Firms have successfully moved their entire office to a virtual model – seemingly overnight – and it’s working really well.
What is more challenging is keeping the culture of their firms alive in this virtual setting. We’re hearing that firm leaders are unsure how to preserve the culture of their firms when their people can’t live and breathe it each day. This challenge threatens how successful firms can be with their greatest asset: their people.
Marketing and business development professionals are in a unique position to help curb this issue. Their roles touch everyone and everything in their firms. Their character types are typically ones with more natural and heightened EQ and interpersonal skills. One of their functions is to listen for and understand where connections can be utilized or leveraged, which involves having that closer connection in the first place. Their vantage point is wonderfully unusual.
We interviewed six CMOs from law and accounting firms who are tackling this issue of preserving firm culture in a virtual setting. Put simply, our experience is that the best way to understand and think about culture in a professional services firm is that it’s ‘the way we get things done around here’. Each of these CMOs are getting things done with their teams. They are helping and pushing their people to still experience their firm culture together despite being apart.
We sincerely value the candid and perceptive thoughts shared by each. Thank you to Murray, Bruce, Courtney, Pam, Linda and Dave.
How CMOs are contributing to firm culture in a virtual setting
Six key themes were evident after talking with each.
1. Culture = professionally vulnerable
We all know to be professional in our roles. Additionally, with an actual window into everyone’s homes over the last eight months, the lines between professional and personal are very blurred, and in many cases, lost altogether.
Kiss regularly checks in with her team, one on one:
“Being transparent about how people are doing – professionally, personally, mentally and emotionally – is so important right now, and unless you take the time to check in with the team, it’s impossible to know.” Kiss uses these one on one check-ins to talk shop and project statuses, and also subtly pivot to “ask how everyone is feeling”. She gives her team permission to be very candid and honest with their own situation.
Coffey also prioritizes one on one settings to understand how each team member is handling their professional and personal life balance:
“We should be aware, now more than ever, that each person on our team is an individual and will respond to the stress of living through a pandemic differently.” He adds “So, do the things we are supposed to do. Check in, engage in a little goof-off time together, and never assume you know what may be brewing under a seemingly serene surface.”
Both Kiss and Coffey are humanizing the situation we are in and asking their individual team members to acknowledge and talk about their vulnerabilities. Their ability to be so naturally in tune with their teams’ emotional intelligence is hard to do, particularly when they themselves are also dealing with the same issues.
Moss shed’s some insights on how she deals with this.
“My team wanted to hear from me, and I have to make time for that. I am in tune with these elements and so I prioritized that; it’s important. You have to put aside any lack of energy you might be experiencing to be the leader your team needs of you, and talk about how they are each being impacted, from all angles.”
Synonymous with professionalism is the projection of a certain technical quality, a strong and diplomatic communication style, and an unwavering strength despite any circumstance. Covid has unraveled this for many. It has pushed our working lives and personal lives into one another in a way that no one has ever experienced before. These CMOs are using their empathy and personal leadership styles to encourage a lowering of the guard to talk about the transition we are all currently in.
2. Culture = unwavering long-term focus
A firms’ culture shouldn’t blow one way in 2019, and then change direction and blow the other way in 2020. Even in the most trying of times, a culture should be something far more steadfast. Good CMOs understand the need to acknowledge the present and to also project into the future to help keep focus and purpose amidst the chaos and uncertainty.
Southern shares his view on the importance of long-term focus:
“Each of our team members have shown a terrific ability to keep our long-term goals in focus and step up to ensure that we make progress every day - in addition to ensuring that we're dealing with all the continued press of business.”
Kiss shared that continuing to plan for the future is the glue keeping a lot together right now:
“Of course, we need to deal with the here-and-now, but it brings me a lot of hope to start putting plans together for when the world goes back to “normal”, or even in our new normal. It is exciting to reimage how we might do things.”
With long-term thinking, the ability to see opportunity – and to embrace that opportunity – is something that Moss has encouraged and values:
“I am fortunate to work with a team of marketers who love to get things done. My team is full of high-driving people who were relieved to be able to step up, focus and find opportunities to contribute to the firm.”
Moss encouraged her team to celebrate that moment, because in times of uncertain change, being able to see the long-term and the opportunity “is rare and special.” She further added that:
“Work was a source of satisfaction and was one area of our lives where we could have some control. We applied ourselves to uncover ways we could seize the moment and gain traction after the pandemic somewhat leveled the playing field. There was a real sense of urgency to make an impact for the long term.”
This longer-term thinking is always hard in a world where firms are typically focused on year-to-year short-term growth. True partnerships with a vision instill a culture that goes 3, 5, 10+ years forward to show its people and clients who they really are and what they are striving for. This strength of vision attracts like-minded people.
3. Culture = acknowledging the likely after-effect
Few of us have had to deal with a pandemic in our lifetime. The narrative has shifted to the “new normal” and what that looks like. In my view, nothing about our current situation is normal, and nor should we accept that it is. We are right in the middle of a global pandemic and “transitional” or ”temporary”, even “survival”, are words that I think many may better relate to.
CMOs are acknowledging the current situation and relating to their teams in realistic terms. In this, they are acknowledging what the likely after-effect will be on their people and team culture.
