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Employee Development

How to drive culture in talent retention for professional services firms

Natalie Runyon  Director, Enterprise Content

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director, Enterprise Content

· 6 minute read

Organizational culture plays a huge role in employee retention.

In fact, employee engagement is an indicator of a strong culture and how employees feel about their culture.

Fully engaged employees are much less likely to leave an organization, with only 16% of them in the hunt for a new job compared to 66% of their disengaged colleagues, according to a workplace study from 2019. Further, happiness makes people more productive at work — 12% more productive in fact, according to the latest research from the University of Warwick; and companies with the most engaged employees are 22% more profitable that those with low-engaged workers, according to this Gallup study.

Not surprisingly, 87% of leaders of Human Resources departments cite improved talent retention a critical or high priority over the next five years, according to this Kronos study from 2017, and one-fifth said there are too many competing priorities to focus on fixing the issue.

The solution to improve talent retention is simple but not easy, and we sat down with leaders from the people functions at accounting firms and law firms to discuss the role of culture in their firms and how that impacts retention.

Driving accountability

As part of the culture transformation, care must be taken to shepherd accountability from the top-down, the bottom-up, and side-to-side during the implementation of a new firm culture and also on an ongoing basis. A key top-down tactic is to embed culture in leadership development programming to create collective ownership and accountability. If culture is viewed as being owned by HR and the CEO without the perception of a shared stake in it, then it has failed.

At the same time, bottom-up tactics are also critical for collective ownership and accountability. Claudio Diaz, Chief People Officer at Briggs and Veselka, recalls that during the cultural implementation process at another firm, the CEO invited feedback from anyone who observed him falling short of living the 10 behaviors that had been identified as the organization’s service guidelines.

Secondly, using an engagement survey is an effective culture assessment tool as a bottom-up approach. Questions can focus on selected behaviors to demonstrate the embodiment of the firm’s purpose and the values. According to Diaz, he analyzed the data to identify the strategic priorities on behalf of the executive team to continue building upon the cultural transformation. In addition to that strategic focus, each leader worked with her/his direct reports to determine the team’s own actions to improve upon, he says.

Even once the implementation of the cultural transformation is complete within the organization, attention still needs to be placed on maintenance and accountability. “If you don’t take the time to intentionally care for your culture, it will grow by default, like moss on a tree,” Diaz says, adding that for employee retention purposes, feedback mechanisms — both formal and informal — are key drivers for keeping the culture at the center of workplace performance.

Developing a feedback culture to drive retention

Creating a culture of feedback and radical candor is also an essential part of embodying organization culture and integrity. Regular developmental feedback is an important tool in individual professional growth and talent retention. And at the center of all this feedback is trust. Without trust, efforts to proactively drive culture with a long-term impact on individual development will have a shelf life.

Instead, it must be delivered at scale, Diaz explains, noting that he had an internal team develop a “quick feedback” app to help install a culture of recognition and improvement to aid this goal. Anyone could give feedback to any associate in the firm, but it wasn’t anonymous to ensure accountability and transparency in developing others.

Upward feedback on performance at the practice level

The practice leader has responsibility for managing productivity, and as such, leaders need to manage their own performance as well as that of their employees. To manage their own performance, accountability is critical as upward feedback from their employees — through a “manager feedback” mechanism — identifies whether practice leaders are expressing the necessary cultural values through their behaviors.

Manifesting culture through physical space

The look and design of physical space can also be an important tool in guiding an employee’s cultural journey. Tax and accounting firm Friedman LLP shared how the relocation of its headquarters in New York City and subsequent layout of its office space created the opportunity to underscore the firm’s values of collaboration, relationships and optimism, bringing the culture to life through physical space. “We built out this space to match how we feel about the organization,” says Lindsay Gaal, Friedman’s chief HR officer. “Our open layout features bright colors, numerous collaborative spaces and interior glass doors throughout the office.”

“Also, all offices—including our partners’—are the same size. We wanted to make sure the message got across that every person has an important position on the Friedman Team. That’s why we created such a collaborative environment.”

Explicitly spell out the workplace norms

The law firm Ogletree Deakins established Success the OD Way, an internal learning guide for its associates which articulates the firm’s cultural norms, provides descriptions of the five key success factors, and outlines behaviors which may derail an associate’s career. The Learning Guide creates transparency around what it takes to be successful at the firm by outlining both the written and unwritten rules for success.

Designed under the leadership of Michelle Wimes, the firm’s chief diversity and professional development officer, the firm’s playbook is especially critical for the retention of professionals of color. “A transparent road map is really quite essential, because, many times, diverse lawyers don’t have people in their families or lives who are lawyers who have worked in big law firms; they don’t have sponsors who are lawyers who can tell them what the unwritten rules are,” says Wimes. “They come into law firms, make mistakes without knowing better, which can be hard to recover from.

“Hands down, there’s only one — I’ve said this for the last 10 years since I’ve been doing this work,” Wimes adds. “The single most effective thing to retain talent, isn’t cash, it isn’t perks, it isn’t rewards. Those things may lead to short-term retention, but you have to engage with employees as individuals. They have to know that their firm cares about their success, makes the road to success as transparent as possible and equips them with the necessary tools to achieve their goals.”


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