When the light comes on and culture comes for breakfast

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24 March 2014

Thomas: culture has the potential to drive a key competitive advantage

Posted by John Thomas, chief executive of Legal Futures Associate LawNet

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – so said Peter Drucker, pioneering management consultant and influential thinker. It’s a long time since he coined the phrase, and although it now features high on the agenda for enlightened law firms, the sector as a whole is lagging and needs to catch up.

The evidence is that highly successful companies have leaders who invest significant time in creating, cultivating, managing and preserving the culture. The best-laid plans and strategy in firms are likely to fail if the culture does not support the effort.

Culture gives a sense of identity; it drives understanding of what you stand for, how you do it and how it impacts on the client. If you develop the right culture, then clients will benefit.

We have all met the big biller who thinks they don’t need to march to anyone else’s tune, or the leaders who will not listen, or stand any challenges. That sort of power culture is outdated and destined to fail in today’s climate.

We can all probably identify how poor we can be at sharing information and ideas with work colleagues or even asking if they had a good weekend on Monday morning. These little differences can sometimes count a lot.

The importance of communicating and listening cannot be underestimated and the right behaviour needs to be rewarded. Loyal clients want to see the right values being displayed and a telling question can be to think about the order in which you value people, money and clients within your firm.

For those firms where fees are all, or where clients are ranked as the top priority, there tends to be little focus on people. But the best firms will want the best people with wide-ranging skills and high standards; people with high motivation who are keen to develop long-term client relationships that will lead to long-term profitability.

As well as looking at what cultural traits are desirable, some longstanding cultural practices need revision. Younger lawyers, in particular, are calling for balance and resisting the practice of long working days. Like the bankers on Wall Street who are announcing restrictions on employee working hours, even if it’s a small step to enforce the occasional day off for the analysts, the times are certainly changing.

“This is the way we have always done it” is another attitude that is still prevalent in many law firms and which needs re-shaping. Cultural change starts at the top and leaders must lead by example. If people feel they are at one with management and not frightened, it will have an immediate and direct impact on service, clients and profit.

Culture has the potential to drive a key competitive advantage and it’s time to embrace a new dish for breakfast.

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