Sean Adkins believes in cultivating a company culture that keeps employees happy and pushes them to get results Featured

8:26am EDT October 29, 2013
Sean Adkins, managing director and office leader, West Monroe Partners Sean Adkins, managing director and office leader, West Monroe Partners

Most employers would be happy if they had only one employee leave in a five-year period. For Sean Adkins, however, it brought about some ambivalent feelings.

Adkins was feeling a modest amount of pride for the showing West Monroe Partners LLC in Columbus had between 2007 and 2011. The business and technology consulting firm was growing, it was recognized as one of the best places to work in Columbus and had only one voluntary resignation during that period — all of which were almost unheard of during that recession-laden time.

After all, the employees were committed to the company mission — “to do the work we love with the people we trust” — and the development of a culture to fit that calling was coming true.

“But one of the things I have had to learn about my leadership style is you can’t also value culture without regard for business performance — because suddenly, this could turn into a country club,” says Adkins, managing director and office leader. “This has been my biggest leadership challenge.”

The heart of the matter for Adkins was the one employee who left during that five-year period.

“I actually started asking myself questions about this,” he says. “Was that good or bad? Am I not striking the right balance here? Maybe near-zero attrition is not a good thing because you are not pushing the team hard enough for results and not finding the right balance.

“I almost felt we ended up with the opposite situation. Where the culture was so valued that maybe we were missing some of the opportunities we could have had from a business perspective,” Adkins says.

“Essentially, I decided that the one turnover was probably not what I was aiming for,” he says. “Some attrition is probably healthy because that tells you that people are being pushed to where they are either going to excel or decide ‘this isn’t the pace I need to go, this isn’t right for me, and I’m going to move onto something else.’”

This year, there was a slight uptick in turnover: three employees voluntarily left. But that didn’t sound an alarm for Adkins.

“I’ve already had one come back three months later,” he says. “That’s another good sign of our culture. People don’t know what is on the other side of the fence.”

Here’s how Adkins tries to dodge the sand traps and water hazards so West Monroe Partners doesn’t become a country club, but a company where employees do the work they love with the people they trust, helping to generate $67 million in annual revenue corporate wide.

 

Set your core values and live them

Like many other companies do when they first launch, the founders of West Monroe Partners’ initial step was to write down their core values. Once established and followed, core values are designed to keep your company on track.

“You don’t try to fabricate a strategy you think will attract people or what may resonate in the market well,” Adkins says. “This is about describing a set of values that we individually believe in because that is the only way we are actually going to be able to live those values on a day-in and day-out basis.

“I think as we continue to grow as rapidly as we are, maintaining that culture is incredibly important,” Adkins says. “You can look at yourself five years from now and say, ‘Geez, we are a completely different company. Things have changed quite a bit.’ And that is exactly where we don’t want to find ourselves. It is something that we always have to work on.”

So to avoid an about-face in your company culture a few years down the road, there’s never a better time to start but at the beginning.

“The way we avoid being a country club is, No. 1, getting the right people on the team that are motivated to excel and achieve great things,” Adkins says. “Then the second step is having a vision that we aim for.

“We are not just trying to go through the motions each day and live to fight another day. What we are aiming for is something larger, and I can go talk to the team about what we are trying to achieve and why their contribution — and what I need from them — is so important.

“If I am clear on my expectations and my vision for where we are taking the organization, that gives me the capital to go to the team members and ask for more from them because it’s for a purpose. It is not just, ‘Please do more because we need more revenue,’ or, ‘Please do more because we have to get more clients.’ It has a bigger purpose.”

 

Put in a bit of intrigue

The earliest point at which you can determine if an employee is going to be a good fit for your culture is when he or she asks about the company culture during the job interview.

Adkins is prepared to give an interesting, and telling, reply.

“The answer without fail that I provide for them is, ‘If I am able to answer that question for you right now, I feel like it is doing it a disservice,’” he says. “I shouldn’t be able to describe my culture in words because it just feels like something our marketing team put together or someone has said and repeated.”

Once Adkins has crossed that threshold, he says the best explanation is how the company has a set of core values that hasn’t changed over time — and employees live them every day.

