Edge International

Ikigai: Some Personal Reflections on Raison d’Etre and Purpose in Professional Firms

Nick Jarrett-Kerr

Introduction – Identity, Purpose and Vision for the Professional Firm

I have often written of the imperative for a professional firm to develop an overall and shared “Strategic Intent” as a great starting point for the development of the central part of a firm’s strategy. Strategic Intent (Identity, Purpose and Vision) provides and communicates an unmistakable sense of direction, identity and destiny for every person in the firm and identifies clear purposes and objectives which will drive the firm beyond its current limitations and constraints. Every professional firm is made up of its members and needs a raison d’être which transcends the desire to make money. Why the partners/members of any firm stick together and choose to be part of a particular firm has a lot to do with the mutual motivations and shared values of its members.

The problem is that many firms are made up of partners with differing views of what they need from the firm. It is difficult to main maintain unity of strategic purpose in a firm made up of widely different character types. Hence, the second part of Strategic Intent, and in many ways the most difficult, is to agree on the firm’s purpose: identifying why the partners are in business together and what seem to comprise the bonds – beyond the pursuit of profit – that drive the firm forward. A strong sense of purpose is necessary to give partners and staff good reasons for working late, going the extra mile, and investing their careers, money and resources in the firm. Strong values therefore form a large element in a firm’s sense of purpose – the issues and factors which are important to partners, which form the soul of the firm, and which help people to understand why the firm exists and what really matters to its stakeholders.

Sense of Purpose for a Firm Starts at the Individual Level

This higher purpose for a business needs to be built on developing and defining the sense of purpose that is important for its stakeholders. Businesses fail through lack of passion on the part of its stakeholders, and it is therefore important that the firm should be built or developed on the foundations of an agreed reason for being. Over the past two decades I have had the honour and pleasure of working with firms across the world with many different cultures, faiths and religious beliefs. In my engagements I often ask law firm members what gets them up in the morning, what motivates them and why they come to work. I have been astounded by the similarity between forward-thinking firms world-wide in the answers to these questions. I have, of course, come across a minority of firm members who are demotivated or bored and sadly treat their job or career as fulfilling no real purpose than the need to make a living. Most, however, feel passion for what they do.

As a practicing Christian I have found the answers to the really deep and difficult questions of higher purpose (for example “Why am I in the World?”) to be fairly straightforward conceptually, though less easy to put into practice in day-to-day life. My faith is based on knowing, growing and serving God, built on the fundamental premise that our higher purpose is to serve God “as the best and happiest thing in the world” – as one writer put it – and empowered with a desire and drive to work hard so as to try to bring more good into existence. Both Judaism and Islam have similar philosophies – the very name, Islam, means submission or obedience to God, and the Muslim is one who submits or surrenders to God and accepts that all created things fulfil their assigned purpose by serving God.

Other religions show a remarkable similarity of approach. The Hindus adhere to the concept of “purusharthas” which comprise the four proper goals or aims of a human life. These are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values). Not entirely dissimilarly, for Buddhists, the path to enlightenment is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom.

Towards an Ikigai Sense of Purpose

Whether religious, agnostic or atheist, these “Higher Purpose” philosophies can be summed up by the Japanese concept of Ikigai as illustrated by the graphic at the head of this piece. Ikigai roughly means “the thing that you live for” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” and provides a way of discovering the delicate balance between pursuing your own passion, serving others and earning a living.

I feel Ikigai can provide the common ground here between religions, culture and business practices across the commercial world in order to root the motivations of stakeholders into the values and objectives of purposeful organisations.

Putting Ikigai into Practice

If the sense of purpose valued by individual stakeholders is to act in any way as the glue holding an enterprise together, it is axiomatic that sufficient numbers of firm members must think the same way and hold roughly the same core values even if their cultural norms or religious beliefs (if any) are somewhat different. Whatever the history and tradition of the firm, it is important to go right back to understand what motivates and drives individuals in the firm. The ultimate goal of Ikigai is not happiness – it’s about a life practice towards fulfilment.

