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by Sarah E. Dale and Krista S. Sheets

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Your firm’s culture impacts your business in the following ways and so many more: attraction and retention of staff and clients; client experience; brand and public image; reputation in the community; productivity and profitability; and enjoyment in your career.

But what actually is culture? Culture is commonly defined as a way of life of groups of people, meaning the way they do things—their behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept without even thinking about them, that are passed along by communication and imitation. 

Who is your “group of people” in your organization? It’s those you designate as your team.

Small firms often neglect the importance of culture, because they think only big corporations have it. That’s a mistake. Size may affect culture, but whether there are two or 2,000 people in an organization, culture is critical.

Although larger organizations certainly have a way of doing things (a set of standards), when you study departments or teams within larger organizations, you find subcultures. Wirehouses and regional firms create their cultures, but make no mistake—small advisory teams within those organizations also create their own mini-culture that fits within the greater organization. Culture is just as important at a small firm as it is at any large firm.

Creating and Sustaining Culture

Culture begins with beliefs and values. Gandhi said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” This is true from an individual and organizational perspective.

There is a direct correlation between what you believe—the thoughts happening in your head—and your end results. Think of this: if you believe your fees are too high and you are not worthy of your pricing schedule, your action will be to discount your offerings. Discounting then becomes a habit and impacts your ultimate results.

In a commoditized industry, the challenge is not doing business with people who need what you have (that’s obvious); rather, it’s doing business with people who believe what you believe. Your team members, clients, prospects, and community must know your beliefs and principles; those principles are the foundation of your culture, not merely words with no actions.

People are fundamental to culture. As practice management consultants, we help financial planners with all different business needs. We believe people are your most important business decision, and the experience that you provide them will make or break your ultimate success. The financial services industry tends to focus on the numbers, yet it is people who drive the numbers and who embody your culture.

A company’s culture can noticeably evolve based on the traits of the people you hire. If you pride yourself on the remarkable client experience you deliver and suddenly hire people who are more focused on driving sales than the service they offer, your culture can be impacted. We cannot emphasize enough how important your hiring decisions are to the culture and employee experience that you create. So, once you create your desired culture, you have to consistently live it. It starts at the top; leadership should not only regularly communicate the importance of firm culture, they also must demonstrate the behaviors you want your teams to emulate and replicate as part of your culture.

The challenge of sustaining your company culture is that beliefs, words, behaviors, and actions must be consistent and in alignment. Many firms try to sell culture as an element of their recruiting; yet culture is experienced, not sold. If new hires feel and experience something very different from the culture you “sold” them during the hiring phase, they likely will resign in the first year. Time has been wasted, and your reputation in and outside of the firm has possibly been negatively impacted. What your associates experience and what the public perceives will likely be entirely different than the culture you intended.

If you are reading this and just started a new firm, you have the advantage of creating your culture from inception. For most though, you’ve been in business and with or without your doing, some sort of culture exists.

You must look at your current culture and compare it to your ideal culture so you can begin to identify the action steps required to close the gap between the two. This takes time; there is no culture on/off switch that changes things instantaneously. Here are our recommendations.

Getting Started

Set aside quiet time and consider the following questions:

  • Did you intentionally create your culture, or did it happen organically?

  • Do you have written company beliefs and values? Do your team and your clients know them?

  • Do you consistently live your organization’s beliefs? Are your actions in alignment with your beliefs?

  • How do you want to be known?

  • Is there anything you’d like to change about your firm’s culture?

Elements that Affect Culture

Below is a selection of elements that can affect firm culture. It is not intended to be a complete list. As you review them, keep in mind how you want your employees and clients to feel and how you want to be known within the communities you serve. These elements ultimately affect your top and bottom line revenues.

Appreciation. How often do you show appreciation to your team? Is the recognition private? Public? Is it customized to the individual? Do your associates feel valued?

Personal growth. What are your training and professional development opportunities? Do you have paths for growth that are defined and communicated? Do you invest in your team member’s growth? Do you coach them and provide regular feedback on their progress?

Business growth. Do all team members have a growth mindset? Are associates incentivized to impact the bottom line of the business? Do all associates understand that in the absence of growth, the business stagnates?

Effective communication. Does your team know they have a voice and that their ideas and feedback are critical? How do you know if the frequency, style, and structure of your communication plan are working? Do you have critical conversations with your associates in a timely manner?

Personal accountability. Do all team members have clarity of expectations? Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined and documented? Do all associates have specific goals for which they are measured and held accountable? Do all team members have clear expectations on business hours and dress code? Do you provide rules-of-engagement outlining what is expected of them and what they can expect from the firm?

Stewardship. How well do you care for your associates/clients? How well do you know them and what is important to them in all aspects of life? Do you foster a caring, nurturing environment? How competitive/generous are the benefits you provide (compensation, healthcare, retirement, etc.)?

Service. Do you have a documented menu of service deliverables for each of your client segments that your team consistently delivers? Are you remarkable and differentiating in your proactive and reactive service activities?

Hierarchy. Do you want the organization to be top-down, bottom-up, peer-to-peer, or 360 degrees? Do team members understand the structure and know the chain of command? Are team members encouraged and empowered to think, decide, and act within their scope of responsibility? What are the leadership styles of the organization (democratic, collaborative, autocratic, servant, individualistic, strategic, etc.)?

Environment. Is the environment what your employees want? Consider office space, flexible work areas, communal spaces, and any of perks you provide. Flextime, tuition reimbursement, onsite daycare, free lunches, fitness classes, monthly massages, etc., will all affect the environment and the culture.

Diversity. Inclusivity and diversity are important topics in our world. Is your firm makeup representative of the clients and communities that you serve? Are you generationally diverse to connect to your client families and to build a bench for the future of your firm? Do you have the right people with diverse talents aligned in the right roles? Remember that we are all unique, and we must understand the uniqueness of each individual to truly appreciate one another.

Take Action

All of you reading this will be at a different stage of your culture’s development. Beliefs and values are your starting point and we know this can be challenging for some to articulate. Below we provide a selection of our beliefs to help get your wheels turning, but remember: beliefs must be authentic to you. You can’t fake culture. Once you have your own beliefs, you then can define the actions you will take to live them in your business.

We believe:

  • in delivering high-quality, innovative ideas, solutions, and client experiences.

  • in developing long-term relationships with clients, vendors, and partners.

  • the notion of “service” is about actions, not just words.

  • in the power of collaboration and partnership.

  • in the power of teamwork—recognizing the unique talents of the individual while thriving on the accomplishments, leverage, and fun that teams can achieve together.

  • in planning with vision, executing with vigor, and following up with conviction.

  • in the power of simple, replicable processes that can be integrated into daily activities and are sustainable over time.

  • in maintaining a fun, fair, and creative environment where diversity, imagination, and hard work are respected and rewarded.

  • in the power of appreciation and then paying it forward.

  • trust, integrity, and open, honest communication are at the heart of successful relationships.

  • life is ultimately about making a difference to family, clients, co-workers, community, friends, and strangers.

Conclusion

Culture is not simply an ideological notion; it is a critical element of what connects your employees to their work and your clients to your firm. If culture is not something you have considered important in the past, we hope this article might have begun to shift your mindset. The culture you articulate and demonstrate will directly impact your success, the associates and clients you attract and retain, and the numbers you generate and realize.

Sarah E. Dale and Krista S. Sheets are partners at Performance Insights (performanceinsights.com​), where they focus on helping financial professionals increase results through wiser practice management and people decisions.

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