One of the things that we work on with our owner-advisor clients is creating the “corporate culture” for their firm. At industry conferences, I frequently talk about how important it is for owners to create the “right” corporate culture for their own happiness, and to create better client services, and client experiences.

When we’re interacting with our clients, we have plenty of time to explain what we mean by “corporate culture” and answer their questions until we’re sure that they “get it.” But in presentations to large audiences, where those one-on-one conversations aren’t possible, I’ve found that many advisors have a hard time “getting” the concept. To help folks to understand what firm culture is and what it feels like, I often use us the analogy of a party. Think of your firm as a “party” you throw every day in your office—and approach it the way a professional party planner would.

My husband, Drew, is a professional chef, and he’s catered more parties than he would care to count. A you might imagine, we throw a fair number of parties ourselves. So we’ve done a lot of thinking about parties which has led me to think about the similarities between parties and independent advisory firms. Here are some of the key elements of good party, and my take on how they relate to a successful advisory business. 

Theme
Parties often have themes: a costume party, a disco party, a ‘60s party, a Super Bowl party, a Christmas party, etc. Think of your firm as a “taking care of clients” party. Your employees probably won’t need to bring anything except themselves and perhaps lunch and some snacks. And you’ll need to provide them with everything they need to participate in your party: computers, training, motivation, compensation, etc. (Yes, sadly, you have to pay people to come to your work party.) 

Guests
A good host invites people who you think will enjoy each other. And sometimes we invite specific people who we think will be interesting or entertaining: You consider who will get along with whom, and sometimes you have people you want to introduce because you think they’d like each other. The same is true of our staff: people who are compatible, who like each other, and who bring a mix of skills to your “party” will be a lot more productive—and better with your clients.

Don’t forget, clients are guests, too. They need to fit into your culture because when they don’t, it’s a lot less fun for everyone.

Feel
Every time Drew and I throw a party, we ask ourselves: how do we want people to feel at this party? To develop the culture you want, you need to determine what that party should feel like. This “feel” should then permeate every part of your firm, from what furniture you have to the lifestyle benefits you offer and the coffee that you serve. It’s also part of how you behave as a “boss.” You set the tone and the mood of your culture: so think about being a good “host” to your employees and your clients.

Dress
Every party has a dress code, whether you know it or not. Theme parties are easy, but there’s also football casual to black tie affairs. What do you want your firm to be: suits, ties, and dresses, or flip flops on the beach? Usually, the dress code reflects the personality of the owner(s), but it can also be driven by the expectations of the clients and/or the location: downtown businesses usually look and feel different from those in the burbs. When I walk into an office for the first time, the “dress code” always tells me a lot about the firm—and the party I’m joining. 

Behavior
People also consider how they want their party guests to behave, according to their own standards. At some parties, such as for a football game, loud and boisterous behavior is to be expected, as is fairly heavy drinking. If your daughter is giving a piano recital, not so much. Sometimes, we avoid inviting people who have strong political or religious beliefs who tend to make their conversations about them. Other people might welcome these debates. In an advisory firm, professional behavior is usually best: but that still leaves a lot of room for differences. Again, firm behavior usually reflects the personality of the owner(s) and the clients. 

The point I’m making is that like a party, every small business, such as an advisory firm, will develop a culture of its own—on its own. So firm owners can either let that happen randomly or create a culture that they want to go to work in every day, and one that supports the mission of the firm: which usually is to help the firm’s clients. In our experience, the most successful cultures combine a drive to work hard, with a relaxed professional demeanor and an ethic to take care of the clients above all else. You might think of yourself and your employees as the adults at a birthday party for your six-year old.