Cultivating Company Culture: Firm Owners List Their Top Tips

29 min read

Company culture is more than just a buzzword; it’s the foundation of any successful design firm. A firm’s culture consists of the shared values, goals, attitudes, and behaviors that define how people work together and how they relate to each other. Company culture sets the tone for how team members feel about your firm. It determines whether employees feel supported and nurtured, or dismissed and disregarded.

In this post, we reflect on the panel Design Dash and LUDC Founder Laura Umansky moderated at Universal Furniture during this April’s High Point Market. Learn what Bryan Yates of Yates Desygn, Lorna Gross of Lorna Gross Interior Design, and Morgan Farrow of Morgan Farrow Interiors have to say about cultivating firm culture below.

Why Does Company Culture Matter?

Whether you believe a firm’s culture emerges organically or that it requires the guiding hand of a firm owner, company culture matters. A positive company culture can lead to increased productivity, employee satisfaction, excellent communication, and cohesion across different departments. It impacts employee-client interactions and paints a picture of your firm to future partners.

Healthy, supportive company cultures also promote collaboration and teamwork. When employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and working together towards common goals, innovation thrives.

The right company culture can help attract and retain top talent too. In today’s competitive job market, candidates are looking beyond just salary and benefits when considering a job offer. They want to work for a company that aligns with their personal values and provides a supportive work environment. By fostering a positive company culture, design firms can differentiate themselves from competitors and become an employer of choice.

On the other hand, a toxic company culture can have detrimental effects on both employees and the business as a whole. Negative attitudes, lack of communication, and poor leadership can lead to high turnover rates, low morale, and decreased productivity.

Cultivating a Firm Culture Transcript

As noted above, Laura moderated a panel at High Point this April. Bryan Yates, Lorna Gross, and Morgan Farrow joined Laura to discuss the ins and outs of cultivating a firm culture that aligns with your goals and values.

You can read the full transcript below, beginning at the 1:31 timestamp in the video. We break the transcript down with headings related to Laura’s questions. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Stay tuned for our takes on key points in upcoming posts on the Design Dash blog.


Laura Umansky, LUDC CEO & Founder, Design Dash Co-Founder: I’m Laura Umansky. I have an interior design firm based in Houston, Texas and in Aspen, Colorado. It’s called Laura U Design Collective. And we’ve also just recently launched a new business called Design Dash. It is focused on community and confidence for interior design business owners specifically. So today’s talk is very timely about the culture of your firm.

Getting to Know the Designers

Laura Umansky, Moderator: Let me introduce our panel [starting with] Bryan Yates. He’s the principal designer and co-founder of Yates Desygn based in Dallas. That’s with a “Y,” which is so clever because his name is Bryan with a “Y.” With accomplishments spanning landscape architecture, commercial hospitality design, and luxury residential interior design, Bryan has conceptualized and created elevated, tailored Interiors for projects across the globe.

Let’s go to Lorna Gross, who is the president of Lorna Gross Interior Design, based in the Washington DC metro area. She’s recognized for her warm spirit and sophisticated style. The meticulous projects designed by Lorna and her team have gained the firm international recognition. Welcome!

And last but not least! Based in Dallas, Texas, Morgan Farrow is the founder and principal of Morgan Farrow Interiors. Morgan’s known for creating expansive full home projects that exude her signature style of livable luxury and perfectly reflect her clients’ personalities.

Welcome to “Cultivating a Firm Culture”

Laura Umansky, Moderator: Welcome! Thanks for being here! Just before we dive in, a few words on company culture. What we’re talking about today is how to build your firm culture. I found this to be an interesting question because it seems really nebulous to me.

How do you intentionally affirm culture, or do you? How do you create culture to be what you want it to be? Can you control it? Alright, we’re going to dive into this. I’ll start with Bryan.

Background on Bryan

Bryan Yates of Yates Desygn, Panelist: We’re located in Dallas, Texas, and we are a firm of five people at the moment. This includes my husband and I, who kind of run the entire operation. We are a new firm.

We’re getting ready to hit our seven-year marker, and to us it’s really important to kind of exude who we are and where we’re wanting to take it. For us, we believe that our team is our family and that’s kind of how we start everything: very personal. Okay, thank you.

Background on Lorna

Lorna Gross of Lorna Gross Interior Design, Panelist: So my firm is located just outside of Washington DC. There are seven of us including the administrative side of the house and the design side of the house. For us, I feel like there are a number of core values that we have.

