Improving Family Office Culture in Four Acts

Date: Jun 07 2019

Cassie Atteberry, Human Resources Director, Chinquapin Trust Co.

For the last two years our family office has been on a deliberate journey to change our culture. It's been a lot of work and learning as we go, but we now have year-over-year data showing that an overwhelming majority of our employees say that culture has dramatically improved. 

We know that there is A LOT of talk about culture and how important it is to the success of any family office. But what can you actually DO about it? I think it comes down to 4 deliberate steps:

  1. Decide if you need a culture intervention by assessing current state
  2. Define your desired future culture
  3. Build and implement an embedment plan
  4. Measure / Do / Measure / Do

Act 1: Do you need a culture intervention? Assess current state

I think the pivotal question to ask and answer at this stage is What is the problem you are trying to solve? Trying to change culture requires time, resources, commitment and patience; it is not an easy task nor is it a panacea for all problems, so it's important to be clear about desired outcomes.

Here are questions to assess current state:

  • Describe the current culture. Think about how decisions are made, how teams work, how you communicate, how conflicts are addressed (or not). Is it collaborative or competitive? High drama or chill? What would you tell someone you are trying to recruit if you were 100% honest about the good, the bad and the ugly?
  • What do you like? What do you wish was different?
  • How would others in the office describe the culture? What do they like / wish was different? Is it the same or different than your assessment?
  • Do you have any feedback or insights from the family that reflect current state or unmet needs?
  • And most importantly: how well is your culture helping you deliver on the purpose / mission of the office? What helps? What hinders? Do you have clarity about the purpose (the why – how – what) of the office (if you need clarity of purpose, check out this Simon Sinek video about The Golden Circle.)

Remember – there are no wrong answers. The culture that is right for your office might not be right for mine and vice versa. This is just fact gathering, and you are looking for patterns of behaviors, not isolated incidents. Look for insights in employee turnover data or engagement scores. Get clarity on what problem(s) you are trying to solve.

Let's be clear about a couple of scenarios when a culture intervention is NOT what's called for:

  • People are confused about who does what: try a role clarification exercise
  • Someone is behaving badly or under-performing: this needs to be addressed with that individual, not office-wide
  • Leadership isn't ready or bought in: leaders in any organization are the signal setters. It is incredibly difficult to drive culture change without buy-in from the top, especially if they can't or won't model the desired behaviors.

At this point you should have a sense of whether or not creating culture intervention is right for you. In Act 2 we'll define that desired future state.

Act 2: Define your desired future culture

Back in Act 1 you were assessing your current state to see if a culture intervention might be a worthwhile investment. If you decided YES – now it's time to define that desired future state.

The goal is that by the end of this stage, you have a concise declaration of what your culture needs to be to best deliver the purpose of the office. I recommend that this work is done by a small group of leaders within the office – the decision makers who set strategy and lead other people, because not everyone in the office may be able to envision a new and different future state.  Clarity around who is the final decision maker is key. 

That said, it can be valuable to involve everyone in the office to get their input, but not necessarily to craft the final product. Involvement is a powerful change management tool, but it's important to set clear expectations that this is input, not decision making by consensus.

Here's what we did:

  • The leadership team crafted a new purpose statement for the office, clarifying why we exist (back to Act 1). This was shared in an all-office meeting, discussed with Q&A, and everyone given the homework to think about what behaviors it will take to bring the purpose statement to life.
  • We held a workshop (90 minutes) with everyone in the office where we:
    • Split everyone into small teams at different tables with post-it notes and flip-chart paper.
    • Re-grounded everyone in the updated purpose statement, and why it is important (so we do the right work and work the right way).
    • First rotation (15 minutes): at each table and write one idea per post-it, of behaviors / focus areas that will help us achieve our purpose.
    • Second rotation (15 minutes): rotate to the next table to continue the brainstorm; see what the prior group wrote, add to it, fill in any gaps.
    • Report out: (20 minutes): each table spends a few minutes clustering their post-its into key themes, and then everyone takes turns reporting out. As they share, have them re-post the sticky notes on flip chart paper at the front of the room, clustered by theme. There will be a lot of similarity, but as you discuss more nuanced themes may emerge; re-cluster the post-its accordingly.
    • Vote (20 minutes): everyone gets three votes. Have each person put a tick-mark or sticker dot by whatever three themes they think are the most important. Discuss / have people share their thought process.
    • Wrap up (10 minutes): share next steps so expectations are clear.
  • The leadership team takes the input from the workshop and distills it into a final product. Remember – this should articulate the culture that will best help the office achieve its purpose. It will likely be a combination of what you already do well and some degree of what needs to change. For us this looked like declaring 4 culture principles, each with 4-5 supporting bullet points that give behavior examples of that principle. Getting to the behavioral level as much as possible is important because people manage to behaviors, not high-level concepts like "trust." Here's an example of one of our principles and supporting bullets:

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Once there's an approved, final version you are ready to share it back with the office. It's an exciting new declaration for your future culture – but now the hard work starts. Well-crafted words on paper are great – but they don't change culture. How are you going to bring them to life? 


Culture Blog Act 3: Build and implement an embedment plan

In our last episode you had defined the desired future state of your office's culture, finely crafted it into statements and triumphantly shared it for the entire office to embrace. Now it's time for the good – but hardest part – bringing it to life.

