Make sure your culture is compelling and built on core values

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Ron Carson for InvestmentNews: A firm’s culture should be embraced and incorporated into daily interactions with clients

Workplace culture. It’s a topic that has quickly become a hot-button issue for small businesses and large corporations alike. So much so, it has become one of those over-used and sometimes loathed buzzwords littering modern-day business discourse.

Yet, while “culture” is often labeled as being intangible or soft by A-type entrepreneurs, we can no longer deny its noticeable impact on people, process, and positioning of a brand, in any industry.

From Silicon Valley to the White House, we see how changing a culture can present obstacles, or open the door to opportunities, depending on how it’s cultivated. Uber’s recent decision to oust CEO Travis Kalanick for creating an unhealthy environment riddled with sexual harassment, potentially illegal business activities, and discrimination is evidence that culture is fragile, even with a corporation valued at around $70 billion.

When it comes to the current political environment, think of the impact President Donald J. Trump could have on the outcome of the DOL ruling. It will be a decision that undoubtedly will have a rippling effect, one way or another, on how advisors decide to conduct business and create workplace cultures of their own for years to come.


Look at the Wells Fargo fiasco as an example that hits closer to home and should teach us all something. Its internal culture was essentially responsible for killing its reputation with consumers and driving advisers with more than $19 billion to leave the firm.

A company once known for being among America’s oldest and most respected banking brands suddenly has much more than an identity crisis on their hands. And, it all stemmed from mishandling the delicate nature of its sales culture by rewarding the wrong behavior, allowing poor standards and oversight, and not taking responsibility at the executive leadership level.

A seismic shift is occurring in consumer behavior. People have grown accustomed to purchasing products and services from companies that share their own purpose-driven belief systems and values. And, more importantly, they choose brands that back up those promises with more than lip service.

Financial services is no exception. Advisers are no exception. As business owners, we hold the responsibility to create a culture that connects with our clients. People are hungry for brands they can trust. If you can build trust you can build a connection and, in a profession where this is overstated but under-delivered, that memorable connection can start by building a strong culture.

In his book, “The Culture Cycle” (Pearson FT Press, 2011), James Heskett stated that culture can account for up to 30% of the difference in corporate performance when compared with “culturally unremarkable” competitors. Juggernaut brands like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Progressive, and others have taken advantage of this truth and even go as far as citing culture as a determining factor in the overall revenue growth of their companies.

So where do advisers begin in building a culture that ignites people and drives strategic direction? While this sounds like a massive undertaking, I encourage advisers to start by first realizing that your firm’s culture is as unique as your own human fingerprint. And to identify this unique personality of your firm, you must understand some of the common elements that can take your culture from complacent to compelling.


It’s easy to craft a company mission statement, but often these written proclamations are vague and uninspiring. They don’t move people or differentiate the firm. The key is to ask yourself, “What compelling vision do we all believe in that (1) stands for something bigger than ourselves and( 2) that puts the client first?” Put another way, how can enhance the lives of those we serve? One of the authors of “Exponential Organizations” (Diversion Books, 2014). Salim Ismail, calls this a “massive transformative purpose,” or MTP. Google took this to heart and defines its MTP “to organize the world’s information.”

Our own journey of reflection led us to an MTP addressing a deep, internal struggle our profession has had for decades: trust. We spent weeks mulling this over and uncovered an MTP that was authentic and compelling to our vision for the future: to be the most trusted for financial advice. Yes, that’s a big vision, much like Google’s, but that’s also the point. Find your insurgent agenda. Uncover the passion that stirs you up inside and keeps you up at night. And go with it. You’ll be surprised at what you expose.


A truly stable culture is built on a foundation of core values. These guiding principles articulate and exemplify the mindset of the business, the attitudes of its internal stakeholders, and the behaviors everyone seeks to replicate. Some of ours include adaptability, ownership, client-centricity, GSD (Get Stuff Done), passion and growth.

Remember, the originality of these values isn’t where you should spend your time, as much as ensuring they are authentic to your firm and your people. Authenticity is the lifeblood of a culture, and when you decide to articulate what you stand for, you must be ready to back it up with action.

Find visible ways to memorialize what your firm defines as core values. We’ve involved our own stakeholders in the process itself of defining what they are. We’ve shared them at team meetings. We incorporate them into our daily interactions with clients. We use them in the hiring process to qualify the best candidates. We even created a mini flipbook memorializing them for all to see — and more importantly, to share. If your team doesn’t see these values lived out day after day, they won’t believe in the culture you say you’ve created.

Culture is woven into the fabric of who we are as humans, and because of it, we can’t deny its significant impact on the growth of our firms and in how it will slowly reshape our profession. We’re changing the way we serve clients, we’re changing the way we run our businesses, but we’ve forgotten how to change the way we empower our people. And, it all begins with creating a compelling culture.