How to create the Advisory Firm culture that you WANT
Practice Management & Professional Services

How to create the Advisory Firm culture that you WANT

March 26, 2021

by Tony Vidler  CFP logo   CLU logo  ChFC logo

creating a company culture

New regulatory expectations for financial advisers include defining and articulating their culture.  How does the advisory firm’ culture get defined requires some deep thinking, but then so too does the matter of ensuring that the culture you defined is actually reflected in your firms’ actions. How do you create the culture that want then?  Because the culture drives the conduct, right?

 

Given that most advisory firms are evolving from pure personal services that are entirely dependent on the relationship management abilities of an individual and moving towards becoming corporate entities  that have a life beyond that of the founder, the culture of the organization becomes critical to that successful transition and ensuring that the right conduct (or behaviour) is occuring within the business.

 

Despite the importance of culture to how a service business thinks, acts and performs its functions, it is often not deliberately created.  Many business owners caught up in the busy-ness of running their practices don’t spend the time to think carefully about what it is they want their business to be known for, and therefore what type of culture they want to create.  The key question that lies at the heart of defining a firms culture is this:

Do you know what your business stands for?

 

That begs the question immediately: Do your people know the guiding principles, or “rules”, that establish the desired boundaries of behaviour?  If you are not sure then ask if everyone in your team can articulate the values that really matter most?

 

The results of asking these questions are often disappointing to the prinicipals of an advisory firm.  We think that we have everyone onboard with our values, but…there is a somewhat different culture which has evolved to what we expected.

 

A “culture” exists within any organization whether you realize it or not, despite whether you have deliberately tried to shape it or create it.  There is a culture…a way of thinking, and behaving, and doing things “around here”.  The issue for business owners is whether the culture that has evolved, or currently exists, is actually the one you want.

 

Any business owner that wants to create an entity that can function without the owners presence 100% of the time needs that right culture and parameters in their business.  Any business owner that wants to create an entity that is known to stand for something that matters depends on having the right culture.  Culture is made up of a number of components of course, and it is not simply a matter of whipping out a “vision” and leaving the troops to work out what it means to them individually.

 

Creating a particular  culture does involve having a clear vision and purpose, and being able to communicate it effectively. But it is much more than that.  Having the right people with the right values and attitudes is very important – but just as importantly is how those right people blend together to enhance the teams strength.  The right culture can actually compensate and carry some wrong staff selections from time to time too – though not forever.  Above all though, the culture you get comes by demonstrating the behaviour you want.

 

The real test of whether you are creating (or have created) the culture you want is whether your team are able to articulate clearly and simply your set of guiding values and principles.  The best way to ensure that they can is to create a set of “rules” that reflect the values and behaviours that you are wanting to create.  But rules do not have to be airy fairy things, nor do they have to be couched on contractual legal jargon. If you want to deliberately create a culture then you need rules that people can remember, and that they can interpret and apply easily. Without those attributes the rules will be forgotten or misunderstood.

 

Here is a real example from a real team of how to create a culture deliberately.

The team had rules…and they were laid down in the procedures manual, included in training sessions and internal (informal) reporting; and; referred to in staff induction, performance appraisals and job descriptions.  They were constantly communicated openly by asking people when they had issues or questions, or problems they were trying to resolve, what the rules were.  While I call them “rules” they referred to them laughingly – but they were living and breathing things.  Using the word “rules” however accurately positioned them as the things that mattered.

 

The rules themselves were a surprise to everyone when they were first encountered.

They were:

“The company’s “Rules” are very simple – and few.  They are:
1. If the office ever runs out of coffee, everyone is fired.
2. If in doubt, ASK.
3. Mistakes are okay – as long as we learn from them.
4. Making the same mistakes repeatedly is definitely NOT okay.
5. Stick with our “values”, and you will do well.”

These rules were supported by an equally simple set of Values, which were used as the principles to make right decisions.

The Values were:

Values
* The Client comes first.
* Honesty, no matter what.
* Fair work deserves fair pay, and fair pay deserves fair work.
* The sum is greater than the parts.
* We keep score.
* Small Stuff Matters

 

Some of this looks pretty silly at first glance…Rule 1 for instance?  Seriously….if the office runs out of coffee?

