Further Thoughts on the "The Hottest Topic in Business Today"

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Last month, I wrote about a new associate who had joined our firm and her impressions of Todd Herman Associates (THA).

This month, another new associate joined the firm. Just as I had done with the first new associate, we sat down to discuss her first week on the job.

Both associates had interesting insights, centering on the culture of the firm. The interesting difference, however, was the lens through which each viewed our culture.

  • The first saw THA's culture through the discussions, behaviors, and ideas she observed – in other words, she focused on "soft skills."
  • The second saw the firm's culture through more tangible items – she targeted the "nuts and bolts" of how the firm runs on a day-to-day basis.

Like the first associate, the second associate commented on the "great people" associated with THA – whether these people were employees, or external colleagues brought in to help with certain specialized matters. She admired the professionalism, intelligence, dedication, and commitment to high standards – soft skills, all – embraced by everyone working for and with the firm.

The tangible items the second associate noted were directly related to intangible factors comprising the culture at THA. For example:

  • She admired the variety of topics and sheer number of books I have in my office, and how that speaks to my desire for my staff and me to always learn something new.
  • The books I assigned her as required reading – and the tests that must be successfully passed to ensure the concepts have taken root! – indicate I am serious about everyone "being on the same page" (literally!) with respect to how things are done at THA.
  • Explaining our Quarterly Performance Management system and having her sign off on her initial Quarterly Performance Plan the first week ensures we are both in sync about my expectations of her.
  • Including specific tasks with specific deadlines in her Quarterly Performance Plan – and encouraging her to post her plan where she could easily see it, and then to update me monthly on her progress and challenges – told her I am serious about holding people accountable for results and about being a tough yet fair "grader" of her performance.
  • Observing how all my books are categorized, all office supplies are stored in labeled plastic containers, and virtually all our processes are documented by person, steps, and key dates in an 800+ page "Job Aid Library & Master Calendar" speaks to our level of organization and attention to detail.
  • Seeing how we track our time and document our activities – especially in the Business Development arena – attests to our routine evaluation of our own effectiveness and productivity, even in highly subjective areas such as Marketing, Networking, and Selling.
  • Noting our 27+ years in business speaks to being able to successfully navigate both boom years and lean years, and our commitment to pursuing consulting as a career and not something to be done between jobs.
  • Using an outside consultant to routinely provide a Third Party Objective (3PO) assessment on how well I am doing my job indicates I abide by the same rules as everyone else and do not carve out a special exemption for myself.
  • Seeing how problems in our day-to-day work are analyzed and addressed, without blaming someone for the problem, shows her we truly believe improving Processes and using Technology do help People perform better – and this is true for BOTH our people AND our clients' people!

All these tangible items exist to reinforce the values I've hard-coded into THA. While all the items she cited deal with THA's internal organization and operation, they collectively make some other important points related to Culture:

  • THA is a business, and – like any other successful business – needs to be run as efficiently and effectively as possible.
  • Trying out ideas on THA gives us experiences and insights we can share with our clients, prospects, and referral sources.
  • Keeping things as simple as possible behind the scenes allows us to focus on THE key aspect of our culture – The THA mission, and sole reason for existence, is to serve our clients exceptionally well.

None of these items developed overnight, and none happened without the inevitable hiccups and setbacks – still, there is a rational basis for everything we do internally, as well as a linkage to some intrinsic value I believe is important. Indeed, when I began my own firm many years ago, I realized I could keep the many things learned from my former employer, Arthur Andersen & Co., that I liked, and change the few areas I felt needed tweaking.

So, once again, we come back to this – culture must be cultivated. Culturecomes from not only the day-to-day interactions executives or managers have with their staff, it also comes from the organization and operation of the business itself. While a business exists as an entity separate from its key elements – that is, its People, Process, and Technology – these key elements are dynamic because they carry out the actions of the business.

What's the key difference between a "noun" and a "verb"? A "verb" conveys the "action" being done by, or to, the "noun" – and that's why, however you approach it, "culture" is a verb.

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Todd L. Herman