From the Chairman: Importance of cultural immersion

Jun 05, 2014

Take the time to share with new hires your wisdom about why things are the way they are and how they got that way.

What happens when someone joins your firm? Do you merely sit them down in front of a computer terminal and tell them to “get to work” or do you spend a little more time with them to give them a sense of the purpose of the work they’re doing? The sink-or-swim version of “on-boarding,” which I have written about before, is akin to “water-boarding.” It’s painful, not particularly effective, and it certainly doesn’t set the kind of attitude and behavior you want the new person to carry into their work and interactions with others. There are far more efficient and effective ways to assimilate new employees. The little extra time invested in immersing new people into the firm’s values and culture pays big dividends almost immediately. At Gensler, we figured out pretty early on that you can’t “control” people’s behavior or performance through rules and hierarchical oversight. In the design professions, particularly because fees have always been lean, it is simply too costly to have people scrupulously checking every new person’s actions. Most of us are acting unilaterally on behalf of the firm with clients, contractors, consultants, building officials and others. There simply isn’t time to have someone going back to review and check on every person’s work. We have to be able to rely on our staff members to act professionally, accept responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work, to know what they don’t know and ask for help when needed, rather than “faking it.” They need to constantly make judgment calls in a manner consistent with the values, ethics, policies, goals and objectives of the firm. So, how can we make that happen? I believe it comes about when each member of the firm feels truly responsible for their actions – no excuses and no blame ladled onto someone else. It happens when each individual embraces the reasons the firm is in business. This requires you to have a very clearly defined and documented summary of your values and culture. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
  • To serve our clients and the communities in which we build well.
  • To collaborate with each other, taking advantage of the larger talent and knowledge base within the firm and its stakeholders in order to deliver the highest value to our clients.
  • To help each other to continually grow as professionals.
  • To treat each other, our clients and our stakeholders with respect at all times.
  • To act as a business, taking the discipline of adhering to schedules and budgets seriously, treating our clients’ money as if it were our own.
These are all the things you want to be known for. More importantly, you become known for your values when everyone behaves in accordance with those values at all times. And, if they do, you don’t have to spend much time checking up on them. Each firm has its own unique set of values and culture. Is yours known? Documented? Consistently understood? Does everyone in the firm have the authority to challenge anyone else, including the president or partners, if that person is not acting in accordance with those values and your culture? Now, how do you achieve “Immersive Acculturation?” That means taking each person who joins your firm into a program that conveys what your values and culture are, why they’re that way and, most importantly, what are the benefits to employees, clients and stakeholders of behaving consistently, at all times, in accordance with your values and culture. This is particularly important for senior staff who will have others answering to them or when a firm is acquired or merges with another firm. Immersing everyone in your culture requires time and commitment from the minute a person sets foot in the door. It can’t wait until next week, or be satisfied by handing out a little wallet-sized card with your Mission, Vision and Values printed on it. In my article on “on-boarding,” published April 14, 2013 (issue #1003), I described the first minute, first hour, first day, first week and first month as each new person becomes part of your enterprise. It involves formal roles for a buddy, a coach and a mentor augmented by some brilliant sages who take the time to, as Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” used to say, do “some ‘splanen’.” For those of you too young to remember, that means “explaining” – taking the time to share their wisdom about why things are the way they are and how they got that way. That’s how you achieve strong, consistent, behavior in your firm; how you achieve excellence; how you obviate the need for constantly monitoring every action; and how you build a cadre of people who are deeply engaged in the work they’re doing, with each other and with your clients. Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1059, originally published 6/9/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.