When I shop at Target, eat at McDonald’s, buy a new bike at a local bike shop or even get my shoes shined, I expect the people I interact with to have integrity, provide great service, give me a quality product and be accountable for delivering what the company has promised to deliver. I suspect most people have these seemingly modest expectations for any customer relationship.

Why is it that so many professional services firms display these values as if they are unique differentiators and somehow make their firms something special to their clients? While all are important values, are they not the qualities to be expected from any service provider—be it a Big 4 accounting firm or a dry cleaner?

Working at and with the world’s top professional services firms—as an entry-level employee, executive leader or consultant—has shown me the challenges of setting values and demonstrating them. I have seen leaders put their own careers at risk to help others. I have witnessed the hypocrisy of firm leaders who pontificate values but demonstrate through their actions that they care only about power, title, and money. These experiences have taught me that without a different type of culture a firm has little chance of separating itself from others. As a result, I can quickly assess which cultures are made of “solid oak” and which are covered in “veneer.” Here are the prudent attributes and the thinking behind them that I have observed in firms built of oak.

Spirituality and Purpose

A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps. Proverbs 14:15

It takes most of us decades to learn that life is about more than power, fame, success, wealth and possessions. Some are blessed early with a clear vision of a higher purpose, their contribution to the world and to individuals. Prudent firms know the difference between fleeting, superficial rewards and a legacy of impact. They are driven by a mission to change lives for the better—theirs and all with whom they come into contact.

Stewardship

“The essence of statesmanship is not a rigid adherence to the past, but a prudent and probing concern for the future.”  Hubert H. Humphrey

Great firms live beyond individuals. A prudent leader understands that his/her role is to preserve and enhance the value and reputation of the firm for the next generation. He does not think in terms of “me” or “gettin’ while the gettin’ is good.” He makes smart decisions that may not benefit him or his practice but that enhance the value of the entire firm. These leaders expect to leave the firm better than they found it.

Resilience

“That man is prudent who neither hopes nor fears anything from the uncertain events of the future.” Anatole France

It has been said, “Life is a series of crises interrupted by good times.” Prudent firms develop the strength to withstand crises, learn from them and exploit them to their advantage. Doing this requires teamwork and “grit”—the ability to persevere in spite of the overwhelming challenge of the moment. Firms made of oak build this capability over time and have the stories and legacies to reinforce it.

Mindfulness

“Prudence has two eyes, one that foresees what one has to do, the other that examines afterword what one has done.” St. Ignatius

Prudent firms nurture awareness and introspection. They know themselves. Prudent firms do not get caught up in fads, booms and busts and hysteria. Decisions and actions are not driven by impulse. Prudence is about truth: the truth of what is, what is right and what must be done. We must know what is true before we are free to do what is right. This includes an awareness and acceptance of our own moral values. The best firms take the time to reflect on actions before they are taken, and again after they are done, to learn more about themselves and the world around them.

Learning

The prudent course is to make an investment in learning, testing, and understanding, determine how the new concepts compare to how you now operate and thoughtfully determine how they apply to what you want to achieve in the future. Dee Hock

Prudent firms encourage the taking of smart risks. They reward initiative and, more importantly, learning. Professional services firms are driven by knowledge. So, prudent firms create a culture that makes it safe for their people to explore and experiment with new ideas. They do not penalize failure. They couple it with knowledge-building and encouragement.

Authenticity

“Life has no blessing like a prudent friend.” Euripides

I witnessed inauthenticity that was so bad at one firm that partners used the term “grin f’ing” to describe it. This was the experience of receiving a smiling nod of agreement followed by a clandestine plan to do just the opposite. Prudent firms have the self-confidence, openness, safety, and courage to have the crucial conversations necessary to make tough decisions. They do not shirk from this responsibility and they are true to their word.

Humility

“Prudence directs choice by means of counsel.” St. Thomas

Humility and vulnerability are not signs of weakness. To prudent firms, humility is an act of strength, courage and self-confidence. Humility creates an environment that enables people to share fears and aspirations. Humility allows us to say, “I do not know” or “I need help.” Without humility, associates lack the fundamental building block to spiritual and personal growth.

Realism

“Prudence implies a transformation of the knowledge of truth into the decisions corresponding to reality.” Joseph Pieper

Firms often misconstrue anecdotes for data and feelings for facts. Prudence demands openness to the whole truth of the situation, including long-held beliefs, prejudices, and agendas. Prudent firms are completely honest about decisions with clients and themselves. As Arthur Andersen said, “Think straight, talk straight.”

Love

Happiness exists on earth, and it is won through prudent exercise of reason, knowledge of the harmony of the universe, and constant practice of generosity.”   Jose Marti

Prudent firms have, at the core of their being, a compassion for people. While they demand responsibility, they do not measure a person’s value solely by economic production. The Golden Rule lives and breathes within these firms. As employee lives ebb and flow, prudent firms treat people lovingly through life’s transitions. They always keep the well-being of the person at the center and do not use platitudes or throwaway lines like, “people are our greatest asset.”

Takeaway

While Prudent Pedal is not a human capital firm, we understand that if the culture is broken, then the firm is broken. Many of the issues we address in marketing strategy and effectiveness have their root in a culture, not the marketing function.

Values like integrity, trust, excellence, and service are important attributes, but they do not differentiate firms and they do not inspire people in the same way as the attributes above. Love, spirituality, humility, realism, resilience, learning, authenticity, restraint, stewardship and mindfulness create a unique culture and attract virtuous associates and clients. These attributes may be too touchy-feely or not speak to you. But, if you want to differentiate yourself from your competition, McDonald’s and your local dry cleaner, then you must choose yours. Choose prudently.

Be prudent.

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