The Cultural Litmus Test

One of the things we do a lot of at Jackson Spalding is see people. We view all our offices as an ideal place to welcome clients, visitors and, of course, job candidates. I always enjoy sitting down with folks and learning more about them.

We do our share of interviews during the year. In this process, we look for what we call the Five C’s: Character, Class, Confidence, Chemistry and Competency. We believe these five attributes are the key attributes to a successful career at JS. Another interview barometer is seeing what questions job candidates ask us. These questions run the gamut. A frequent comment I hear is “I have heard good things about your culture at JS.” This statement usually leads to a specific question about what makes the JS culture so special, which is always nice to hear.

When asked this question, I tend to answer it by saying — surprisingly to some people — we don’t talk a ton about culture. In fact, we really don’t want to talk about it. Instead, we want it to be very natural and take on a life of its own. In many ways, the less we talk about it the better. We would rather just see it evolve with every new hire and always stay true to our values. Our values have not changed since we wrote them back in 1995. These values, such as ‘We Tell the Truth’ and ‘Our Aim is Excellence,’ serve as a rudder for us and keep us accountable.

Now, having said all this, I want to share my two cents on what I believe are the ingredients for an effective culture. We are always a work in progress at our agency so I am not putting a stake in the ground and saying our way of doing things at JS is the perfect template/role model. But we have been at this building-block entrepreneurial effort now for 18 years. There are some things we have learned (often the hard way) and observed. As I reflected back, I was able to identify five litmus tests that have helped us make Jackson Spalding the place it is today. Let’s begin:

Initially, the first litmus test is Ensuring that the word ‘culture’ is not continuously referenced in your firm’s vernacular. We have covered this point already but want to underscore it again.    Less is more when talking about it. It can get old very quickly and sound trite.

The second litmus test: Are you actualizing the potential of your people?  Are you seeing tremendous growth in your team and how they work together? Cultures that have the right formula see their offices as a place for their folks to grow and become the experts and thought leaders in their areas of expertise. This growth should be so dramatic that the employee barely recognizes the budding professional they were two to three years before they arrived at your doorstep.

Another test that is paramount for every company: Are you attracting and retaining top talent?    I read a great quote recently from business guru Peter Drucker. He said, “Make people your top priority.”  Amen. Businesses that have the right cultural formula are on-boarding and keeping the best talent in their industry. Pre-eminent companies must do both. They must first attract and then retain their best talent. This two-pronged commitment is essential. It never stops.

As a self-reflective test: Do you feel like your culture is noticeable to the outside world? In other words, are your people shining “your company’s torch” for others to see in the community and elsewhere? This torch, if you will, is very bright and attractive when the cultural makeup is right.   People want to be around this torch and they talk about its warmth and brilliance. If you are with a company that has a strong entrepreneurial foundation, then the founders light the torch and pass it on to others. This torch gets brighter and brighter and multiplies in number.

And finally, Is the cultural DNA permeating throughout the organization? Is it naturally seeping into the folks who work for and with you? It shouldn’t be taught; it should become part of their business marrow and/or business bloodstream, so to speak. When you go visit companies that have this distinctive quality, it is cool to see. Their people are not clones or corporate cheerleaders – very important. They are a consistent and compelling reflection of the values of the organization, and they feel really comfortable and empowered to grow into what they aspire to be at their job. This sort of attitude and drive is infectious; it motivates and inspires those around them to get better, too.

Well, these are a few things to keep in mind on the cultural front. But I have said enough. Do you have any cultural tests to add to this list? As I said, culture is and always will be a work in progress. Now it is time for me to stop talking about it but keep striving to live it.