Ten Steps toward a Happier Firm

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By Nick Jarrett-Kerr

I have been involved in the management of professional service firms for upwards of twenty-five years, and during that time much of my effort has been directed towards helping firms to develop and build what might loosely be described as “success” – strategic success, financial success, business development success, organisational success and positioning success (relative to rivals), as well as individual career and monetary successes for the professionals involved in the enterprise.

Profit is of course key to the survival and prosperity of any business, and all the individuals in professional service firms are quite rightly focussed both on how to maximise the potential of the firm and how to achieve a sustainable, productive and effective organisation that adds value to clients and can appropriately reward its stakeholders. In this context, the topic of organisational culture, for instance, has concentrated on researching and analysing the dimensions of culture that have been found to make a difference in a firm’s success. The logic is that a powerful and positive culture can bring people together, serve as the glue that turns a bunch of individualists into a team, and fire up the firm’s members to perform better and more harmoniously.

Having said all that, I have not come across an enormous amount of discussion or analysis about what makes a firm happy per se – in other words what makes it a rich and harmonious place to work and hang out, regardless of the profit motive.

It might seem obvious that good leadership is a necessary element in any happy ship. Whilst in a crisis people respond to the imposition of martial law, a contented firm needs a more nuanced approach – a blend of determination and emotional intelligence. At the same time, nobody wants to be pampered for long or to live in an atmosphere where any sort of conduct is tolerated. Like parenthood, discipline with a lightish touch needs to balance out mere indulgence. Somebody told me quite recently that he thought that leadership and love overlapped a lot; certainly it helps enormously if the leadership group in the firm are passionate about the firm and what it does, and the leaders care deeply for the firm’s members.

In this article, I attempt to list ten steps that the leadership team can take towards a happier firm. They are based on facets of contented places to work that I have experienced or observed through the years. I am sure there are more! This does not set out to be an exhaustive academic piece but instead a set of reflections and suggested steps that lean entirely on my own experiences and observations.

Step One. Equipping for the Journey

The starting point for any journey is to know where you are going, how you are going to get there and the tools and kit needed for the journey. The objective of this step is that by investing in the office “ecology”, the office can become an awesome place to work.

Whenever I walk into the offices of a professional service firm, I am always struck by the atmosphere of the place, rather than the glossiness of the reception area. Some offices seem to radiate warmth and friendliness whilst others seem more clinical and lacking in energy.

There seem to me to be three features in which the happiest firms invest time and money.  First, and most obviously, a well-trained set of reception and office staff clearly helps the visitor to the firm, so training members of the firm in soft as well as hard skills helps internally. Second, although a pleasant office may not be motivational, nevertheless an unpleasant place to work clearly demotivates. People may complain if a room is too cold but take it for granted and rarely enthuse when the temperature is just right. Hence, the obvious artifacts of office life need thought and care – the sort of attention demanded by enthusiasts of Feng Shui, for instance.

The third ecological element is the much vaunted, researched and analysed “organisational culture”, often described as “the way things are done round here”. I was once told by a managing partner of a law firm that he controlled the firm’s culture, but I think he was mistaken – the best anybody can do is to influence it (positively or negatively). A good way of doing this for for the firm’s leaders to be exemplars of the sort of positive cultural traits, values and behaviours that they espouse.This is a tricky area in which to invest – soft, long term, fuzzy and almost impossible to measure quantitatively.

Step Two. Stepping up Intercommunications

One of the most often heard complaints about an unhappy workplace relates to communication: specifically when it is poor, patchy, economic with the truth, or lacking transparency. There are some significant structural and emotional barriers to good communication in law firms. Teams, practice groups and offices can easily lapse into functional silos, with poor communications even between people on different floors in the same building. In addition, the concentration on maximising the billable hour and the drive to prioritise time generally, combine to reduce interaction between staff. The use (or misuse) of email, and stilted discussion at formal team meetings become a poor substitute for the easy interchange of ideas which can often take place in a semi-social setting. What is more, many firms have grown to the extent that fewer employees know each other. Whilst communication between friends is often difficult, communication between strangers can be fraught with problems.

The truth is that the traditional structure and hierarchies of professional firms do not lend themselves to a culture of easy communication. A ‘them and us’ tradition can lead to grapevines, rumour-mongering, suspicion, cynicism and muddled goals. In such an environment, many partners have difficulty in perceiving what their tasks and roles are, and how they are expected to contribute to decision-making.