I recommend you build an embedment plan – most simply said – how you are going to embed these new expectations and behaviors into all parts of how you operate as an office. This will again be an honest examination of your current world to determine what you need to do differently to align to your desired culture – thinking both short and long term, and is also an opportunity to involve others in the office. You will likely identify some quick wins, but go into this knowing that culture change takes time -- and strong commitment over time to hold each other to it.

Here are some specific areas to examine as you build your embedment plan:

Leadership: are there components of how you lead the office, interact with each other and with others, that need to change to be aligned to our new direction? Are you accessible? Approachable? Do you know how you show up to the rest of the team? Is culture one of your overall annual priorities as an office, just like your other business objectives?

Communication: do you communicate in a way that supports the new culture? Do you need to better at anything – say, giving feedback? Do you need more all-group forums to share information? How are you going to hold each other accountable for living the new culture – both formally and informally? I love this article on a magic phrase of 'we don't do that here.' when it comes to accountability.

Social & Interactions: what role do social activities play in our office? Could you improve trust if you had more? Are interactions only business-based?  Never underestimate the power of social interactions to break-down barriers.

Environment & Artifacts: does your environment reflect your desired culture? If you want more collaboration, have you built in collaboration spaces? Are you posting versions of these cultural statements if every conference room as reminders of these commitments you are making to each other? Does everyone need it printed on a mousepad?

HR Practices: you are going to need to start hiring and managing to your desired culture – not just technical proficiency. Consider assigning everyone a goal that reflects the culture statements and make it part of the review process. If you have a recognition program, do your measures of success reflect culture?

Skill building: there may be some investment in building new skills to bring your desired culture to life. Our entire office read the book 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, and we've had several skill building sessions after that to work on trust, giving feedback, coaching each other, and using assessments to understand our differences. 

Provide the planning framework to everyone in the office to get input and consider forming a small culture committee to build the plan and provide continuous focus to the effort (watch out: a culture committee is just a planning team – culture is everyone's responsibility). As the leadership team, you need to provide parameters around resources - both time and money – that work for you. Activities to close the gap do not need to be expensive – it can be as simple as watching a video and discussing it as a group or as elaborate as hosting a facilitated culture retreat. There are lots of great ideas to be had just by looking online or talking to other people.

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The trick is to just start. Brainstorm ideas – chase some easy ones with high impact first so everyone can see why talking about and working on culture all.the.time. is worth it.  Culture is going to happen so you might as well be deliberate about it – and a good embedment plan is about as deliberate as you can get.

Next up, our final act, Act 4: Measure / Do / Measure / Do. How to know if all of this effort is really paying off with tangible metrics and use it as a roadmap for continuous improvement.


Culture Blog Act 4: Measure / Do / Measure / Do

It takes time to change culture – a lot of time, deliberate actions (like you identified in Act 3), and more time. But how will you know if you are making progress?

It is easy to do a lot of activities in the name of culture change, but unless you are taking the right actions, it won't matter. My strong recommendation is that when you launch, you do a quick survey of everyone in the office to get a baseline measurement of the culture. This will be a great pre-investment snapshot of your culture prior to taking actions to improve it. Plan to then conduct the survey again 12 months later, to see if the actions you've taken in the prior year were actually effective at improving the culture in the way you wanted. My experience is that while some of the action we took were enjoyable, they didn't necessarily move the needle towards our desired culture. The surveys allowed us to get valuable feedback on what worked, what didn't, and guided us in making better investments to improve our culture. 

Our survey was simple – via Survey MonkeyTM – and went to everyone in the office. In Act 2, I referenced that we identified 4 major attributes of our culture, each with a few bullets of the associate behaviors to bring it to life. The survey asked people to give a grade to each of those attributes, and a specific example to back-up their grade. Here's a sample of our instructions and the question about our first cultural attribute – One Team:

We also asked an open-ended question soliciting ideas about how to improve our culture. We asked for volunteers to be our culture committee, and they aggregated the grades into a report card, including a summary of key themes from the comments – which we shared and discussed office wide.  The culture committee then took the lead on implementing all the good ideas generated in Act 3 – the embedment plan – plus some received on the survey. 

Fast forward 12 months: re-survey the office with the same questions, plus two additional questions:

  • Overall, how would you rate the culture of the office compared to (original survey date)? (multiple choice)
    • Our culture has change for the better – a lot
    • Our culture has changed for the better – some
    • Our culture hasn't changed
    • Our culture has changed for the worse – some
    • Our culture has changed for the worse – by a lot
  • List the major activities / investments made and ask people to rate their effectiveness so you get a measure of what specific interventions are working vs not:

Based on the feedback, make adjustments to what you are doing to drive culture change.

Measure, do, measure, do. Overtime, if you are persistent in your focus, you will be able to see whether or not the entire office is making the desired cultural progress.

Culture change is a journey that takes time, commitment, and leadership. You as the leader need to set the vision and help people see, but it takes everyone to actively contribute to the change. The four steps outlined in this series (1. Assess current state 2. Define desired future state 3. Build and implement embedment plan, 4. Measure / Do / Measure / Do) are tangible steps you can take to make the intangible – culture – a vibrant part of your family office's success.

It's a long journey, but it's worth it.