Prospering by doing what you love, what you are good at, what you find most natural and easy, and then working towards the needs of the world all form good tests for career planning, business planning and creating the purposeful glue in a business enterprise. The decisions made by businesses and individuals need to align with these purposes which can then be anchored into a culture of conscious choices and decisions.

The Cultural Lenses through which We Examine Law Firms

Gerry Riskin

Cultural differences define and influence every aspect of law firms’ operations, reputations and financial success. Describing a law firm’s culture is difficult, even for people who know the organization intimately. When asked to describe a culture, people typically resort to words like “collegial” or “democratic.” While terms like this may convey a general sense of a culture, greater definition is necessary to begin to clearly differentiate various law firms’ cultures, and use knowledge of those cultures to contribute to the management of the firms.

We have created and evolved a “Law Firm Cultural Assessment,” designed to recognize discrete differences among individual law firms and provide a more precise vocabulary to describe what those differences represent. Those differences can be be examined through these four lenses:

  • Collegiality: The manner in which people within a law firm deal with each other.
  • Strategic Focus: The degree to which the firm has a clear identity, both to itself and in relation to other firms.
  • Governance: The manner in which the firm deals with its people, and the way that its lawyers and staff deal with the firm.
  • Values: The belief systems that represent the collective aspirations of the members of the firm.

Details about law firm culture

Each lens examines a number of components, some of which are more complex than others. In fact, the comparative weight of these factors in the make-up of a culture becomes a feature of that culture.

1. Collegiality

  • Group collaboration – the ability and willingness of groups (practice groups, offices, client service teams, etc.) to work together.
  • Individual collaboration – the ability and willingness of individual lawyers to voluntarily work together on client matters.
  • Egalitarianism – the willingness of lawyers to support actions of others that are in the best interest of a client or the firm but may not be in the lawyer’s own immediate best interests.
  • Social interaction – the degree to which firm lawyers seek out opportunities to participate together in social situations.
  • Deviation – the degree to which behaviour in violation of firm mores is accepted.
  • Generationalism – the degree to which the firm’s value systems, approaches and vision differ according to age.

2. Strategic Focus

  • Horizon – the relative importance of short- and long-term implications in decision-making.
  • Ambition – the importance placed on maintaining and improving the firm’s reputation and recognition.
  • Execution – the importance placed on meeting goals and fulfilling expectations.
  • Vision – the importance placed on conveying a clear picture of the future.
  • Self-image – the importance placed on having an accurate and positive perception of the way the firm is viewed by outsiders.
  • Confidence – the confidence that members of the firm express as an institution in the accuracy of their vision and the correctness of their decisions.

3. Governance

  • Decision-making – the methods employed by the firm in reaching decisions.
  • Structure – the degree of institutional involvement in the management of individual lawyers’ practices.
  • Risk aversion – the firm’s willingness to accept risk in return for appropriate reward.
  • Communications – the degree to which lawyers are informed about the firm’s activities and issues.
  • Expectations – the degree to which lawyers and staff members have a clear understanding of what the firm expects from them.
  • Motivation – the firm’s ability to influence behaviour.

4. Values

  • Work ethic – the importance placed on how hard lawyers work in terms of time spent and hours produced.
  • Meritocracy – the degree to which personal performance is rewarded in relation to overall firm performance.
  • Responsibility – the level of control lawyers have over their client relationships.
  • Client focus – the balance of the firm’s interests compared to client’s interests.
  • Continuous improvement – the importance placed on the growth of lawyers’ knowledge and capabilities.
  • Trust – the degree of confidence by an individual that peers will not take actions adverse to that individual’s interests.

Many firms for whom we do strategic assignments incorporate a cultural assessment into the process. Some firms choose to explore their cultures on a stand-alone basis and follow up that assessment with action plans to fine-tune their cultures.

If you would like to discuss your own firm’s culture, write to us at: culture@edge-international.com