My firm, by the way, is in its 17th year. We’ve been around for a while. That has given me time to make mistakes and correct them. But we’re very much about professionalism and warmth and personalization – also from a design perspective having a sophisticated aesthetic.

But I think that most importantly – just as Bryan said – we are very familial. It took us a while to get there and we can talk a little bit further about how that happened. You do have to be intentional about doing that.

Background on Morgan

Morgan Farrow of Morgan Farrow Interiors, Panelist: So we are also out of Dallas, Texas. We have a firm of nine total – eight of which are here. We left Accounting at home. So we have been operating for 11 years and have really sort of the same pulse as you [Lorna] and Bryan.

We really are sort of family first. We definitely are a team of this crazy sisterhood. We live large, we work hard, and we hustle, but most of all we have fun. And I think that that pulse really leads through to the experience that we create for our clients.

It’s super important to us to sort of have the process down tight and then layer the fun on top. So that’s really sort of the pulse of how we create our culture.

Background on Laura

Laura Umansky of Laura U Design Collective & Design Dash, Moderator: So just a little bit about our firm really quickly. I’ve had my firm for a little over 15 years, and there are 20 of us. In design, maybe there are twelve, and the rest are marketing and back of the house. We have a big team! So my next question is how did you establish your culture, or was it more organic? How did you start?

Question 1: Do You Strategically Create a Firm Culture or is it Organic?

Morgan Farrow, Panelist: I think it’s really organic for us. I think for me, thinking about “what is our culture and how do we exude that?” To me, it’s like the response to issues or problems – like the pulse you keep when you’re dealing with an issue is really when you shine. I think the way that I approach problems is probably really with ease and a large amount of grace.

So I feel like when you have that approach, your people just sort of follow in that path. So I think if you’re sort of working to create culture, it’s really that they’re going to follow how you respond and really latch onto who you are in that place.

When I think about “how did this happen,” I think that that’s really how. Other than that, I think it’s just that we’re silly and it’s just fun. And yes, it’s hard, of course! But the response to the hard is really how I think we have gotten our culture to where it is. So if you’re not running and screaming at everyone, it’s probably a good day.

Lorna Gross, Panelist: I would say for everyone who owns a firm, culture starts from the top down, right? You have to be very strategic about it. So whenever I go about interviewing someone, I make sure that I not only do the interview, but that they also get to meet the team because there has to be synergy with the people that are existing in the team. And then I know for myself that I get things done really fast, so then it would be unfair for me to hire someone who doesn’t have the same kind of flow that I have.

So when I do my job postings, I always say that this is a fast-paced firm. Do you want to work at a fast-paced firm? Heads up! We move fast. So our moniker is meticulous, but we’re joyful. It’s a delicate balance between the two. And it’s really not that we are familial, but it’s not that we never have a disagreement. It’s not that we never have pain points. We are actually coming off a week that was painful for us. But we also know that everyone in our firm has a voice.

So being able to have difficult conversations and problem-solve as you [Morgan] said earlier regarding the pain point so it doesn’t happen again is also important.

Bryan Yates, Panelist: For us, I think it’s really about being organic and authentic, and really just knowing who we are as individuals and that’s how we kind of form our team and how we operate. You know, we live very authentic lives and at the end of the day, you’re getting the exact person that I am here and at home.

For us, that’s really important, and I think that just kind of bleeds and naturally forms the culture we’re trying to achieve. For us, it’s really about being playful and having a sense of family. I know that we’re not necessarily family, but we scream and fight like family does, so why not call it family, right? But at the end of the day, it really is about having fun and educating while also being respectful and playful.

We always say that we believe design is kind of like ice cream. You have the foundation: the process you put into place. And then we have the people that we bring in, and I love the fact that everyone has a voice. As a collective, we are a team and I introduce us all as a team. I’m very adamant when we take on projects because we don’t take on everything or everyone. It really is a relationship.

I want to, you know, have a bottle or two of wine with a client – and I say bottle because that’s only four glasses – but it is at the end of the day part of our culture. Our culture is about having fun. It is. You know, we’re doing really great work that I feel enhances someone’s quality of life but it really is about just having fun throughout the process, and that’s what we want our team to have as well.

Question 2: Do You Set Core Values Within Your Firm, and if so, does your whole team contribute or did you set the values?