The leadership team and the partners can also often find themselves singing from different song sheets and the fragmented results almost always have an adverse effect on morale. In response, there is a temptation to increase the number and length of meetings, memos, papers and e-mails, with less likelihood that the offerings will be read and understood. Conversely, some leaders continue to act on the premise that knowledge is power and purposely under-communicate within the firm so as to protect vital information and data from slipping out of their controlled grasp. Complaints about poor communication can also act as code for a general gripe about lack of involvement. What is clear is that much of the task for the leaders is painstaking, often process-driven, and at times downright boring. The clear message to firm leaders is that they should adopt a careful and methodical approach to their strategy for discussions, interchanges and information flows.

Step Three. The Long Walk to Collegiality

The assets of a “people” business tend to enter into and out of the office every day. Partnership relationships tend to be quite long term and although they are business relationships and not necessarily personal ones, they need investment. It is easier in this context to make a long list of the many mistakes made in firms in understanding and developing people. Closed doors, hierarchical thinking, displays of arrogance and self-importance, selfishness, impatience, intolerance of mistakes, eagerness to lay blame, morale-sapping behaviours, anger issues, bullying, sarcasm, disrespectful treatment of others, exploitation, unwillingness to listen, internal politics and jealousies are all features of unhappy firms where morale is low and where careers tend to be short-term. It is vital to realise here that the positive antonyms of the above list are formed by acts of will and matters of decision rather than by a feeling or a burst of emotions. Happy firms tend to be ones where the leaders and followers have made a conscious determination to invest in relationships, moderate their behaviours, and do their best for the collective membership and to individuals at all levels.

Step Four. Walking at Different Paces.

We tend to like people to be like ourselves. This can lead to intolerance of people who are different to us, and this can breed unhappiness. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed that “it’s an universal law – intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education”. The way in which the firm handles diversity is critical to the achievement of harmony – not just ethnic, cultural, religious or biological diversity, but diversity in views, opinions and behaviours. The key to the happy firm lies in understanding and making allowance for the very different ways in which people interact and behave as a result of their particular mixes of history, origins, upbringing, traditions and personalities.

Professional service firms are made up of many elements of diversity as well as different character types – extroverts, introverts, drivers, and thinkers are amongst them. People in firms tend to look at the world in different ways. Some constantly strive for results, some are laid back and amiable, some are analytical and some are process-oriented. People come across vastly differently as well – for instance, as dramatic, entertaining, sociable, closed, reserved, sensitive, submissive, or indecisive. None of these different approaches are necessarily right or wrong but there are at least two issues. First, relationships between diverse personalities can easily become toxic. Too often we fall into conflict and become critical when we expect everybody else to behave and interact just like us. The second issue is that strengths can become weaknesses; laid back people can become lazy, drivers can be dictatorial and perfectionists can become paralysed by their analysis. The disciplines of self-perception (and a desire to correct one’s own shortcomings) together with an attitude to others of understanding, appreciation and encouragement enable harmony to be achieved, strengths to be pooled, risks to be identified, and robust decisions to be agreed.

Step Five. Loving Curiosity

Conformity can have a somewhat deadening effect on the atmosphere of firms. All professional service firms need to have processes, systems, quality checks and compliance regimes. All of these are no doubt necessary for efficiency, risk management and regulatory control. However, I have often noticed how weighed down people often can feel because of the huge load of internal regulation, some of which can seem unnecessary. Morale suffers where there is too much unnecessary red tape. To quote Joseph Conrad, “The atmosphere of officialdom would kill anything that breathes the air of human endeavour, would extinguish hope and fear alike in the supremacy of paper and ink”. It is of course easier said than done to say that the compliance touch should be as light as possible, consistent with the firm’s overall objectives. Slavish and obstinate adherence to existing systems can however be avoided if firm members are encouraged (and rewarded) to be questioning, proactive and innovative in suggesting alternative approaches and new ways of doing things.

Step Six. Grinding Through the Pain Barriers

Happiness is not the absence of conflict. I have always loved the example of the grit in the oyster to illustrate the importance of constructive debate and the advantages of healthy argument on important issues. The tension between two valid points of view can often be tested and deployed to make decision-making better. Innovative ideas can be generated by the use of creative tension and energy. The problem is that in any discussion, bitterness, resentment and anger can easily set in and can be difficult to prevent when strong-minded personalities are involved. The key here is to engage with different points of view, and to tap into a spirit of healthy debate and commitment in order to find the best solution and to suspend personal stakes, ego trips and stubbornness. In meetings, this kind of engagement requires subtle and refined chairing skills. In individual instances of conflict that require intervention, diplomacy and mediation skills may be needed.

Step Seven. Engaging the Mavericks

The insistence on dogmatic convictions can lead to stagnation of ideas. Clients of professional firms appreciate the long years of experience that contribute to the skill bases of their advisers. It is of course good to rely on tried and trusted solutions to problems and challenges that are similar to ones that the firm has successfully encountered in the past. Pushed too far, however, reliance on existing approaches and solutions can lead to a stultified atmosphere where change is resisted at all costs, and new ideas suppressed or ignored.

