Change Starts At The Top


Let’s talk about corporate culture.

I recently had a conversation with a partner of a CPA firm. She attended a public training I was giving on Building a Better Network. As I presented, I could see her eagerly taking notes. It made me happy that she was finding so much value in what I was sharing. She approached me after the training and told me how much she received out of my talk. I joked that she was a great student and that I had noticed she had taken a flurry of notes. She smiled and said, “Well, there’s lots to learn and boy does my firm need this.”

Turns out she works with a firm that has a corporate culture problem. It’s an older firm with an established reputation and apparently an old way of doing things. This “tried and true” approach is beginning to create issues for some of the firm’s younger recruits. The firm’s outdated, old fashioned operation style is effecting not only employee morale, but is beginning to impact client retention.

This young lady has only been a partner for a few years. And handpicked by the senior partner as someone who could play a pivotal role in shaping the firm’s future. With promises to utilize her skills to champion the next iteration of the firm’s maturation and development she eagerly took the opportunity. Unfortunately since that time, she’s been very disappointed by the lack of real commitment to change by her partners and feels stuck, and she now thinks the only reason they offered her the opportunity to be a fully vested partners was for the “appearance” it offered; having a youthful female in a partnership position looks good when it comes to recruiting.

Clearly she’s in a difficult position. She sees the potential of what could be (changing of the guard) but is faced with the reality of what is (old guard still holding on) and what type of impact could it pose with her vision in the corporate culture.

Though she wasn’t exactly asking for advice on how to deal with her partners, I sensed she was. So I gave her some.

“How connected do you feel to your partners?” I asked.

She thought about my question for a moment. “Not at all,” she replied.

So I asked her why. Aside from the usual responses you might expect, age, experience, nothing really in common, there was no substance to what she was saying as to the real reason she wasn’t “connecting” with her partners. It all sounded like excuses to me and I believe, when she actually verbalized it, did to her too. She smiled, having just heard about the importance of the power of connecting both inside and outside the firm she knew those answers didn’t pass muster.

We dove deeper.

The real issue was her lack of confidence in dealing with her partners. Something I could relate to myself. She still didn’t feel like she had a right to speak up and speak out about what she was feeling and why things were broken both within their own partnership group and amongst the firm’s employees. She wasn’t reaching out to really connect with them and build the partnership herself which led me to ask. “If she wasn’t doing her part, then how could she expect her partners to do their part?”

I suggested she had to stop playing the passive role and understand she had to step up and own the relationships with her partners if anything substantial was going to get done. Sure it’s easy to complain and point fingers about why things aren’t quite working out as she expected. But that won’t solve her problem. The first step of any change is for someone, in this case her, to champion the change. It’s scary, uncomfortable and sometimes easier to say than do, but that was the choice before her.

If something breaks someone has to take ownership to fixing it. Since clearly her partners aren’t willing (or don’t know how – which is more likely the case) to take that first step then I told her she must.

My advice to her was simple: own the fact that in two plus years the partners have done nothing to further the goals and objectives which they outlined as necessary when they approached her to become a partner. Forget why nothing has happened because who’s at fault or assigning blame at this late stage is useless. Focus instead on where the firm needs to go and what role each of them can have taking it there.

She needs to create a space for conversation and this requires her to put in the extra effort to build a real relationship with each of them, both individually and collectively. The commitment she shows to building the foundation amongst her partners can and will become the blueprint of the foundation for developing the vision of what the firm can become in the future.

I told her to take the bull by the horns and schedule an off-site meeting with the partners. Get them out of the office and in an environment that allows them to get to know one another better. Both personally and professionally. Explain the reasoning behind this “event” and come ready to roll up the sleeves. Then get the partnership talking, communicating and really connecting. Then and only will change really take place. And yes, that change must start at the top and whether she realized or not, she was now the top. She has the power to change the corporate culture that can have positive ripples!

I know it sounds overly simplistic but trust me, it is quite necessary. Otherwise the writing is on the wall. She’ll grow increasingly dissatisfied with her job, resent her partners for putting her in a dead end role, the firm will continue to languish and she’ll eventually leave (or spend her days wishing she had). Or, she can step  up to be the leader she clearly wants to be. Bring the changes that need to happen. And steer the firm in the direction it needs to go in order to stay competitive.

Change is hard but in her case, necessary.

Ripple On!!!

ICYMI: Robin Williams

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