Lorna: have to be the values that I have internally. For example, I have a high value around diversity, right? My firm is probably one of the most diverse firms you’ve ever seen. There’s African Americans, there’s Jewish, there’s Latino, there’s LGBT, there’s Indonesian. We span three generations! So that’s important to me, and you see it coming through in my firm.

But I think that regarding how the president influences the culture, for me, this has been a learning process. So I had to learn to – for example – become more vulnerable to my staff so that we could have a more family-oriented relationship because if my team feels connected, it’s much less likely that one of them is going to leave quickly. Right now, I hug them, I tell them I love them, and we do right by them. We have a couple of my team members here, and we have literally come to each other’s rescue in difficult situations.

So that is established from the top down, but if there is a member of the team that’s brought in that doesn’t believe that and doesn’t feel part of it, then they’re probably not going to last. Very recently, I hired a gentleman from New York, and he’s like “this isn’t real, is it?” But after about six weeks, he’s like “oh, wait a minute, this is actually real.” So I think that most of the members of our team recognize that if they work somewhere else, they know that what we have is special. They may get an offer from another firm to work over there, but I just want them to hesitate before they say they’re going.

Question 3: Has your culture changed over time? Did you start in one place and feel like it has evolved into something else?

Morgan: You know, I don’t think so, because I don’t feel like it’s been this thing that I want to keep and maintain. It has never felt like it’s this one thing. I think I’m just who I am and I really liked how Bryan said “you’re gonna get me in all the ways.” Sometimes, I’m not my best self, but I let everybody see that, and I feel like we are authentic in that. I don’t feel like it has been this and it was that, and then I tried to make it this. I think it’s always been “this is who we are,” and you’re either attracted to it or you’re not.

I think it’s just the spirit of me sort of coming through the team and then I think that we’re all like little moths to each other. We just sort of keep grabbing like moths, right? I feel like to your point, creating that sense of family. You can’t go anywhere! I mean, you’re not alone.

And so I feel like once you know, we have had moments where the team has been shaken because I am a little bit of sunshine and rainbows perspective and have hired inappropriately. It was really quick for us to see that this is wrong, and we had to flush and I think that’s hard for me because I’m a people person, and I love to hold onto people, but then my amazing team is like “let them leave.”

So I think it’s good that we have the opportunity to have that back and forth with the team for them to be like “wake up now; that’s not gonna work!” So I think that we just have that interaction between us to be able to have the pulse weather sometimes I can be a little blinded.

Question 4: How do you hire for culture fit? Do you have a process for hiring, and what is it?

Bryan: I feel like it’s a little bit of trial and error in business, right? What we have done is honed in on our process from start one to now. It constantly evolves. But our evolution to today is really that we will get all the information for people that we’re getting hired and kind of weed down who we want to interview and then what we’ve done is kind of remove ourselves from the mix um they start off with going to our Senior Designer and our in either a Junior or Intermediate Designer.

I want them to ask questions. I don’t tell them anything about what to do. They form their own questions, and I want them to really engage with them [the prospective hires] and see if they fit because they’re the ones that are getting to really be in the weeds with them. From there, my husband and I will interview with the client and from the perspective of the employer, it’s been really helpful for us. It’s created an almost bigger bond when we hire them, and our team really already melds with them. It’s been a good experience for us, and that’s kind of what we do.

Now obviously, we have the last say in it, and we’re helping to create that narrative of who we’re going to hire. But we might say, “hey, these three are really a great fit; I’d love for you to interview them.” If they say, “hey, we want to have these people move on,” then we will interview them. It’s been a really good process for us.

Laura: Lorna, what’s your hiring process like?

Lorna: So similar to Bryan’s but one of the other very important things that we started doing a number of years ago was to utilize the CliftonStrengths tool. Basically, it’s a tool that helps us assess the strengths of a candidate [as far as] the role and the culture of the company.

So for me what I’m looking for out of 34 strengths is I need to be able to see that this person is a high achiever in their top seven. If it’s a designer, I need to see that they’re able to build relationships in their top seven, and also that they have the ability to adapt because in our profession things are constantly changing, right? 

So there are these boxes that I look to be checked because sometimes you’re loving the person in the interview and then you look and you’re like “oh, wait a minute.” That’s kind of the tool that I can use to get an honest assessment of if this person is going to be successful or not.

