46A - Einstein

A Cultural Conflict of Interest

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We are unfolding the 5 dimensions of the “Identity as Culture”. Relationship in the Identity as Culture framework is captured by the questions: How does our culture relate to others? How do we treat one another? How do we treat partners and competitors?

Wally knew that setting up his calendar for March should not have been this hard, but it was. He had been waiting for months for Sarita to call, and for the opportunity she presented – to come pitch her company on some work – a new client prospect he’d worked hard to cultivate. But his excitement quickly lurched into inner turmoil when he found out it had to happen on March 21.

Why did it have to be that day, of all days? How could he call Jane and tell her he’d have to postpone his visit, again?

“Business is business,” Wally argued to himself. “But not anymore.” He knew Jane wouldn’t receive it as “just business”. Wally knew that this was much more than just one simple calendar entry; it signified a relationship and was a signal to Jane about what was most important to him and to Wilson Partners. Should he meet with the new prospect, or a longstanding client who had no current need for Wilson’s services?

This was when all that talk about “the value of relationships” got messy.

Wilson Partners had become a very successful, mid-sized strategy consultancy out of Boston, now with offices in New York, London, Toronto, and Melbourne. The partners who had taken the firm over from its short-lived founder and namesake, John Wilson, had long since retired, leaving for the current leadership generation a legacy that demanded rigorous intellect and genuine, even warm personal relationships. In recent years, they had resisted occasional attempts at purchase by larger firms, despite the considerable economic return it would have yielded.

When Wally Hough was hired upon completion of his MBA, he had joined a firm that pushed him as hard on “who” he was as it did on “how” he delivered the rigorous analysis and strategy work that was the hallmark of Wilson Partners.

Jane Russo had been a client of the firm for several years, and Wally had always enjoyed working with her. Since the work had stopped coming some time ago, Wally had still made a point of seeing her when he was in town as part of his regular sales calls. In fact, just two months ago, over lunch and as he pressed her for new needs that she might have, Jane had said something that, in both tone and perspective, was still vivid in his memory. “Wally, can’t we just talk? Stop selling me. Does it always have to be about a project?!” Her words stung.

Wally knew that Jane’s role was changing, and although she was previously responsible for one of her employer’s largest business units, she had fallen out of favor a little, and was now overseeing a smaller and more mature part of the business that was built on ageing technology. It was really a “sunset” business where the leadership challenge was just to optimize the exit strategy.

Jane’s words that day hit Wally in an already vulnerable place because, not a month before, another of Wilson Partners’ long-term clients had asked him a similar question. That inquiry was even more pointed. “Wally, is it always just about the money?” which was followed by the even sharper rebuke, “What is happening to you guys? I have never felt this kind of pressure from you before!”

After two decades of steady (sometimes exponential) growth, the financial crisis of 2008 had hit Wilson as it had their clients. But the relationships ran deep, and Wally knew they were part of the reason Wilson often had work when other consultancies did not. They were often the last consultants to be “fired” during the routine budget purges that were all part of the territory. It was simply part of the Wilson way to maintain strong personal relationships with clients. But Wally’s rise to partnership a few years ago had produced a visceral realization that he was responsible for finding the work that paid more than a few mortgages, and so his sales quota was now a top priority. It was all very well for the partners to insist that relationships were vital to Wilson’s culture – the “how we are with each other and our clients,” as one partner had described it – but it was much tougher to balance that preference for relationships with the realities of day-to-day business.

Wally listened to the voice mail from his new prospect again. They were serious, alright, and very tight on timing. They needed the pitch on March 21 and would go to their board the following week. It was a fast-moving acquisition, and if he could get the work, he would finally have a quarter-end to which he could look forward.

He knew that Jane had no work for them, and that at best, given her position, in the future she would only ever hire Wilson for a small project or two. Wally had said “yes” to the meeting with Jane for all the right reasons. She was a long-term client, and she wanted someone who had been around to listen to her think through her options. It was in his sweet spot. Until the other prospect turned up, he had even looked forward to the trip. He knew Jane would understand and he could make the calendar switch, but that she would know exactly why he was doing it.

“It’s just a calendar change,” he muttered to himself, quite unconvinced by his own protest. He went back over his revenue goals for the quarter, tumbling the numbers in his mind. Did he have enough, or did he just want more? Was more revenue always better, he wondered? When does getting “more” extract too high a price?

“The identity of a company – its culture – is defined in part by its relationships,” Wally had heard recently. He believed it. He wanted to know that it was true not only of Wilson Partners, but of himself.

Wally looked wistfully at his task list for the morning, but he knew the top priority. Sarita needed an answer about March 21, because the CEO of this prospective client was only available that morning. In a last ditch effort, Wally checked the airline schedule to see if he could be in two places at once thanks to the time change. No help there. He would just have to choose. “It’s not the first time, and it probably won’t be the last,” he thought, as he punched the phone number into his mobile.

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