Changing a firm’s culture

Preparing a professional service firm for the future means transforming your business from top to bottom, requiring unwavering commitment to new, and at times revolutionary, ideas, according to Earl Maxwell in his book Service, Prosperity and Sanity: Positioning the Professional Service Firm for the Future. The book tells the story of how one accounting firm fundamentally changed its business culture to position itself for the future.

The change process started for Maxwell Locke & Ritter when the firm was facing a challenging economic climate, with high levels of price competition and poor financial returns. Perhaps this made it easier for the author to persuade his partners to abandon the traditional way of running an accounting firm and try some radical experimentation, including:

  • Raising the level of trust in the office
  • Providing support for families
  • Encouraging flexible working arrangements
  • Getting involved in the local community
  • Openly sharing information including financial reports
  • Giving all employees some level of involvement in management of the firm

Some 14 years have elapsed since the book was published, and there have been vast changes in technology and the business landscape, but it is surprising to see how much of the content is still relevant. The inspiration for the original change effort was derived from the Total Quality Management movement – something which is largely forgotten today – but many of the issues discussed are still highly relevant, including competition, marketing, firm governance, work/life balance, adopting new technology, employee retention and profit sharing.

On the other hand, many professional service firms with toxic cultures and antiquated management structures have managed to muddle through the past 14 years while remaining reasonably profitable, so it is arguable that much of the fear of imminent disaster which troubled firms then and troubles them today may have been overstated. However, even if the transition to a less toxic firm culture does not result in a significant boost in profits, it does result in improved quality of life for employees and partners alike, which can only be a good thing.

In my view there are many useful lessons and ideas which can still be learnt from this book.

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