Laura: We also use – it’s not a personality test because our COO Melissa refuses to listen to personality tests – but we use the BIRDS finder. It’s a test that tells you what your personality is like, and we know in specific roles which personality where. We know that if you have this specific personality and we’re hiring for a designer, then you are probably not going to be a fit with our culture. That’s not the only thing that dictates our hirings, but what about you, Morgan?

Morgan: When I said sunshine and rainbows, I’m not a great interviewer. I just love them! 

Laura: You really want to get along.

Morgan: Yeah! I will take all the stray cats, except I don’t really like cats. It’s hard. No, that definitely does not reflect on you guys at all! [Gestures to her team in the audience.] They’re not strays. You’re loved. No, I definitely ask teammates to make a lap and help me vet because it’s really super hard for me personally to not just take everybody. 

Laura: You’re finding the good in everybody. 

Morgan: Yes. We do use the Enneagram, which is an interesting method but it’s so complex. I can never remember. We have collected a group of Enneagram numbers. I think that was a surprise. We just sort of did that in the last probably three or four years. It’s been a hoot to figure out that we’re all the same or very close. So I would say that we send it through the team, and then obviously, I have the last say. But I don’t lean into my own self. 

Laura: Well, that’s a lot of self-awareness, so that’s great.

Bryan: One thing I forgot to say is that we do a 30 or 60-day trial, which is paid hourly. We have a 60-day hourly contract with them, and after that 60 days, we’ll go into a salary position. It’s basically a nice way to say “hey, this isn’t a fit,” or “yes, this is a fit and we’re going salary.” So that’s another thing we do. 

Lorna: We do the same, but it’s actually 90 days, because I find that people can kind of fake it for 60, but after that 60 days, they get comfortable. The other thing we do is check references, right? It’s really, really helpful. 

Laura: Yes, we have started that process as well after running into a couple of issues, and we realized that we should probably work that into a process. We have a very robust interview process, and maybe it’s even too much. But we go through three steps. It [starts with] a phone screen. We narrow that down, then they come in and meet with their direct manager, who is typically a director of design, or it could be Melissa if it’s like a high-level operations position. And then they meet with someone from the exact team. So it’s a long interview process – actually, not long but intense. We try to do it as fast as we can. 

But I think that checking references is key. 

Bryan: I’m going to just be devil’s advocate, you know. I think sometimes just like clients aren’t always the best fit for us, they are the best fit for another designer. I think employees can be that same way. So I feel like personally, sometimes it’s a little bit hard to call a reference. 

But I think one thing that I’ve done or that we’ve done as a company is to ask questions about how they are going to approach their last design firm that they were at. Right? There’s trigger words that they say that you’re like “um, that’s something I could see.” I think that asking questions and being a little bit investigative as an interviewer. Or maybe that’s just me, but that seems to help more so than a reference. 

Laura: Yeah, I think take references with a grain of salt. Know who you’re calling. I mean, there are other design firms that I would call that I know the designer who owns it, so I know kind of what to expect. So I will take it or leave it

Question 5: But on the flip side, if you know someone is not gelling – maybe they made it past that 90 days, but it’s not working – how do you know when that’s happening and when to part with them?

Morgan: Trust your gut. I think that’s number one for us. I think listening to your team is two. It’s hugely important because I think as owners, we can be running in two million directions and not have the beat of the day-to-day – of what’s happening in the office. Maybe you see something that’s off, and you’re like “oh, that’s not what I would do,” or “how would I react?” You go and ask your mates, “did I see that; am I loony or did I see that?” Usually it’s unanimous that it’s time. Then it’s time to cut and run. 

Lorna: I think when the person is close to you, it’s easier to make the assessment, right? You can see obviously that they’re missing the mark, but as your firm gets larger, you have to rely on your managers, right? You just have to trust what they see is real. So we were recently dealing with this. You know, one of my lead designers came to me and was like, “this person may not be working out.” So I’m like, “what are you talking about?” 

But the thing is, if she’s not checking the boxes, then she’s going to have to go. But many years ago, a manager/owner of a construction company said to me that they love the person out the door. So my thing is to always be kind. If that person came to you and wanted to work at your company, then at the point where you’re going to let them go, make sure you’re taking care of them in that moment – whatever that looks like. Maybe it’s giving a reference or making a call, giving them advice, letting them come back to you and ask for recommendations. So always, just kind of loving them out the door is important. 

