CK Insights

March 15, 2012

Clients and Culture: Lessons From the Goldman Op-Ed

cooperkatz

As I was conducting my daily ritual of reading The New York Times yesterday morning, I stumbled across an Op-Ed piece that got me thinking – and it’s clear that I wasn’t the only one.

The letter, or rather, the treatise, has already garnered significant attention. “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” was written by a seasoned Goldman executive who had risen through the ranks of the firm for over a decade. The reasons for (and particularly the method of) his departure may seem over-dramatic or inconsequential to some. Yet they are – or rather, should be – an important reminder that it’s not just all about the work that we do (whether as investment bankers, PR professionals, or as hairdressers or massage therapists) but also the context in which we do it – and attitudes of those around us.

 

Source: Victor Kerlow / New York Times

As I was conducting my daily ritual of reading The New York Times yesterday morning, I stumbled across an Op-Ed piece that got me thinking – and it’s clear that I wasn’t the only one.

The letter, or rather, the treatise, has already garnered significant attention. “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” was written by a seasoned Goldman executive who had risen through the ranks of the firm for over a decade. The reasons for (and particularly the method of) his departure may seem over-dramatic or inconsequential to some. Yet they are – or rather, should be – an important reminder that it’s not just all about the work that we do (whether as investment bankers, PR professionals, or as hairdressers or massage therapists) but also the context in which we do it – and attitudes of those around us.

The first issue this raises for me relates to the professional services / client experience. The author of the piece sadly states that the best interests of his clients are no longer as important at Goldman as making money. Some might say this was always the case at any Wall Street firm. He claims otherwise. But from his perspective, it now unfortunately all comes down making a buck – whether or not that buck is at the expense of those paying Goldman for its services.

I don’t have any insights into the financial realm. But I can tell you in public relations agencies these days, I’d be hard-pressed to find a professional who isn’t client-focused – who doesn’t over-service his or her clients, at least from time to time. Over-servicing is an issue with which the industry continues to grapple, but it’s typically rooted in a total focus on success for the client. It’s what we sometimes have to do to not just get the job done, but to get it done well. In a range of industries including investment banking and public relations, the client must be front and center. And while that understanding needs to be imparted by senior leadership (in what they do as well as what they say), it also needs to be infused throughout the company as a whole, down to the most junior person. Once you take your eye off of the ball – in terms of being a true strategic partner to the client – you’ve relinquished valuable ground that may never be regained.

The other issue the Op-Ed raises for me was the all-important, yet still somewhat ‘squishy’ issue of culture. The author called this the ‘secret sauce’ that once held everything together at Goldman – the guiding principles and spirit that was the foundation of what the firm had built and what originally drew him to submit his resume. In his case, put simply, once the culture goes, the company is in jeopardy – at least the company at its strongest potential. Sure, the bottom-line and the length of the client list may not immediately suffer. But the culture that each team member plays a part in creating can all too easily erode those outcomes overtime.

I come from this, of course, from a fortunate position: I am lucky enough to be employed at a place where we work hard for our clients and do our best to provide the counsel and expertise that will help them be successful. And I am also lucky enough, as I tell friends and family, to work with a group of people who are among the smartest, most hard-working and yet enjoyable colleagues I’ve ever met – and for whom the success for our clients is always the first and most important focus. It’s unfortunate that after his long tenure the author of the Op-Ed has to leave Goldman Sachs in order to be able to say the same.


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