 

The rule isn’t actually about coffee at all…the rule is really about shared responsibility and ensuring that heirarchy does not interfere with core purpose.

 

What Rule 1 says really is “Everyone is responsible for everything here, and nobody is too big or too important to not contribute in the most basic functions

Putting it in “coffee” terms makes it memorable.  You only had to say “what’s Rule 1?” to make the point that it is not one persons job to answer phones, greet clients, fix jammed photocopiers….you get the point…and so did the staff.  Making it a little bit silly by using the “coffee” rule also keeps it light-hearted and not a draconian thing to know that we play by rules  – that the rules are part of our culture.

 

Rule 2: says  “it is okay to not have all the answersthere are no stupid questions”….everyone learns by asking and learning from their peers. Nobody is expected to know everything.  This is critical if we want to avoid people making mistakes simply because they fear the embarassment of looking silly any asking a “dumb question”. It is critical if we want to create a culture where people know they are expected to be continually learning new things.  It is critical if we want people to understand that in a team it is normal to have nobody knowing everything, but everyone knowing something really really well.

 

Number 3 is a BIG one in establishing the desired culture.  If you want a firm which is innovative and in which the team members step up and take responsibility and in which people are willing to try things then people have to be given permission to make mistakes.

 

When people are trying things and testing ideas, and taking responsibility, and growing as individuals….they just won’t always get it right first time.  Not only is that expected, but it is ok.  In fact it is encouraged.  That is critical to bringing out the best in team members, and it is critical to creating a strong sense of professional happiness for team members.  Give them permission to try, and to learn, and to grow…and then when the inevitable mistakes occur (and they will!), you have to accept it, analyze it, and use it is a learning and development experience for everyone involved. 

 

That is called “innovation” – it is where new ideas and techniques and technologies evolve from.

It is incredibly powerful when a junior staff member who really really wants and needs their job and tries very hard at everything they do, actually makes a pretty significant mistake – and you say “It’s ok – what is rule 3?”  Then talk it through and work out what you and they can learn from it.  That is empowering.  And you just HAVE to Give your people permission to try things if you want a business that doesn’t need you 100% of the time.

 

Of course immediately after the big mistake has been made, and analyzed and lessons learned (preferably in a sensitive way!)…it is time to remind them of rule 4.

 

It is NOT okay to continue making the same mistakes.  I value people who can learn from their mistakes, and be better for the experience.  Or in other words…as I have said many times before…I value people who find new mistakes to make.  In terms of creating a successful culture there do need to be some boundaries on what is acceptable after all – and (in this example) that means it is not acceptable to mentally shrug the shoulders and continue making the same mistakes.

The last rule is all about giving people a decision-making framework.  To be blunt, I do not want to be asked by staff whether Mrs Jones should be given some movie tickets to thank her for tolerating a mistake we made…or whether the staff should own up to making a mistake at all.  These are not decisions any executive should make…these are decisions that should be automatically made by good staff who know they are allowed to make decisions.

The “values” guide them in their decision making.  The first 2 points of the values are pretty self-explanatory…but the others are pretty powerful in building a culture.  But the values are placed in descending order of importance too…

Moving onto the rest of the points in the value set, translated they mean:

  • People who work well and perform get looked after – it is something we believe is fair.  But that is a two way street….we expect people to put in an honest days work and be honest with us too.
  • The company…the team….is more important than any individual ego or high flyer.  We might have stars, or ranks, or titles….but at the end of the day the business is more important than any particular star on the team.
  • We test and measure everything we can.  We count pennies…we count dollars.  We measure customer satisfaction…and staff satisfaction…we manage the business methodically and rationally.
  • Lastly…detail does matter.  It may be a small thing to you mis-spelling a client’s name….or sending a letter to their deceased partner….but it is a big thing to the clients or other people.  Pay attention to the details – it shows you care about other people and have professional pride.

 

This is just a working example of the framework to create a culture you want.  .

If you know what you stand for as a business, you should be able to put some guiding principles together that will help your team know what it is that you stand for.  More importantly though, in putting those principles together you stand a very good chance of creating the culture in your business that will reflect what it is you want to be known for.  And you will probably create a much better and more valuable business in the long run too.

 

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