Seth Godin has a podcast called Akimbo, where he shares his thoughts on a variety of topics and where he often tries to get his audience to think about something in a new way.
A recent episode was on origin stories, and while he did spend some time talking about how Spiderman and Superman became superheroes, he mostly focused on interesting business examples. It goes like this – something happened, a choice was made in response, and a business was born or in some cases, set off on a new path.
Telling that origin story over-and-over again becomes a key part of establishing the culture for many companies. That certainly used to be true for most professional services firms and remains true for many, but after so many firms have merged and so many partners have moved as lateral hires to new firms, do those origin stories still get shared the same way? In firms where the names on the door are from different countries, does anyone take the time to go through the history and talk about how the firm got started?
Law firm websites often have sections that present the history of each firm, so people with an interest are able to get those stories. How much information is shared and how prominently it’s displayed might be an indicator as to how important that origin story is to the culture of the firm. I think it’s true at many law firms that understanding how a firm got started can help explain decisions that firm makes today.
Looking at different law firm websites, I saw one Canadian firm that tells a story about its two founding partners creating the first significant inter-provincial law practice, and today you see partners decades later thinking globally and boldly opening offices in new locations before any of its competitors.
Another firm tells the story of its founding partner passing away suddenly leaving his two relatively young sons in charge, and today you see young partners in leadership positions across a number of practice areas.
Our firm started out as Cognition LLP and on our website we tell the story of what drove Joe and Rubsun to create a firm with a new and different approach to serving clients. Their original motivations still drive many of the decisions that get made at the firm, and how we see the challenges ahead of us. They built the law firm that they wanted to hire when they were in-house, and that focus on what’s really adding value for our clients is still deeply entrenched here.
Your origin story doesn’t have to be about your earliest days or about the founder(s). Most of us who worked at McKinsey & Company can’t tell you much about James McKinsey, but we all learned about Marvin Bower and how his values and leadership shaped the Firm. I remember receiving a book about him on my first day, and it was not unusual to hear references to Marvin Bower’s values on a regular basis. He wasn’t the founder, and some important decisions were made before he arrived, but he’s who I think about when I consider McKinsey’s origin story.
In fact, at the end of his next podcast episode, Seth answered some questions about his episode on origin stories and he made one very important point in response to a question:
“If your origin story is not helping you, then change it.”
We can change our origin stories. We can make a choice and we can start telling a new story and continue to tell it over and over again. Shift the focus to a new key moment in the company’s history and talk about the choices made then shaped everything to come.
I talked in my last blog post about how so few people seemed to have heard of Caravel Law, even though we had a great client base and received strong feedback for our work. Perhaps part of that anonymity is because we haven’t devoted enough time and energy to telling the origin story for Caravel Law, the post-Cognition firm.
I think all firms should devote time and energy to telling their origin stories, especially if there have been mergers and lots of lateral hires. Connecting everyone to a firm’s roots and to the key decisions that have helped shape the journey of a firm might go a long way to helping hold the firm together the next time there is a bend in that road.