Laura: Love that. That works for you [gestures toward Morgan].

Morgan: I mean, yeah that does work for me. I’m hyper focused on that. Like there was a moment where we had to scale down years ago and I got two of my girls new jobs. I made sure that they were secure. We always do severance, and I joke about cutting them loose.

Lorna: Sure you are!

Morgan: But I am like, I love you, I love you, but it doesn’t work. 

Laura: How about you, Bryan? You’re loving them out the door as well?

Bryan: No, I love everyone all the time – wink, wink. This is so new for us. We just went through this, and honestly it is the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. You know, our firm is getting ready to hit its seven-year marker. We’ve had three people who have come and gone in our firm – two of which left on their own and have been great. 

One recently last week, we had to do. You know, everything is very personal to me, and I think I probably cried more than she did, because she checked all the boxes and that was the hardest part. But in my gut, I knew that we weren’t doing her a service and someone else would reap the benefit of her. 

So it’s incredibly hard, and we did give her an entire month’s severance because we wanted her to have the ability to – you know my therapist always says “back up, be quiet, and breathe.” We wanted her to have that moment. But yeah, it is definitely extremely hard. 

Laura: Agreed. I think that’s my least favorite thing about being a business owner – having to part with somebody that could have been a good fit for a while, and then it just gets hard as things do get tough. You know, we go through tough economic times, or we have those clients that are just beating us down – or beating the team down. It’s really hard to see. 

Question 6: So during hard times, what is it about your culture that keeps everyone there or keeps morale up?

Lorna: That’s a great question!

Bryan: So I remember our first hire, which was a big deal because I had to coax my husband into our first employee and then the pandemic hit right after. One thing we said was “do not worry about your job; we have you no matter what.” And that has – not just for the pandemic but for everyday life – we have our employees’ backs all the time. For us, it’s the good and the bad, and there’s a lot of times where they go through trouble, and we’re here [for them].

We had an employee whose dad died, and we’re like “you take as long as you need off because we understand how difficult that is and we have your back.” I think that is really important that they know that there’s a safety net. 

Lorna: We had a recent situation where we were presenting to what we learned was a somewhat emotionally abusive client. 

Laura: Yep, we’ve had those.

Lorna: So, what I’m not going to do is expose my team to that again. I might be able to take it, but I’m not going to let them be exposed to him. So then I go back and say, “okay, here are your options; it’s going to be like this, or you’re going to be fired.” And we’re going to let them go. Because at the end of the day, one little seed can spoil the morale of your whole team. As the owner, you have to step up and make sure that your team is well taken care of. 

Morgan: Totally agree. I think for us it’s like we are of the same perspective where if a boundary gets pushed to the edge of our tolerance, first it’s learning our tolerance for “what can I take?” versus “what can all of us take?” If we get pushed to that limit, knowing that I give full autonomy to any of our players to wave the flag – to say, “I can’t do this anymore, I need a different solution.” Then I need to let a client go. This is not worth it for my livelihood, because at the end of the day, we have to go home and be other humans besides designers. So I think knowing the boundary is one of the hardest parts of growing your team and growing as a designer and learning not to tolerate being treated like that.

Also, if we have a massive mistake, I think “okay, let’s take that as a little bubble and learn from it.” We’re not going to try to do it again, but if we do, that’s okay. We’re just going to keep going. I feel like the blips that we have are about learning how to stop when we need to stop. And to Bryan’s point, I think knowing that that net is always there and that it’s strong and we’ve got you.

Lorna: It sort of goes back to the family dynamic. 

Morgan: Yeah, it’s like you’re not going to fall too fast. It’s giving them permission to make mistakes. It’s okay. 

Bryan: Yeah, we had a project where our senior designer made a mistake that I didn’t catch in construction documents and caused us to replace the entire stone in the kitchen for this project – I mean, about a $20k mistake for her. But I have to say to her that at the end of the day, this is our company, and I did not catch this mistake. This has nothing to do with you. She is now incredibly creative and takes risks and knows that we have her back during anything. I think that has only helped us to grow. That is valuable to us – that is amazing. 

Morgan: So it’s always lessons, no one is paralyzed in the fear of “what if I make a mistake; I’m going to get in trouble.” 

