20 June 2016

“Growth for growth’s sake” introduces cultural risk

Is it possible to maintain company culture during periods of rapid growth? Or does company culture inevitably change as employee numbers rise and new branches open?

Since January 2014 Hall & Wilcox has experienced rapid growth – partner and employee numbers increased by more than 50 per cent. In this time the firm has opened offices in Sydney, Perth, Canberra and Newcastle following close to 100 years as a Melbourne-only firm.

More growth is expected in the coming years as the firm builds a truly national presence. Expansion has inspired thinking long and hard about culture and how to engage our people during this time. From the beginning, it is important to ask: What is the smart way to expand without threatening a unique culture?

Culture as strategy

“Too often a company’s strategy, imposed from above, is at odds with the ingrained practices and attitudes of its culture. Executives may underestimate how much a strategy’s effectiveness depends on cultural alignment. Culture trumps strategy every time”

Harvard Business Review, “Cultural Change That Sticks”, by Jon R. Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen, and Caroline Kronley

Rushing to growth for growth’s sake introduces cultural risk, and potentially introduces operational risk. When you compromise culture for the bottom line the likelihood of success is much lower. It is much harder to support a new hire or a new team where there is poor culture fit.

How can culture play a central role in a growth strategy? Understanding your culture is a starting point – this has been essential in filtering the many growth opportunities we have had. Understanding culture allowed us to develop certain criteria which need to be met on any big decisions around potential acquisitions and new hires.

It is important to recognise that culture cannot be forced, and needs sometimes to adapt. Targeting like-minded people helps with continuity, but there needs to be room for difference and evolution. Consider the cultural differences in one major city from another – it is unrealistic for culture in one office to exactly match that of an office interstate. The cookie-cutter approach of “one size fits all” is not the way. While new offices will be a part of the broader firm culture, they need room to develop their own personality.

The key point is that you do not expect to get culture right 100% of the time – but it is easier to have a cultural conversation when you know what the culture is about, and the values you hold dear.

Culture has to start from somewhere

Often there is a trigger point that places the focus sharply on culture – for us, it was nine years ago when the firm prioritised being transparent at all levels. The ethos became that everyone in the firm can benefit by understanding the strategy. There needed to be substance – legal firms do not tend to share financials with all employees but we felt that being genuinely transparent meant revealing the financials. Our people can only benefit from knowing exactly where things sit – both good and bad.

Our people have been regularly engaged on how the plan is going, where changes need to be made, what has been successful and what has not.

For culture to grow, the communication channels need to be open, and two-way. Aside from regular updates to all employees there needs to be opportunities for people to ask questions freely. At the core of this is that our people need to know how the strategy relates to them.

The last 15 years have seen major changes in legal circles. It has been a time of disruption and innovation, and uncertainty. Transparency and openness provides the opportunity to navigate these challenges together.

Engagement is not any one thing

While we had one clear starting point, time has proven that there is no one solution to people engagement. A second guidepost for us is that little things add up to a lot. Hence the firm tries a range of approaches, continually reviewing what works and what does not.

We have had a range of successful ideas – some bigger than others. Five things that have positively impacted our people include:

  • Regular town hall meetings – conducted either in person (road show) or nationally via video linkup where everyone in the firm is invited to hear about items such as the firm’s strategy, quarterly financials, promotions, updates on what’s happening in offices, practice groups or other key projects.
  • Providing free breakfast every day – we were not sure if this would catch on but the free breakfast program has been hugely successful on many levels. It has been one of the best ways to get everyone in the firm (regardless of level) intermingling every day and the feedback has been very strong.
  • Open plan, flexible work spaces – there was some natural trepidation about moving to open plan, which has been long resisted in the legal profession. But from early on we could see genuine benefits in collaboration and team building. When privacy is needed it is available. But having a flexible, adaptable space which allows our people to plug in anywhere to work has been positive.
  • Emerging artists’ program – we are privileged to have a workspace which is well designed and aesthetically pleasing, but this has gone to the next level thanks to the popular emerging artists program, which exhibits artworks by talented emerging artists and commenced in 2015. Several talented emerging artists are exhibited each year, with all art works available for sale. The opening events are always well attended, and sales have been strong. Feedback from both our people and clients is that art enhances the workspace.
  • A reward and recognition program – the state offices get together regularly, like a national afternoon tea, and hear about what people throughout the firm have done.

Old-fashioned approaches sometimes best

Technology makes it easier to be transparent across different locations – tools such as video conferencing have been well received, and applications such as Skype for Business have worked well. But old-fashioned approaches have been essential for integrating new teams from other firms, often based in other states.

Integration is vitally important to ensure client continuity and settle things down quickly. While we could rely on our ability to connect online, we have found that senior partners spending time personally in other offices improves the success rate. Having a physical presence and being prepared to take the time for regular meetings with new hires, has identified teething issues and allowed the firm to deal with them quickly.

It is possible to preserve culture during a time of business growth – but the starting point is to be very clear about what your culture is, remaining true to it while willing to adapt to the changes that growth brings.