You’re not the be all and end all

Law firm leaders need to look beyond their own egos to generate healthy cultures

”Oh my crikey” was my first thought when I read the jaw-dropping resignation ­letter of Goldman Sachs executive ­director Greg Smith in The New York Times. Perhaps more colourful words went through the head of Goldman’s general counsel as the letter swarmed the internet and pollinated front pages. It was a One Direction moment – it came out of nowhere and shot straight to number one.

But neither Smith’s motivations for writing the letter nor the veracity of its contents are as interesting as the fact that the episode demonstrated the importance of an organisation’s culture. We all seem to know what is meant by ’culture’ when used in ­reference to an organisation, but how does a culture manifest and grow within a corporate environment?

Most commentators agree that it has to come from the very top, and the characteristics of senior management are a good indicator of how a company’s culture will be shaped. If the tendency for people to recruit in their own image is not avoided, the often resulting lack of diversity
will give birth to a culture where ­challenge and innovation are stifled.

So, how can we judge the culture of our own organisations? One way is
to undertake an expensive, corporate-wide online survey; another is to go old-school with a cheap and cheerful ’sandwich queue test’, asking employees in the canteen about the company’s attitude is towards customers, shareholders etc. My guess is that the ­answers will be more interesting than those from an online survey.

Organisational culture has to be how staff really see their firms, not the image the outside world sees. If the cultural identity comes from the top, then it is shaped by the queen bee of the organisational hive, the chief executive herself (the stereotypical gender assumption of a male CEO is not one I feel like making).

But while innovation, creativity, customer focus and a good control environment are needed for firms to prosper, these cannot be achieved in isolation. A good corporate culture is required for those values to manifest.

Sadly, ’innovation’, ’creativity’ and ’lawyers’ are not words you often find in the same sentence. But these three words, and the concepts behind them, will have to speed-date, skip dinner and become compatible bedfellows if firms are going to survive competition from the brave new world of ­alternative business structures.

If I were a betting woman, I would be legging it down to Paddy Power to get odds on the premature demise of stoical law firms that see exclusivity as virtue, and recruit talent in the same image year after year (an image that increasing looks nothing like its client base). If you stand still you end up going backwards as those pesky innovators march ahead of you.

One take-away from Smith’s letter is that it has made a lot of us reflect on the perceived cultures within our own organisations. For those queen bees at the top, I am sure a deep shudder was felt as the reputation reaper walked across their graves. Yes, we have all the bright sparks in our firms who say ’innovation’ is our middle name, but if a good organisational culture is not the foundation on which we build our organisations, the organisational hive will topple.

So my mantra for this week is: “Culture is queen, long live the queen.”