Lorna: At the end of the day in our business, there’s so many moving parts. There’s no way to do it perfect. But I do think it’s important to let our teams know that we still have to talk about the painful stuff, right? When there are pain points, you can’t just go “okay, I’m going to sugarcoat that and walk away.” No, you have to be able to brainstorm and problem-solve so that you won’t be at that point of pain again. 

So every once in a while, we have to do this 15-minute reset. Like, “you’re getting on my nerves right now, so I’m going to take a 15-minute reset.” So on Wednesday, I took a 45-minute reset. 

Morgan: Oh, no one’s counting!

Laura: We don’t have a reset! I really need to do that. I’m just like butterflies and unicorns; it’s okay, it’s fine!

Morgan: We have resets, but I don’t really think of them as resets. We do some really intentional team-building.

Laura: That’s my next question!

Question 7: So what do you do [for team-building]? Is it planned?

Morgan: Yes it’s planned but I also like to have a spontaneous “Oh! I’m gonna get ya!” We are fortunate that our birthdays kind of clump, so we’re really intentional about celebrating big for our birthdays. I feel like that’s our moment to hug it out. 

Laura: Oh gosh, there’s a lot of physical touch. No, I’m the most awkward hugger. My entire team is like “no.”

Bryan: We don’t hug. It’s the British. 

Laura: I just can’t! I was not raised that way. 

Morgan: What do you mean? You’re from Texas!

Laura: I don’t know! I think I need to have a talk with my parents. 

Morgan: No, so we try to go big. We’ll do – now close your ears [gestures to her team in the audience] – something somewhat quarterly. We’ve been running in a thousand directions, and we need to regroup. So we do have Monday morning meetings where we get together and we call it “Hug and Howdy.”

And then we go from there. We like to dive real deep on a quarterly basis and do a fun thing. Like once we had lunch from a vendor, and then I surprised everybody with a karaoke van. And we spent the afternoon in the karaoke band drinking champagne. So it’s like that. 

So I try to act spontaneous and surprised, but I’m planning it – I did plan it two days before. I love you all. It was super fun. So I think if you can think a little bit outside the box and do like a big moment – I think that goes a long way. It’s fun just to not be so on top of everything. 

Lorna: Yeah, because balance is so important for us. We socialize once a month, right? So either it’s going to be a breakfast, lunch, or happy hour. And then every once in a while, I ask if anyone wants to get a drink with me. 

So that’s one of the sweetest things about my team is that we definitely have each other’s backs. Even when I’m not around, I see it. So one of our team member’s birthdays was last week and they all went out and celebrated with her. I think that is – I was out of town – but I do think that that helps to cement and synergize our team members. 

Then once a year we also try to do a retreat out of town. So there’s usually two days or three days and two nights where I let them get massages and we begin with talking about the state of the firm. We start with that first, but then it’s all fun. We do dinner and all that. Next year if we meet our goals, we’re going to take everybody to New Orleans for a night. So we do try to balance it out.

Laura: [To Bryan] Are you going to New Orleans, or what’s up?

Bryan: Sure, just tell me when. I’m always down to travel. But for us, we do a once-a-month thing. Next week, we’re going to do pottery as a team. What we do is everyone gets to pick something once a month, so someone brought up pottery. We might do glass blowing or a cooking class. We’re always trying to do things as a team and let them pick. We are such a small team that we’re all kind of in the huddle together. There’s not really any separation. It really is a collective. We’re always figuring out what we want to do. 

So there’s that fun thing that we do once a month, but we also do an educational moment once a month in terms of having the vendors come as well. Then for every presentation, we always have wine and cheese. So after the presentation, we eat the rest of the cheese and drink the rest of the wine and talk. 

Laura: We have meeting pastries and everyone will ask “do we have any meeting pastries left?”

Bryan: Yeah, they’re really for us!

Laura: It’s interesting that you let everyone weigh in on what you’re doing because the last time we did that, we ended up axe-throwing as a team. There was very little supervision at this axe-throwing place, so I’m sure that was a huge liability for us. But it was really fun. And every Friday, we do Champagne Friday and we shut down the studio early. We all meet together – even if we’re on Zoom or in person or whatever. I’ve been doing that since Day One for fifteen years. Sometimes we’ll actually pop champagne and sometimes we don’t, but we all just sit there. 

Lorna: We don’t wait til Friday; we start on Monday.

