Holding Onto Your Firm’s Soul

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I was having lunch with a long time business acquaintance who is a senior partner at an impressive, influential law firm late last year.

His firm – which I knew well – was comprised of a tight-knit group of principled, sharp, collegial, caring professionals. I, along with many of my business associates, have always been impressed with this firm – especially with their quality of people – their values and culture. Their esprit de corps.

As we sat down at our table, he excitedly asked: “Have you heard the news? Our firm is merging – we’re going to become an even bigger, major player.”

Perhaps regrettably, I immediately reacted: “Wow, exciting – are you a bit worried that you will lose the firm’s soul?”

What I got back was a furrowed brow and an awkward moment of silence.

I could tell that my instinctive response seriously bothered my friend as he has been a loyal and dedicated leader of his firm for all of his professional life.

I wish, for his sake, I would have kept my mouth shut.

But truth is truth. Frankly, I was immediately concerned that this firm may be forging ahead and in their effort to further leverage their firm’s success – they were at risk of starting to lose their hard earned, immensely valuable “magic” that they had impressively achieved over the years.

I certainly hoped not.

Stay True to Who You Are

I follow and work with a lot of excellent professional services firms. Really great, inspiring law, investment, and accounting firms. These firms are healthy, thriving organizations comprised of impressive, collaborative and principled partners, associates, and staff. Their culture is strong and – whether they realize it or not – their collaborative culture is one of their true competitive advantages.

These firms that I have been fortunate to work with are led by values-based leaders. And, they have an impressive collection of loyal clients who truly care about the firm’s continued success. I know that because that’s my job – sitting down and having conversations with the most valued clients of these firms.

When I see these soulful, purposeful firms with engaged leaders, excited and inspired younger partners/associates, and caring loyal clients, I think to myself: “This is the professional services firm holy grail. Why would any organization want to risk moving away from this special place and its authentic inspiring essence?”

In my mind, it’s where you want to be so that:

1. Your loyal clients will never think of leaving and jeopardizing such irreplaceable trusting and personal relationships with your focused, values-based team,

2. Your principled professionals will continue to want to work there, and,

3. The brightest and most promising law and business school graduates will be excited to build their professional careers there.

Yes, of course my friend’s firm should grow. That is the natural outcome of a successfully executed organization. But, as you grow, you must stay vigilant to protecting the potential downsides of growth You must guard against walking away from those things that truly got you to where you are.

How do you hold onto an engaged, passionate, and collaborative group of people – including management, partners, associates and staff – who work seamlessly together as a caring, dedicated team …as you grow?

Staying the course and doubling down on the important things such as firm values, culture and vision is, in my mind, the absolute right next step for an expanding professional services firm that is thriving and is looking towards its promising future.

After all, your firm’s authentic essence is your primary point of difference versus your competitors. Never forget that.

Be Wary of Diving into the”Red Waters”

With the move to “the next level,” everything increases – profit pressures, competitive pressures, recruiting pressures, etc., etc. These are the “red waters” that Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne allude to in their business classic: Blue Ocean Strategy.

What is easy to get lost during this hectic time of growth and expansion is those “softer things” like maintaining a collaborative culture, or continually reinforcing more meaningful client relationships. Again, the real stuff that separates your firm from your competition. The stuff that is the real glue for your people and your clients.

What do we stand for?, Why do we exist? How should we always be as a firm?

I have always loved the quote: “Hard skills will get you in, but soft skills will get you far.”

Previously in the firm’s initial growing period, this essence – your values, your culture, your visions – just came natural – it was like second nature to the firm. NOW in a time a real growth and expansion – focusing on these core principles reaches a new stage. There must be a more intentional effort to introduce firm intiatives to hold onto your essence. Or, inevitably, this will all this will take a back seat to the firm’s newer, more pressing needs.

Having Your Cake, and Eating It Too

There are great examples of professional service firms that have grown impressively to be major national players while maintaining a strong values-based culture and outstanding, deeper relationships with their clients. Look no further that the law firms of Alston & Bird and Perkins Coie, and the investment firm: Baird. (Each of these firms have sustained a long time presence of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list – Perkins Coie, 22 straight years; Baird, 21; Alston & Bird, 13.) These firms will tell you, this ability to hold onto their “magic” as they grew did not come without a lot of focused, hard work. And – they will also tell you – that this enduring firm-wide work was, and still is, definitely worth it.

Where to Start

Start by listening to your clients. I mean REALLY listening.

Your loyal clients will uncover and clarify your firm “specialness” better than anyone. And, they will reinforce the critical importance of the firm holding onto this magic. These client insights will be really important for all of your people – your leaderhip, your partners, your associates, your staff – to hear. It will emphasize to the troops why everyone needs to engage in the work ahead to always hold onto our firm’s values, culture and vision as you grow.

If you want sincere, unvarnished, truthful, meaningful client feedback – and of course, you do – then have an unbiased third party conduct these conversations with your clients. When done correctly, clients just naturally feel more comfortable in offering their true feelings and perspectives to someone who is not from the firm. Importantly, this should not feel to your valued clients like “research,” but more of an engaging, thoughtful conversation about something they care about – your firm.

Nobody (including your clients) likes to be researched, but everyone loves to be heard.

So, listen to your clients. Make sure they feel truly heard. They will clarify what your firm’s essence really is. And then, everyone at the firm can learn from these clients’ invaluable insights.

Engage with a good cross-section of your clients, and uncover authentic insights by probing and seeking their unvarnished, perceptions among seven key areas:

  • Areas where the firm does particularly well
  • Clients’ authentic feelings about how well the firm does in addressing their pressing needs (business and personal)
  • How they see the firm’s culture and values, and does that matter to them?
  • Perceptions regarding the firm’s overall value
  • Perception on how the firm is positioned for the future – particularly their future needs
  • How the firm does in terms of building tight, “trusted advisor” relationship
  • Ways the firm could improve

You will be amazed at the insights that your clients will offer. These invaluable client insights should illuminate your firm’s direction forward and keep you from staying off and perhaps losing your firm’s way and disorienting the dreams of your people and your clients.

Take the Path Less Chosen

Here’s the deal: With smart vision and doing the right things – your firm will continue to achieve its aspirations and “play more in the big leagues.” The special and more meaningful avenue is to play in these big leagues on your terms.

Do the hard work. Uncover those things that are great about your firm right now and then involve everyone in achieving the challenging – but in the long run – more rewarding goal of holding on to your magic. I will bet that you…and all your colleagues … and your most loyal clients will be glad that in the end you chose the path less taken.

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About the author 

Fred Moore

Lookout Mountain, Tennessee born and bred, Fred is a well-known and respected strategic communications veteran. Prior to launching Big River in 2001, Fred served at several of the nation’s top strategic agencies in New York where he led engagements with preeminent business organizations such as IBM and Pepsico. More recently, Fred has helped nationally recognized professional service firms such as the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth and the investment bank Harris Williams. A proud graduate of Washington & Lee University, Fred has recently completed the curriculum at Goldman Sachs 10KSB as well as studies in Strategic Brand Leadership at the Kellogg School Executive Development program.