Culture Corner: Motivation

Each month, we interview a Richter partner to gain insight into how our leadership finds balance and focus in a demanding job, and what non-technical skills contribute to career success.

We are still in a mid-winter slump. The snowbanks are high, the wind is strong and getting to work some days can be a downright challenge. How does one conquer seasonal affective disorder? Motivation may be hard to muster at times. So to provide insights on what works for him and his team on the daily – and long term – we asked Partner Clark Lonergan for his insights. 

At a professional services firm, aside from annual bonuses, what do you believe motivates people to do their best work day in and day out?

Clark Lonergan (CL):  Given the amount of time our team naturally spends together, it’s important we’re all aware of why we are doing the work that we do. As with many jobs, there are times when we spend more time at work and with our work colleagues than we do with our own families! So much like it’s important to have a good family dynamic, it is just as important to have a good dynamic with your “work family”. We believe that creating a culture akin to that of a family relationship, versus one of just an employee/employer, plays a big factor in motivation. When you get into that familial or family environment, it’s easier to connect with people and the work you do. When there’s transparency in understanding the overall goal, people tend to be much more motivated to determine what piece they play in helping attain that goal.

So overall I think culture and team dynamics play the biggest roles in what motivates an individual. Good team dynamics means everyone can align her or his own goals and personality (i.e. likes and dislikes) with that of the group. Being aligned really helps team members see the value in what they’re doing. When everyone jells, it’s easier to want to come into work and do your best.

When there’s transparency in understanding the overall goal, people tend to be much more motivated to determine what piece they play in helping attain that goal.

What was your motivation in coming to Richter – a firm that is relatively new in Toronto – and as a leader, how do you begin to shape a culture in a new place

(CL):  When Richter first opened its office in Toronto they were looking for people to come on board and build its presence from the ground up. We came here because there was a great opportunity to build and help create the culture. Each of our partners has taken best practices we’ve learned along the way, and we were lucky enough to bring a team of great people with us. These people chose to come with us because we’re on that family level. We know each other’s kids, we’ve experience milestones together, and we’ve grown through challenges and opportunities. They chose to be here; and here is being able to establish something that didn’t have a lot historical legacy behind it initially, but can hopefully last the next 30 or 40 years plus. Some people might be intimidated by this, but certain people thrive in this type of scenario. To build something in a new market, to have so many depending on you when you have no market legacy to depend on… you have to really want to step outside your comfort zone to do this.

As for shaping a culture: culture can be addictive; as in, normally you choose the people you hang out with based on personalities and complementary working styles. Finding those with similar styles helps everyone succeed, and a culture naturally develops from this. When you look at the Richter team, we seem really diverse: different genders, ethnicities, ages, etc. but we all have similar working styles and the same core values, which is key. We can empathize with each other and always look out for on another. We really are close friends when it comes down to it. We’re fortunate that these people shaped what I would consider to be a great culture here at Richter.

How do you raise, or encourage, morale / motivation among team members?

(CL): You don’t know what motivates someone unless you talk to them. Richter’s Toronto office is in a sweet spot in that we’re a good size to take on large mandates but small enough to really get to know each member of our team. When you hear our team talk, everything is “we” – no “I”. Our deliverables are dependent on all these folks; so taking an interest in team members’ lives is crucial. While getting work done and building business is a huge portion of our days, active listening and taking time to be involved mentoring in a person’s career is most rewarding.

At the end of the day, we want to be in a position to have our replacements, and have confidence in them – that they will take care of clients and carry this legacy forward. In turn what we say to those team members, is you need to find your replacements and motivate them. This is so those people can fill your position when you move up – it becomes systemic. We can’t do our jobs without each other.

Is a little competition among team members healthy, or is it a slippery slope to a “dog eat dog” environment?

(CL): I’ve always believed more in intrinsic motivation, looking within versus setting bars based on others’ performance.    Time should be spent encouraging the success of your team mates: it’s not “one or the other” – both can get there. You can be motivated to get ahead without feeling the need that you have to backstab others in order to do so. In the case of our team especially, it’s not about beating the other person but more about not being an outlier in terms performance. I believe we have all “A+” team members – so we encourage them to learn best practices from each other. If that helps them raise the bar for themselves, great.

The corporate world may seem like it breeds competition, but ultimately, that has to begin and end within you. You – the person you were yesterday – is your biggest competition. In our line of work it’s hard to be truly “measured” against a peer; each file has its different dynamics and everyone has her or his own strengths. Ultimately it’s about bettering yourself, versus besting others.

There’s enough room for everyone so competition isn’t what I believe to be a good strategy.

Ultimately it’s about bettering yourself, versus besting others.

What advice would you give to a team member that has lost a bit of motivation or energy?

(CL): First of all, take time to breath, and step back for a minute. We are all really busy and there can be lots of pressure in certain engagements but if someone is feeling lost or we can sense something is up, we need to talk about it and reassure them that they are not alone. I like to encourage the “door is always open” policy, and hopefully my team knows by now that they can talk to me as a friend vs. colleague when needed. If I’m not the right person to talk to, hopefully I can steer them in the right direction; but I’m always willing to provide some level of guidance. This is where the family aspect comes in and is so important. Just like with a family: sit down, talk to one another and find out what’s wrong.

In some cases, after talking through it, thinking seriously and determining your own motivations for your career, maybe it’s better to examine your options which may include leaving your current position – it’s a long life and there are other options out there that might be better suited to you. If we believe in the person then we’ll try to help find them a position elsewhere to help maximize their potential. But this is the last option in my mind. First is taking the time and active listening; working through issues with them and talking over options helps. As leaders we need to mentor people and assist them in maximizing their own potential and thus that of the team.

If you’re a new manager, don’t forget that empathy is a very useful tool. Try to put yourself in their shoes and try to relate; listen, provide real life examples. We’ve all left different firms and experienced different situations throughout our careers, so try to give some advice from your own life and career that is relatable. Finding common ground is immensely helpful in these situations.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

(CL): Number one definitely is: don’t forget about the “A” players on your team. So much time is spent around rehabilitating someone that has been underperforming, that sometimes very little time is given to those team members that never need or ask for your help. Arguably, the amount of energy you put into these team members can have dramatic results as the output is much higher with top tier talent. Managers or leaders tend to forget that these people may need attention too because they never ask for help or are always delivering without issue. Uncapping their potential isn’t something we normally do, but it should be.

If I were to give advice to younger me, it would be: stop rushing for the conclusion, take your time and listen more. The answer is usually there. Sitting back and practicing active listening can result in more efficient and effective ways to get the job done. Take that step back and pause, instead of just charging into a situation – enjoy the process, not just the outcome!

Clark Lonergan is a partner at Richter and practices with Richter’s Restructuring team in the Toronto office. One of Clark’s areas of expertise includes strategic and operational business planning for companies in experiencing significant change.

About Richter Founded in Montreal in 1926, Richter is a licensed public accounting firm that provides assurance, tax and wealth management services, as well as financial advisory services in the areas of organizational restructuring and insolvency, business valuation, corporate finance, litigation support, and forensic accounting. Our commitment to excellence, our in-depth understanding of financial issues and our practical problem-solving methods have positioned us as one of the most important independent accounting, organizational advisory and consulting firms in the country. Richter has offices in both Toronto and Montreal. Follow us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.