A few years ago, I visited a very successful Wealth Management firm in Atlanta. The firm was in excess of 3 billion dollars Assets Under Management, had incredible growth rates, and were looking to enhance their client experience and technology solutions. Which explained my visit.
It was, without question, the most beautiful financial planning office I had ever seen. The lobby contained a focal point wall with handcrafted Georgian stone, and a fully functioning - though somewhat superfluous, (it was Atlanta, in November) - fireplace. Off to the side of the lobby, was an enormous staff area. It was designed with built in lounges, sofas, and various seating areas, presumably intended to create a welcoming environment for staff to congregate, discuss ideas, and collectively bask in the glory of acknowledging how successful they were. To the right, a coffee bar was fully equipped and decked out beyond anything you would see in an upscale, pretentious, Seattle coffee house. To the left, perfectly aligned with the contours of the room, was the Ping Pong table: Screaming to the world, “How cool are we?”
The room was entirely empty. They built it, and no one came.
I spent a few hours in the office. Met the executives, presented our technology, and spent time with the staff. The team was, to a person, exceptionally bright, knowledgeable, motivated, and entirely… “disengaged”. They performed tasks in their individual silos, talked about the other silos in hushed tones, hinted at turf wars that waged barely below the surface, and rolled their eyes at the idea that our technology solution could improve their company because, as one manager put it, “well that would be amazing, but I’m not sticking my neck out to have it chopped off”.
A step back: Years ago, the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization. Clay pots? Tools for hunting? Religious artifacts? Her response:
“The first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old, fractured, femur found in an archaeological site. In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger; you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery.”
The metaphor speaks for itself. Clearly, culture within any organization, is simply a microcosm of an extended ‘civilization’. Culture starts and ends with caring. But, in between, are literally hundreds of daily, repeated rituals that reaffirm who you are, what you value, and the basic principles on which you conduct yourself daily.
Who you are? Inherent with this self-reflective question is the extended question of “What do I want my company to be? If indeed, you want a company that “allows a broken bone to heal”, then you need to exhibit caring when your staff member or colleague stumbles, makes a mistake, “breaks a bone”.
What do I value? Do I want a culture, that values simply ‘survival of the fittest’ or instead recognizes that when a broken bone heals, it heals stronger than the original? Rather than sacrificing strength and progress by allowing a ‘bone to heal’, on the contrary - the organization is stronger, more trusting, and overwhelmingly more engaged. It was actually one of my staff that pointed this nuance out to me. I almost cried.
Principles of Daily Activities. This is where the rubber really meets the road. We’ve all attended countless conferences, where gregarious pronouncements of culture and team building are served up in healthy doses of nutritionally devoid platitudes. What redirects the platitudes to protein-rich actions are small steps. Day-over-day! It’s about articulating a vision that crystalizes a company towards what it does for others and not how it benefits the executives. It’s about creating strategic initiatives that link directly to that vision and rejoices in both the success and failures that come from that strategy, because that allows the bone to heal more strongly. Finally, it’s about the tactical work that links to the strategic initiatives, that links to the vision, that is done by the staff of your firm. The second that they feel, to quote our manager from Atlanta, “I’ll get my neck chopped off”, is the same moment you know, no Ping Pong table puts that ‘culture genie back in the bottle’.
Back to my Atlanta onsite: On my way out, the COO asked if I wanted to join the team for their weekly Happy Hour. I pictured disgruntled employees, fueled and emboldened by alcohol, venting their frustrations while clinging to their siloed turf wars. What could be better? Lucky for me, I did in fact have a flight to catch, affording me a plausible getaway.
My perspective continues to evolve in my current role as an Executive Partner of a National firm. I have a clearer sense of the importance of small actions determining much more about culture, than any trite, motto ever could. I am acutely aware that what is messaged to our partner firms sends a message, as much to our partners, as it does to our team who socialize that same message. I fiercely protect the consistency of that message. Finally, I find myself mentally juggling the business mantras of “effective leadership holds employees accountable” with “a broken bone will heal with more strength than the original”. I believe the two are not mutually exclusive, but I know with certainty which side I would err more towards.