For years there have been references to firm culture in both marketing and recruiting literature. Frankly, much of what’s written can be pretty vapid… These assertions may well be true, but I think their authors are missing a big opportunity.

For years there have been references to firm culture in both marketing and recruiting literature. Frankly, much of what’s written can be pretty vapid. Statements like “we have an exciting, invigorating culture” or “ours is a culture of sincerity, ethics and professionalism” don’t tell you much. These assertions may well be true, but I think their authors are missing a big opportunity.

There is more substance to the notion of culture than most statements would indicate, and it is one of the most powerful tools you have. Design firms sell ideas and the ability to make built environments happen: the success of your business is based entirely on the talent you hire and keep and how the business is managed. Your culture is a critical part of attracting and keeping the right people.

But culture is an illusive and … some would argue … a “soft” term without direct relevance to financial performance. I see it differently. Culture is one of the most effective ways to distinguish a firm as it competes for smart, creative people who can relate persuasively to their clients and colleagues. All firms have this same challenge, but they are all quite different: each of them has a distinctive culture that they need to define, embrace and promote.

I think culture is a combination of seven factors:

  • The way you define your business (what lines of business you choose to be in; what you consider business milestones)

  • Who your clients are (what markets you’re in; which clients you serve best)

  • The kind of people you hire and keep (the personality and character traits you value)

  • How you manage your business (attitude toward growth; leadership style; compensation structure)

  • How your people behave (attitude toward clients and colleagues; service ethic; work style; communications style; attitude toward the financial side of the business)

  • What you reward (innovation; client trust; strong financial management)

  • The workplace you provide (where you’re located; the “look and feel” of your offices)

Here is why culture is important in recruiting and retention:

  • An obvious culture creates clear choices for candidates. It enables them to quickly understand what it would be like to work at your firm and how you are different from other firms they may be considering.

  • Knowing your culture allows you to make rational decisions rather than just going by gut. Whether you are considering a new employee, promoting someone who has done a good job, or counseling an underperformer, you can test your observations for consistency with the elements of your culture to see if there is a fit.

  • A strong culture develops a sense of inclusion. Your employees bought into the culture when they accepted a position you offered them. They made the decision to join a group of like-minded individuals with whom they can thrive professionally. The fraternity/ sorority aspects of a firm are not always bad.

  • An evolved culture sends signals to employees about what is valued. Rather than expecting people to “fit in”, your culture provides a more or less clear set of behaviors and values that enable your employees to become enrolled. It also gives them something to think about and challenge, helping your firm grow and change. On the other hand, they can see when they don’t fit or when the culture is making a wrong turn for them.

  • It’s not just prospective candidates that care about culture. Knowing your culture is important to sophisticated clients. Many of your clients have the same opinions about culture in their own organizations. They will wonder, if they don’t directly ask you, what your culture is like: will you fit with theirs? Put yourself in their shoes following a day-long interview process where they have met with four short-listed firms. My guess is that most of the time, they’d like to say “Thanks for this information, but it is almost identical to everyone else we have talked with. We think you’re all competent, experienced, nice people. But why should we work with you vs. your worthy competitors?” Your response tells them whether you would be a good choice for them.

Using culture as a recruiting tool doesn’t have to be complicated or even very sophisticated. IA, the #2 interior design firm in the world (according to World Architecture’s 2001 rankings) is a firm that uses its recruiting process to demonstrate one of its most important cultural attributes. Many multi-office firms (IA has 18) suffer from jurisdictional battles which can sometimes escalate to internecine warfare. Strong candidates know this and may have even experienced the energy-sapping experience of these kinds of environments.

IA’s culture features collaboration—internally and externally with their clients. But IA doesn’t just say they are collaborative. In the interview process, senior-level candidates are always deliberately introduced to people from several different offices so that they can see first hand the multi-office effort behind recruiting. An added benefit is that candidates also get a look at how IA’s people work together. In addition, David Mourning, the firm’s president, participates in the interviews of almost every principal or principal-track candidate, helping to demonstrate another aspect of IA’s culture: accessibility.

Most firms like to characterize themselves as participative. EDAW, one of the world’s largest providers of community planning, urban design, landscape architecture, environmental planning and natural resource management under one roof (www.edaw.com), recently underscored their participative culture in their search for a Deputy Development Director. Before the search began, EDAW commissioned a survey of 18 principals and senior associates about the new position, seeking their input regarding the responsibilities, appropriate background, and personal qualities to be sought in prospective candidates. During the recruiting process itself, candidates were told of the survey and were able to review the findings. The message that EDAW seeks and values the opinions of its people came through loud and clear.

In verbalizing culture, words matter. Review the mission statements or tag lines from the websites of competitive firms. If you make a list of the adjectives they use to describe themselves, it will probably be a short, boring list. Most likely, they did not use their culture as a tool to describe their firm: they all have a culture, and they’re all different. Verbalizing your culture helps paint a picture of what it will be like to work at your firm. By carefully selecting adjectives that truly express what you believe your firm’s culture to be, you can describe an accurate, differentiating image that makes it easier for candidates to grasp your firm’s personality. You don’t see many emotionally-charged words and phrases like obsessed; picky; in-it-for-the-long-haul; demanding; edgy; spirited; energized; riveted; or fixated on results. Used appropriately and positively, such words will get attention and be much more evocative of a firm’s culture than “professional”; “committed to client service” and “exceed expectations.”

Be careful: what you say may not be who you are. There is nothing more unsettling to a new hire than experiencing a culture that is not what was represented during the interview process. A client perception survey will yield some excellent feedback on how your culture is viewed by your clients: from it, you can extract the words they use that you feel are accurate and deliberately address perceptions you’d like to change. The same is true of employee attitude surveys. Using the actual words of the people who know your firm is one way to guarantee objectivity and accuracy. Lastly, ask your staff to describe your culture. You may not like everything you hear, but you’ll get a lot of useful information and if there is concurrence by many, an accurate…and probably colorful… description.