Four characteristics of best firms

October 2011 » Columns » BUSINESS Q & A
Gerry Salontai

Dear Gerry,
The last few years have been pretty wild to say the least. Just when we see some light at the end of the tunnel, everything gets darker. I have noticed some firms have done pretty well. In particular, they seem to have great staff enthusiasm, while we have been struggling in this area. Are these firms doing something different? Can you give me some hints to improve the environment within our firm?

– H.C., Neb.

Dear H.C.,
The last few years have certainly been different than the decade before them, and it's not getting easier. No matter what the future brings, we do find the best firms use a balanced approach of exceptional market, operational, and human asset practices and excel in all of these. And they know that their people are a key differentiator in their success.

So let's explore the human asset side of this. But before we get too deep, I want to dispel the notion that it's the financial perks that can make the difference. That just isn't close to being correct. The best know they must work hard at the non-financial drivers to create a great workplace environment, and that everyone in the organization has a role.

Following are four characteristics of best firms to think about:

The best firms know who they are – They have a vivid vision for the future, know their core purpose, and fiercely make decisions using a set of strong guiding values. The best also use their hedgehog as an advantage – that intersection of what fuels their engine, aligns with their passions, and leverages what they do best. They know the client is their only business, and that if you create "raving fans or disciples" within your firm, it will translate to the outside in the way the staff serves the clients. The best know that innovation, technological superiority, and entrepreneurism trumps internal process. And they know that who they are needs to be reinforced and refreshed continually.

The best firms strive to get the right people in the right seats on the bus – as Jim Collins stresses over and over, having the right people in those right positions yields the correct behaviors and decisions that ultimately result in high performance and success. The best firms work hardest at this area and carefully choose those leaders who occupy the critical positions that will have the most impact on the organization. Great leaders attract other great leaders. So if you have the best leaders in supervisory roles, the entire team and ultimately the firm will be better. And the best hold people accountable for performance and recognize and reward those that are making a difference, while making timely changes of those who are struggling.

The best firms keep organization and business practices simple – They fight to reduce layers in the organization and avoid matrix-style complexity that could confuse staff and clients alike. The best know that those "right" people will function best when they're not encumbered with rules, policies, and procedures that slow things down, create bureaucracy, and apply undue burden that again frustrates their people and clients. They realize that providing just a framework to follow creates a more motivated and enthusiastic staff that perform at higher levels. And they know that less bureaucracy keeps their people focused externally with clients.

The best firms do an exceptional job with communication – The leaders in the firm use every avenue available to create a consistent and common message of where the firm is headed and how it's doing. They are open with staff and are mindful that celebrating success is a big component of a good work environment. They rely more on in-person communication rather than the less-personal avenue of electronic whiz-bang stuff. The best know that people in this business still want to talk and get to know each other and particularly their supervisors in "real time." Staff still yearn to know how they are doing, where they can be headed, and how they can get there. Most importantly, the best listen well to constructive feedback in order to get better. And the firms' leaders devise a system to get "unfiltered" feedback so they are not insulated by the tiers immediately below.

I hope these four best firm characteristics will help. There are many parts within each of these and there may be others, but these will certainly make a difference. Creating a great environment is work. It's like owning a home and yard – there's always something to do. The key is to continue to maintain it so that it looks nice and is comfortable to live in and visit.

Good luck!

Gerry Salontai leads the Salontai Consulting Group (www.salontai.com), a management advisory company focused on helping companies achieve success in the areas of strategy, business management, and leadership. He can be contacted at 858-756-5169 or gerry@salontai.com.


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