Defining your team's culture

What even is culture? Can you pinpoint it? And what steps can you take to define and improve the culture in your own firm? 

A group of colleagues huddled and happy


  • Culture isn't just another word for your team's happiness or whether you finish early on Fridays—it runs so much deeper than that.

  • You firm's culture is an expression of your firm's why, your values, beliefs, objectives and priorities that guide every aspect of your firm’s activities, team behavior, and executive decision-making.

  • You can't leave your firm's culture up to chance—it needs to be specifically defined, practiced, and refined.

How often do you look at another accounting firm and know that the success they are having is largely the result of their strong culture? They just have something about them that ensures their teams are focused and working toward the same goals, clients know what service they will get, and the best talent wants to work for them. 

What what is culture, really?

Culture is not just a word for your team’s happiness, or whether you have a ‘cool’ office with a ping pong table and a beer-stocked fridge.

It runs much deeper than that. It considers why your firm exists—entailing your firm’s values, beliefs, objectives and priorities that guide every aspect of your firm’s activities, team behavior, and executive decision-making.

Your firm’s culture is important—really important. 

Which is why it needs to be defined and constantly revisited, rather than left as something that shapes itself. This guide outlines the steps to define your firm’s culture. 

Step 1. Assess how strong your culture already is

Begin by asking yourself some questions to determine what your culture is like now and whether your team are already working toward the same objectives. 

How well can each team member articulate why your practice exists? Can they explain where the practice is heading and how it's getting there?

Go to the effort of asking some of your employees, from different teams in your practice, some more questions:

  • What makes working in this firm different to working somewhere else? 

  • What kind of characteristics are you looking for in new people who join your team? 

  • What things do we do really well as a firm? 

  • What things do you we need to improve on as a firm?

The most successful practices have teams who understand and are committed to the overall mission and shared vision for the future.

You should receive the same answers to these questions, no matter who you asked. If you didn't, there's some careful work required in defining your firm's culture.

Step 2. Think about your purpose

What do you really love about your practice, the work you personally do each day, and the work that your team delivers? Think carefully, not about what you do, but why you do it.

You should also take this opportunity to think about the future. Think about some of these key questions:

  1. Where do you want your practice to be in 5 years, 10 years, and beyond that?

  2. Do you want to become more specialized and focus on a specific niche?

  3. What services do you want to offer?

  4. Do you want to reach a certain size in staff numbers or revenue?

  5. Do you have an exit strategy for when you want to stop working?

Go to the effort of physically writing down your answers to these questions. Doing this will force you to think deeply, which is critical because the reason why your firm exists and why you do the work you do is the foundation of your culture .

Step 3. List the key characteristics of great leaders and employees

Culture is shaped by actions taken from staff and the way they interact with one another. In most firms, these actions are learned from the top.

Think about the key characteristics of yourself and other senior staff in your firm. How do you act, communicate, and collaborate? All of these behaviors have all played a role in shaping your culture to date, whether you realize it or not.

A key step in defining culture is to look in a mirror and consider whether you and other team leaders are setting the kind of behavioral example that you want others to follow.

At the same time, list the best characteristics of your exemplar employees. What makes these staff members so great? And what qualities would you want in any future additions to your team? 

Step 4. Document how you (will) do things

Begin defining your culture by creating a document called 'The way we do things at our accounting practice'.

Include your more formal business statements such as your vision statement, values, objectives, and mission, along with details of anything you believe makes your firm unique. Some ideas for what to cover here include:

  • How you interact with clients

  • Your decision making process

  • How staff members from different teams or from different levels of your practice interact and collaborate

  • The type or people you want to work for you

  • Your policy on remote work and any other flexible working arrangements

  • Training and development opportunities for staff

  • Your current office environment (and any plans for the future)

  • Social events or traditions (e.g. how are birthdays celebrated?)

  • Charitable work your practice undertakes

Provide as much detail as you can, considering what you learned in steps one and two.

Firms with the strongest cultures are clear about what they stand for, what they say yes and no to, and can easily reach consensus among themselves.

Share this document with your entire team and keep it in a place that is accessible by everyone. This should be a living document, constantly revisited and updated.

Step 5. Refer back and refine

Frequently refer back to your documented culture, refine it, and make sure that your team is doing the same. You document will not be finished after one session, if ever, so regularly check back to ensure it is still relevant and includes everything that makes your practice, and the people within it, unique.

As your team, structure and processes evolve, so too will your culture. But it is critical that any changes are purposeful. If you don’t take the time to define your firm’s culture, it will form organically on its own. This is rarely a good thing.

You need to take the time to cement the way you want things done within your teams and practice.

Step 6. Reinforce your culture

Your culture, led by this document and your example, should be represented in all aspects of your operations. It will focus your team and marketing, help you to say yes to the right clients and no to the wrong ones, guide your hiring process and help to assess which candidates will be a good fit and who will not.

Teach this during the onboarding process for new hires, live it and lead by example, incorporate your values in all aspects of your operations, and reinforce it in any team communications and meetings. Going forward, if you ask anyone the same questions posed in step one, everyone should be on the same page.

The power is yours

Whatever your firm’s culture is like now, you have the power to strengthen it one day at a time. But any real, positive change has to come from the top. If you take the time to examine and understand where your firm is now, where you want to get to, and reinforce this in everything you do, your firm will have a culture that will be the envy of others.