Money, culture, and purpose

Aug 28, 2017

There’s three big reasons why employees choose where they work, and a firm’s rationale for its very existence can tie them all together.

The “why” of a company matters. I ask the question during strategic planning sessions – why do you choose to work here? – because I assume that the individuals that we speak with could work at the firm down the street just as easily. Why is this the firm you have chosen to invest your time and your career aspirations in? People answer this in a variety of ways.

The money. If you aren’t paying as well as the company down the street, at some point, your fun parties and “family” environment may not be enough. We have worked with firms that choose to differentiate by salaries, incredible bonuses, and huge upward potential on investing in the company’s stock. Money isn’t evil, and working to support your family and create a better life should not be vilified. There are many individuals for whom this is enough.

  • The mantra: pay me exorbitantly well, and I’ll deliver extraordinary results.
  • The trade-off: these firms demand a return on their investment.

The culture. Culture is the environment that we cultivate within the firm. When people say that they appreciate the culture, they could mean that they have an open door to senior management and feel like their opinions matter. They may mean that this company works hard and plays hard. They may mean that their culture supports their hobbies or their family life and that they get flexibility. Maybe we have summer hours and dogs in the office and we all hang out after work together. The culture determines how happy people are to spend most of their waking day wearing the branded polo shirt and designing for your clients. Why here? Because we celebrate the wins and work hard to make every individual better.

  • The mantra: Treat me better than any firm I could work for, and I’ll be the first to tell my friends to work here.
  • The trade-off: We have to buckle down and get to work, and we have to respect that our clients may not respect our culture (example: they may not have summer hours!).

The purpose. You may or may not be surprised that companies that have a reason for existing and that promote that mission internally often develop a strong retention base of individuals who “get” the mission. The mission of the firm is the soul of the operation, and that isn’t as ethereal a statement as it may appear. Your purpose could be expertise and thought leadership. For some firms, the purpose is about making the community better. Employees in a firm with a strong sense of purpose feel like their work matters. They put in the extra hours because they are making the world a better place, a safer place, a more efficient place, etc.

  • The mantra: Treat me like my work matters on a deeper level, and I’ll produce work with that in mind.
  • The trade-off: Over-focus on purpose can obscure the fact that the business also needs to make money to operate. Difficult to find a balance and we risk vilifying profitable work.

The question – which one is better – is not the right question. The real question is this: How do we balance these three “why” rationales? Generally, I have an aversion to analogies like the “three-legged stool” or silly Venn diagrams, and consider them to be consultant BS (my current favorite: HBO’s Silicon Valley has a great “conjoined triangles of success” paradigm). The answer to this question is specific to each individual firm. We work with firms with fantastic cultures that focus heavily on any one of the other whys listed here, or a combination of two or even all three of them. The three whys, then, may ultimately be less important than the firm’s underlying reason for its existence, and its commitment to articulating this in a clear, succinct message.

Jamie Claire Kiser is Zweig Group’s director of consulting. Contact her at

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.