Laura: Yeah, anybody who hears that is just like “yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and come over.” But we just share our wins of the week. We are a bigger team – there’s twenty of us – so we may not always know what other people are working on. It’s a good opportunity for everyone to come together and sit and show pictures. Like, “I did an install this week, and this is what happened,” or “a client gave a big shout out, so let’s share it with everyone!”

Bryan: One thing that’s really interesting – we’re doing a Toyota mentorship program – and one thing that’s really interesting about Toyota is that they celebrate the bad. And they celebrate the bad in such a good way – like an educational way. So we’ve kind of brought that on with us as well. Sometimes we joke about “who’s going to take all the brunt today?” and usually it’s always Mike, my husband. Because, you know, why not? So we will point to who is taking it on for the week, and that’s been kind of fun too.

Laura and Morgan: Wow, that sounds intense.

Bryan: Yes, but it’s an educational moment. And I think there are so many things that happen on a day-to-day basis, and it’s all about how can we learn from them? I think if we celebrate the bad, it helps us celebrate the great. It’s a really good way to grow as a company. 

Laura: [Gestures at her team in the audience.] Who says “sun-shining the mistakes?” Okay, Megan? So every team member has a goal every quarter that they work on and that’s one of ours: sun-shining the mistakes. Like, it’s not a big deal, and even if it is a big deal, what is it, how did we approach it, and what are we doing next time?

Alright, we’re coming up on time, but before that happens, I did have one other question.

Question 8: What is your best advice for those working to establish their culture now or shift their culture? Any pieces of advice for culture-building?

Morgan: I think, just be real. If you’re sort of an untouchable leader, then your people are just going to float. If you’re approachable and authentic and yourself, that’s the best way for people to grab onto your spirit. I don’t think if you’re sort of this brick wall and your door’s always closed–

Laura: I don’t even have an office. I have no door, but I am not hugging. I do try! I just can’t!

Lorna: That’s really key, and similarly I think that being very clear about your own value system is important because if it’s askew it’s not going to work.

I think also in 2023, any business owner should be very aware of diversity. What I know in my firm – because it is so diverse – we get to learn from each other. We get to be open-hearted and open-minded about conversations. Because of that, we get to serve our clients better. So I think that that is also something very important to keep in mind today.

Laura: That’s a whole panel on its own. Yeah, we need to set that up. Bryan, last thoughts?

Bryan: I mean, I think listening and being open to change and suggestions and growth is really important. 

Laura: Alright, I think we’re going to wrap up here because everybody has somewhere to go. Thank you all for being here; this was really great! If you’re interested in hiring, I’m doing a talk at Norwalk tomorrow about finding your next best hire. 

Key Takeaways from Cultivating a Firm Culture

Each member of this diverse group has a very different company culture. For reference, the three designers who sat on the panel have teams of between five and fifteen design professionals.

Below, we round up some of of our key takeaways from Laura’s discussion with Bryan, Lorna, and Morgan. From fostering a familial spirit to hiring for culture fit, this group delved deep at High Point! Let’s get into it.

  • Lorna underscored that “culture starts from the top down,” but that it shouldn’t fall apart when the boss isn’t there.
  • Core values — often defined in part by your personal values — help craft your company culture. As such, you must be vulnerable about your values and communicate them to your staff. Tell them what really matters to you.
  • Bryan noted that “you’re constantly feeding your culture” through your partners, projects, and people. Being selective with the employees you hire and the clients you work with is part of creating a firm culture. That should always be in the back of your mind. Is that continuity there? Will this project or employee make sense with the rest of your portfolio or the rest of your team?
  • Morgan advised that each firm owner invest in team-building and “be real [instead of functioning as] an untouchable leader.”
  • Everyone suggested that you let your team guide hiring to a certain extent. They know who will gel with the rest of the team.
  • Fun is a key part of team-building and establishing balance for your firm, but problem-solving is where your firm’s culture will shine brightest. Have you created a space where other designers can proactively solve problems, or flex their own skills in response to issues that arise? Or do you overreact whenever someone makes a mistake and micromanage?
  • Seeking out diverse perspectives creates a dynamic, resilient team that will thrive in 2023.

Final Thoughts About Cultivating Company Culture

How do you foster the right culture in your firm? Is it organic or strategic? Does planned team-building play a part? Join our private community here to chat about it.

And if you missed Laura’s hiring presentation at High Point, check out our Next Best Hire course.