organization together to achieve their common goals. For many employees, however, firm culture too often is seen as something that is owned by senior leadership and the Human Resources department.

In this article, we examine the role that firm culture plays in accounting and auditing firms and how it drives retention of employees. First, let’s look at the ingredients of culture, which include:

  • PurposeWhy an organization does what it does, and the role it plays in the larger community.
  • Values—The foundational principles upon which the purpose is achieved.
  • Behaviors — What the firm does every day that reflects its purpose and values.

For example, accounting and advisory firm Friedman LLP communicated its purpose and values succinctly. According to its website:

Friedman is dedicated to empowering our clients to achieve critical financial goals that improve their lives. We take our clients’ interests, their business, and our relationship personally — providing powerful expertise, hands-on attention, and continual care that help drive them forward.

Values: Social responsibility, integrity, relationships, collaboration, self-improvement, optimism and work/life flexibility.

Most firms already have an established culture that probably has evolved and was defined organically, not with intention; and while the culture may have served the firm well at first, the firm may need a reboot to adapt to meet the changing needs of their clients and to prepare its employees for the every-increasing dynamic changes in the business environment.

In this way, firm culture can be a strong lever to drive employee retention now and in the future.

A top-down approach

The first step in taking full advantage of your firm’s culture is to perform an assessment of the current state. Answers to questions like: “Who are we? What is our culture? And what is a great fit for our culture from a talent perspective?” are important for the senior executive team to articulate to their staff. To do this effectively, Claudio Diaz, Chief People Officer at accounting firm Briggs and Veselka, suggests senior leaders should slow down and “take the time to design what they want to be before they then go out to market and hire people. And then ensure your culture is refreshed periodically.”

At a prior employer, Diaz leveraged a third of the workforce to help design the ideal culture named “The Way” for short. That process helped re-define the firm’s purpose, values, and associated behaviors that would not only drive the firm’s success but also drive accountability during implementation and beyond. The output from the meeting was a collectively defined cultural value system translated to specific behaviors that every employee must demonstrate to live up to the values of the firm. Then, Diaz (as head of HR) and the CEO launched the program by traveling to every one of the firm’s offices.

Six years later, he, along with the other top 30 executives, convened at a three-day off-site meeting to assess the success and sustainability of “The Way.” During that meeting, they established what leadership excellence entails. Then, those 30 executives spent the next five months living leadership excellence and making it part of their own behavioral DNA before the next group of leaders were trained.

After the first phase, “The Way” was then implemented at the partner and senior manager levels with the expectation that they also live the principles for five months. Almost one year after the initial rollout by executives, managers were then taught the principles so they could manifest them to the rest of the workforce. Finally, it was rolled out to the rest of the employees.

This slow, intentional approach was a critical component in the firm’s cultural evolution. Obviously, leaders have the biggest impact on the success of an organization’s cultural transformation because the words they use, the motions they go through, and the processes that they enact all demonstrate the breadth of the culture to the rest of the employees.

“Leaders need to nurture culture every day through every one of their behaviors as if though it was a precious diamond they just found in an African mine,” Diaz says.

A bottom-up approach

The accounting firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram (CRI), which has offices in the south and southeast, took a different approach in its culture transformation. The managing partner of the firm used the new hiring of Sandi Guy, Partner of Human Capital in 2015, to assess the firm. She explains:

“I was hired to calibrate our culture to be more consistent across the firm… to create a firm culture that aligns with what our folks value.”

Guy added that to do this, she and the managing partner went on a three-month roadshow to have 30 discussions about firm values with the CRI employees. Upon their return, the pair analyzed the feedback they received and identified common values. They discovered those values fell into six buckets — technological investment, innovation, work-life balance, authenticity, opportunity, and rewards.

The firm uses three of its values — technological investment, work-life balance, and authenticity — to increase success in the deliberate selection and retention of talent. For example, Guy says, in regard to authenticity, “one of our taglines is national strength, southern roots… the firm is based in the southeast… and has no plans to grow beyond the south.”

Likewise, CRI’s value of technological investment is equally important and is used to increase the firm’s workplace flexibility.  “All of our technology is set up to support this,” she explains. “Most people assume I am based out of Atlanta because when you call me and get my video, people think I am in our office space because it looks like an office.”

Indeed, although CRI does not have a policy outlining or defining work-life balance, the idea is embedded in the firm’s culture. For example, an expectant first-time father who had been working five days a week from the office and now wants to work remotely three days per week, may create a plan for himself to do that. He then designs a plan based on what will work for him individually, instead of being forced to subscribe to different “approved options” in the parental leave policy.

“We don’t have a policy because we have a culture,” Guy notes.

Clearly, creating a firm culture with supporting leadership commitment, technology investment and employee behaviors is critical for maximizing your firm’s return on investment on talent. Indeed, industry employers can use the guidance outlined above to truly create alignment among their purpose, values and meaningful action through culture.

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