In the last few years, some firms to their credit have recognised that innovation has traditionally been in short supply in professional firms. This is often because of the straight jacket of a billable hours’ philosophy that does not value time spent on exploring or creating new and different methodologies and emerging services. There is then a further question as to whether any mavericks at the firm are geniuses or jerks – many seem to have elements of both! I remember one partner who was extremely innovative and was constantly thinking up new ideas and plans, some good and some not. He was certainly not easy to get on with and, unless influenced by a moderating force, he tended to cause a lot of strife in the office. As always, there is a question of balance to be attained that cannot simply be defined by a recipe. Too much freedom and chaos (and unhappiness) results. Too much restriction of new ideas and stultification occurs.

Step Eight. Building Teamwork

Isolation breeds discontent. Law firms are one example of a professional services sector where some firms can be described as “motels for lawyers”, in which lawyers carry on a largely autonomous existence as sole practitioners held together by the glue of the compliance and professional regulatory regimes mentioned at Step 5. The same may be true to a greater or less extent of other professional service sectors. Such firms are not necessarily unhappy as such, but (apart from being in most cases commercially inefficient) can breed an atmosphere in which firm members are not encouraged or forced to build close ties with fellow members. Instead, people stick in their offices with their heads down and keep to their individual routines.

I have noticed that in such an environment people can often wear a mask or outer shell to hide their inner feelings of isolation, boredom and lack of career fulfilment. A culture can then easily grow in which everyone’s mask or shell condemns others to live the same pretence and keep their dissatisfaction a secret. There are of course many ways in which teamwork can be built – such as weekly team meetings, firm retreats, and frequent face-to-face interactions. In short, firms that I have experienced that try to be a “one-firm firm” seem (with some exceptions) to be more stimulating, contented and productive places to work than are “motels for sole practitioners”.

Step Nine. Looking up to See the Horizon

Corporate narcissism – where the firm constantly looks inwards and not outwards – is unhealthy and can imperil a firm’s state of well-being. I sometimes see firms where nothing seems to matter other than the firm itself. The firm lives in its own bubble and is both egotistical and egoistical – both feeling superior to others and preoccupied with itself. Clients become a tedious necessity, and the pursuit of unique or exclusive technical excellence is paramount. To some extent, these are excellent attributes if treated with moderation.

Nowadays of course firms are rightly required to embrace “corporate social responsibility” but often do so with a degree of hypocrisy or cynicism, to protect a sensitive client base or to assist in brand building. As a young lawyer, my then senior partner always encouraged us to give back something to the community by way of charitable work or towards a societal need. There are of course good business-building reasons for so doing – external involvements and networking are necessary to bring in clients and work. However, I have noticed that narcissistic firms seem to suffer a lack of oxygen and elements of claustrophobia that result from a refusal or inability to engage more than is absolutely necessary with the world outside.

The encouragement to look and act externally has three benefits of which the first is the business-development benefit of networking. The second is that relationships within the firm develop well where social and sporting activities are encouraged. Third is the point made by my former senior partner – not only is it right and proper to give back something to society, but selflessness frankly feels better than selfishness.

Step Ten. Achieving an Ethic to Work and Play Hard

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” or so the proverb goes. Some years ago, I recall asking a prospective lateral hire why he wanted to leave his firm and he replied that he regarded the firm as a “coal mine” in which the only things that mattered were chargeable hours and revenue generation. I am not sure that such a firm is ever a place of great joy and happiness, unless of course it entirely consists of workaholics.

The proverb does however have a second verse – “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy”. Most professional service sectors – including the law and accountancy – are well paid and the expectations of hard work are accordingly and understandably very high. I would never argue for a pampering and indulgent environment where laziness is endemic and little effort is needed. I would however push for firms where – at every level – the taking of due and proper vacations is encouraged, and firm members are able to have a balanced social life and are not expected to endure an oppressive servitude.

There are good commercial reasons for seeking to make a firm a happy and rewarding place to work. After all there is a strong financial argument both that a contented firm is more productive and that the cost of people attrition can be measurably reduced by improvements in morale. There is however in my view a stronger case than commercial gain. My contention is that we all spend large proportions of our lives at work and that we owe it to ourselves and our firm that our career and the environment in which we work should be stimulating, satisfying and even fun. I would go further and suggest that the pursuit of happiness in our firms is more important than the pursuit of profit. None of the suggested steps is easy, and they all require long-term thinking, persistence and – above all – a willingness and passion to invest.