07 Jul Why corporate culture counts
Researchers and consultants often point out that real change in how things are done inside a corporation cannot happen unless its culture is changed first. But corporate culture is a difficult thing to pin down and even harder to change because it reflects the implicit values, norms and behaviors of an organization.
When culture drives positive and value creating behavior it can give a company a distinct leg up on the competition. Just ask anybody working for an organization like Southwest Airlines or eBay. This can be a virtuous cycle – positive values and productive behaviors continuously drive and reinforce how employees act. But when the culture has significant negative aspects, it can create a reverse, destructive cycle driven by conflicted values and dysfunctional behaviors.
While both the media and the courtroom seem to be full of stories these days about the most egregious examples of corporate cultures and executives gone astray, there is little in-depth treatment of the causes of this phenomenon. It is for this reason that I found a working paper produced by the MIT Workplace Center entitled, “From Here to Flexibility in Law Firms: Can It Be Done?”, available at http://web.mit.edu/workplacecenter/, a fascinating read. Written by Laura Rikleen, head of a Boston Bar Association task force that studied the legal industry’s disappointing attempts to implement flexible working practices, it provides an eye-opening inside look at the culture of the legal profession and the high cost that its predominant behaviors and values wreak on the industry.
According to Rikleen, “Law firms provide the perfect vantage point for a study of the overworked American. What we have in law firms, essentially, is an increased demand for billable hours and decreasing partnership opportunities. This combination leads to high attrition, poor morale and a variety of other problems.”
Her task force points a finger directly at the profession’s emphasis on `total commitment’ as a basis to enter the partner ranks as the key debilitating factor affecting the work environment, attraction and retention of talent and work-family balance within the industry. It found that the profession’s concept of total commitment translates to pushing all non-work obligations aside on a regular basis as a symbol of one’s commitment. The task force concluded that this predominant ethos triggers a series of `vicious circles’ in the industry – where solving one difficulty leads to another problem which in turn creates new difficulties.
In the legal profession, revenue growth is the key performance imperative and billable hours is the most important metric of performance. Attracting top talent to drive growth is a priority and salaries and bonuses go up every year in the competition for the best and brightest. Higher starting salaries necessitate revising the rest of the salary structure upward. As salaries rise, growth targets are increased. There is greater pressure to bill more and thus work longer hours. Stress levels increase, morale plunges, people leave. The greater the attrition, the greater the number of new associates needed each year to replace the attorneys that leave. And so, a vicious circle spins on and on.
But that’s not all. The task force also identified what it terms the `myth of meritocracy’. While law firms promote the idea that they provide environments in which “excellent lawyers will excel”, the reality is frequently different. Not surprisingly, the small number of people who survive this marathon of work and progress up the ranks tend to be the most ambitious, money-driven, workaholics. This simply perpetuates the negative working environment.
And even if the cream rises to the top, the rest of milk seems to get spoiled. The level of attrition resulting from this system is both high and costly. The task force cites a research study involving more than 10,000 associates in 154 law firms. The findings revealed that 43% of associates leave their firm within 3 years, two thirds leave within 5 years and three quarters are gone by their 7th year. This study pointed out that it generally takes at least 3-4 years before associates even begin to return the firm’s financial investment in them. An associate’s primary return on the firm’s investment occurs in years 5-10, but by then, over half have left.
The task force believes that the current system not only makes work-life balance unachievable, but will in the long run hurt law firms because it alienates large numbers of employees and potential employees while requiring unsustainable levels of growth in billable hours. They describe the situation bluntly, “We are in danger of seeing law firms evolve into institutions where only those who have no family responsibilities — or, worse, who are willing to abandon those responsibilities— can thrive. This is not an exaggerated perspective; it is a description of where many think we are heading and where others think we have already arrived.”
Do you believe vicious circles and meritocracy myths exist only in the legal profession? Think again. Many of the same debilitating characteristics of the legal profession’s culture and working environment can be found throughout corporate America today, particularly in the upper echelons of the organization.
This is one key reason why work-life balance is largely not yet a reality for most workers and isn’t likely to become so until more companies begin the difficult work of changing their culture in ways that create circles of virtuous behavior and make merit the actual basis of reward and advancement.
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