“Our culture is embodied in that ‘to do the work we love with the people we trust’ concept,” he says. “That says everything we want to say about our culture and what we expect from our people, and quite frankly, the environment that we want to provide for our people.”

Adkins observes the candidate’s reaction, which usually contains a degree of intrigue. Many express that they want to find out more, that there is something they may be missing.

“At the same time, we realize that people need facts, they need information to make a decision, and the best thing that we can point to is, ‘Hey, look, we have won several workplace awards across many of our offices as being a best place to work for four years running, and so I am not asking you to just believe me, we certainly have some proven results, but I’m not going to give you the rubric of exactly what that means because you have to experience it.’”

 

Watch for cracks in the foundation

Complacency is the enemy of success, it has been said. But there are warnings if too much comfort is starting to infect your business. You just have to develop your observation skills to spot them.

Adkins thought he might be seeing cracks in the company culture as 2012 unfolded.

“Some of these folks on the team didn’t appear to be going above and beyond, and I knew they weren’t, both in terms of their commitment to the organization from a time perspective, but also in how much activity they initiated on their part,” he says. “If you are waiting for someone to tell you, if you are waiting for someone to ask you for help, that is an indication that maybe it has become a little too comfortable, and you are not as motivated as you had been.”

Those were a couple of telltale signs he was seeing in the organization that he felt needed to be corrected while ensuring that the core values in the culture weren’t being disrupted.

“We needed our people to be around  ... If the clock says five o’clock, and people say, ‘I’m not really interested in seeing you until the next day,’ this doesn’t lead to good results in our view. We really want it to feel like family, and feel like these are people I enjoy being around on the day-in and day-out basis.”

On the trust aspect, you need people who are motivated by the same things that you are and want to achieve the same things in their career and in their marketplace that you do.

“You know that when you look to your left, and you look to your right, there are people who are marching next to you versus you having to pull them along at the pace you want to go,” Adkins says. “I think that is inspiring for our people to know that they have people in the fight with them.”

Consider a culture well developed when it can maintain itself.

“We have a concept of stewardship for the basic fundamental principle: ‘Leave this place better than what you found it.’ So everyone has to have a personal responsibility in that. It takes everyone’s participation for that to be a reality.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Set your core values and live them.
  • Put a spin of intrigue in your culture.
  • Watch for cracks in the foundation.

 

The Adkins File

Name: Sean Adkins
Title: managing director and office leader
Company: West Monroe Partners

Born: Cleveland. I grew up in Lakewood, went to Horace Mann Middle School and then to St. Edward High School. 

Education: Miami University. I have a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management information systems. 

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? I was a caddy at Westwood Country Club in Rocky River after eighth grade. The thing I learned in that job and probably the subsequent jobs I had in high school was just the notion of serving — what customer service means. You learn what it means to provide a service to someone else and how to operate in that environment, which helped me learn quite a bit of what I use today. To be a caddy, you need to be there and ready to go quite early in the morning, and for someone who’s a freshman in high school, that might not be the easiest thing in the world. But the tips were pretty good. 

What is the best business advice you ever received? “The customer is always right” is one I believe in firmly. While there may be some finer distinctions in that, the attitude that I have to bring daily is that I am here to serve my customers. It doesn’t mean I always have to be accepting and obedient, but if I keep my overarching principle as I’m here to serve my customers, that sets the tone for me having a productive relationship with them. I firmly believe that. 

What is your definition of business success? It’s having a team and people motivated by a vision that is personally important to them. I firmly believe that is the way you achieve success. You don’t achieve success by turning the screws harder. You don’t achieve success by setting revenue goals and meeting them. It has to be about the people on your team motivated to do more, and personally motivated by what they are doing. 

If you could have dinner with anybody in history, who would it be? President John F. Kennedy. I find his life and existence to be extremely interesting and inspiring and have always looked upon his untimely death with quite a bit of interest. He has just been quite a bit of motivation for a lot of folks, and I always thought that it would be interesting to talk to him.

 

How to reach: West Monroe Partners LLC, (614) 372-7300 or www.westmonroepartners.com