Guest comment: Working together in isolation
As customer problems become more complex, collaboration in delivering solutions is vital. But Professor Laura Empson and David Morley ask: Can leaders maintain a collaborative culture in the remote working world?
Customer problems are usually extensive and chaotic – all the more so, the more complex and insecure the world becomes. To find solutions to complex problems, individual professionals need to bring together people with complementary skills and perspectives to achieve the best results.
Many law firm leaders view a culture of collaboration as one of their most valuable assets and critical to the future success of their firm.
While many partners view their compensation system as critical to this culture, it is evident that collaboration can thrive under a variety of reward systems. So what else is important to building and maintaining a culture of collaboration?
This is where the latest episode of our podcast – Leading Professional People – takes us, in which we ask ourselves how executives can create and maintain a culture of collaboration.
To discuss this, we were accompanied by Kirsten Edwards-Warren, Deputy Head of the business consultancy Compass Lexecon in EMEA.
Compass Lexecon is not only one of the largest and most successful consulting firms in its field, with 900 employees worldwide, but it is also an extremely collaborative company, although it is not a partnership and it has a structure in payment for what you kill.
Shortly before the lockdown, she sought Laura’s advice on how to maintain her culture of collaboration as it was growing rapidly. We returned to the company a year later to find out how he had fared when he was banned.
Where does this commitment to collaboration come from?
Kirsten attributes this in part to the company’s founder and managing partner, Jorge Padilla, who in the earliest days placed a massive emphasis on creating a culture of collaboration and people development. Culture is something that is constantly talked about, she says, and it’s a critical topic as the company grows, especially when it comes to opting for side-to-side hiring.
But why did the idea stay so fast?
She identified two reasons. First, while the people at Compass Lexecon are paid well, the overall goal of most coworkers is not to maximize their income. Economists who wish to do this usually work for investment banks.
Second, there was a collective recognition that collaboration helps make the cake bigger, as your advice will be far more sought after by customers when you can bring more than one brain to a problem – even better when you can bring several with you.
How people are compensated is not a problem, emphasizes Kirsten. Colleagues negotiate the sharing of fees rationally – it helps to be economists used to modeling competition and collaboration in a rational way. And those who don’t want to play the collaboration game choose themselves from the business.
However, there are two other values that underpin Compass Lexecon’s culture of collaboration – integrity and excellence.
When it comes to integrity, it’s not just about an approach to customer work, it’s also about the quality of relationships between colleagues. Kirsten and Jorge’s willingness to exchange personal perspectives and stories is also essential here.
She tells of a recent incident where a young colleague challenged her about the tone of an email she had sent. She read the message, realized he was right, apologized, explained what she wanted to say and how to say it, and they could leave it behind.
Instead of complaining or festering angry with colleagues behind their backs, he dared to risk an awkward conversation by challenging them directly – and that confirmed the trust between them. She now knows that this colleague will honestly challenge her if he feels that she is doing something wrong.
Excellence is, of course, about a shared commitment to work of equally high standard, recognizing that what individuals produce affects everyone else in the organization.
When we think of Kirsten’s experience, we were impressed by three closely related things about the company’s success in building a culture of collaboration.
First, it’s about work and success in the market. The work is technically complex and requires highly qualified specialists. It’s also so abundant that the experts have to work together to get it all done – there’s too much work to do for individual rangers.
The second is how compensation is negotiated in an environment where you eat what you kill.
As economists, they can understand this using game theory – a system of interaction based on a series of infinitely repeated “games” under conditions of scarcity.
In other words, negotiating a careful and fair sharing of fees is a tough job. If you don’t, you will struggle to find someone to work with on your next project. This is a long way from Lockstep, but it seems to be working.
The third is the solid role model leadership provides as a benchmark for the type of culture it wants to cultivate and build for the future.
Kompass Lexecon has yet to fully decide how the world of work will change after the end of the pandemic – no one has done it. However, it is undoubtedly true that remote working has become an increasingly important part of life for professional companies and their clients since the global financial crisis.
Ten or 20 years ago, transaction attorneys were used to the “theater of the deal” – working closely with teams of advisors who worked long hours to close the deal. More recently, much of this work has been done through video conferencing.
Now leaders in many sectors are thinking about where this is going next.
It’s a difficult challenge, but a good one. It will force all of us not only to think about when and where we work, but also to fundamentally rethink how we work. As we do this, many leaders are likely to conclude that collaboration is an even more valuable asset than it has been in the past.
Click here to listen to their latest podcast, Empson & Morley – Leading Professional People, in which Professor Laura Empson and David Morley discuss the local-global conundrum with Kirsten Edwards-Warren.