Ditman offers this very real take on this moment in time:
“This is a real emergency. When we are called upon to work in an emergency, don’t take it lightly that you are asking so much of these people. Understand it is not just their work, it is their life. Get good people on your team to reflect the culture of the firm, and then treat them with respect.”
Coffey believes that the pandemic has triggered our basic brain function to be focused on day-to-day survival, a part of a neural network that is sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain:
“It is my strong belief that the pandemic has put us all in an extended fight-or-flight mode. The previous short term emotional and energy dip we felt after the reptilian brain stands down, is now much longer lasting. The effects of this are palpable."
Ditman shares the likely effect on his team as a result of the type of characteristics marketers typically have:
“Extroverts are being isolated. Highly social people can’t socialize. This will have an effect.”
Coffey understands how this is playing out day-to-day right now and also in the years to come:
“People are sleeping more hours yet not feeling refreshed. They are eating comfort foods but getting no comfort. For the first time they may find themselves in extended conflict with loved ones. I expect that in the coming years we will hear much about the global impact of millions of us being in fight or flight mode for so many months.”
4. Culture = technology
It is interesting that technology comes up as a common theme. It is because of the wonders of technology that we can have this virtual environment. It is also because of technology that we have the struggle of how to maintain firm culture.
Metzger shares the following on how technology has been essential:
“The Covid environment has definitely accelerated our adoption of many new initiatives that are working well to keep us all in touch and maintain the culture of our firm. As a result of converting internal meetings into a larger, virtual event the feedback has been outstanding and everyone is excited to contribute to this new format. Additionally, technology additions to our firm allowed us to easily collaborate on virtual team meetings, quick video calls and general updates.”
Kiss has also used technology in a new way for her team which may not have otherwise happened:
“We had a positive and productive virtual team experience when we held a virtual ‘brainstorm and reflect together’ exercise. Using the technology of the firm and its shared platform, we came together to share differing perspectives, observations and relatable common goals. These moments allowed us to gain insight into framing what we tackle in the next few weeks and months.”
5. Culture = noticing nuance
These sentiments resonate on what the more nuanced pieces are that are keeping people at our firms. After all, individuals make up the culture of the firm, and should be protected and developed.
Southern has worked in firms where a people-first culture is paramount. He shares “Our managing partners have put a lot of energy into communicating continuously and in a very transparent way. They have sent a daily email to all members of the firm, sharing client successes, personal achievements of members of our firm wide community, and even ideas for helping everyone ‘keep their chins up’ throughout our remote experience”. Southern adds that this has “really been an inspiration.”
Re-state (what may seem) the obvious:
Ditman shares that “When Covid hit, I made a point of reinforcing team spirit, reinforcing collegiality, and restating our business objectives.”
Kiss says that “Being appreciated helps keep motivation higher. Nothing is worse than working hard and not knowing that your efforts were meaningful.”
Lead by example:
Coffey shares that “The hallmark of great leaders is to lead by example”. He wants CMOs to acknowledge that “we cannot be the psychological salvation for our teams.” What we can be, he continues, is to be leaders who are “emphatic, patient, resolute and stoic in their outlook about their team members.” He adds that “if leaders are taking time for themselves, your team sees you are taking time for self-care, and they will do that too.”
Predict natural energy dips:
Moss offers that she “needed guard rails against complacency”. She shares that “one of those guardrails was sharing successes, and another was ‘learning-sharing’ calls to encourage professional development and continued learning". She says that down times are natural right now, and she sees one of her many roles is to be in tune with that personal side of her team.
6. Culture = the lighter side
Embracing the lighter side and enjoying what you do each day is an element of firm culture that is easily forgotten in such a serious and worrisome time. Remembering to value one another’s company and inject some fun and laugher into our days is making these CMOs bring back feelings of normalcy and team spirit in inventive ways.
Metzger shares that their team and greater firm have held some socially distanced activities to help people connect, notwithstanding the pandemic. She says they have held some “safe-distance lunches and a lawn bingo event” which has been a much-needed in-person experience.
Moss shares that her team is competitive and loves games. “We shared our favorite comedy movies and tried to match the movie with the teammate who submitted it. We conducted a scavenger hunt within our homes. We even hired a professional to conduct a family feud game. They are fun! And, they work for us.”
Coffey says that it’s important to “smile more, laugh easily, embrace the eccentricities of working from home, such as annoying dogs, cat bombs, and kids needing a hug and a cookie.”
To recap: Acknowledging and encouraging professional vulnerability. Unwavering long-term focus. Dealing with the affect-effect. The wonders of technology. Noticing the nuances that matter most. Embracing the lighter moments. These themes are perpetuating culture during this transitionary moment in time. They require different skills and mindsets than many are used to.
There is incredible power with knowing how our marketing and business development teams are preserving their culture right now. It takes everyone. Leaders need their people to both believe in and practice it despite not being able to see it personally each day. Individuals need their leaders to be overly visible and have a level of empathy that surpasses anything they’ve experienced previously.
Kate Harry Shipham is the Principal of KHS People LLC, an executive search firm for BD and marketing people in professional services firms. Kate has done search and recruiting for nine years and prior to that was an attorney.