It was mostly an informal happy hour at a restaurant in Chicago in 2002. But the gathering of colleagues from Arthur Andersen – in that leading accounting firm’s waning days – led to the formation of West Monroe Partners, a consulting firm that employs more than 1,000 people and is consistently ranked as a top workplace. Kevin McCarty, West Monroe’s CEO, and Susan Stelter, Chief People Officer, were at that 2002 gathering, and recently reflected on the company’s rise over the past 17 years.
Q: What do you both remember about that lunch in 2002?
Kevin McCarty: We met upstairs at Miller’s Pub – if I were there today, I could find the table where we sat, right by the top of the stairs. Dean Fischer, who would go on to be West Monroe’s co-founder, was there, having previously left Arthur Andersen. We talked about what was going on at Andersen, but the conversation turned to: If we wanted to stay together, what would that look like? We talked about what we liked at Arthur Andersen and what we would change if we did our own thing.
It was kind–of dreamy, actually. We weren’t intending to design a firm at the time, but we wrote some things on a napkin that became our core values. We added a new value six or seven years ago – social responsibility – but the original 12 values remain today.
Susan Stelter: We were facing a lot of uncertainty, but there also was this energy — what do we want to be, what do we want to look like? No one had a pad of paper, so that’s why someone grabbed a napkin. Not long after we jotted those values down, we created a four-person firm — with no clients and no money – and started building what is now West Monroe Partners. I guess it shows that sometimes, out of the greatest amount of adversity comes opportunity.
Q:How has that original vision changed or evolved over the years?
SS: At one of our annual leadership retreats, we talked about what we wanted to do differently at the firm. Being involved in the community was always important to us, and one of our directors said social responsibility should be included in our values. We added it, and now we refer to it as “1+1+1,” meaning 1% of our time, 1% of our talent and 1% of our treasure are dedicated to social responsibility efforts.
KM: We laughed about adding a 13th value to an already crowded list. But we thought it was the right thing to do. We measure all 13 of the values with KPIs and feedback from our people to make sure we’re living them every day. It’s not enough to just write them on a wall.
Q:West Monroe is often lauded for its culture, which isn’t easy to maintain during periods of growth. How difficult was it to keep culture top of mind through the years?
KM: We review our strategy for every upcoming year and we start with our vision and values by asking, “What do we want to be as an organization?” We’ve changed our mission statement once or twice; we’ve changed our vision statement once or twice. They’ve evolved – but our values, we look at them every year and have determined that (other than the adding social responsibility) they are still paramount to guiding our organization.
SS: I think the reason for that is values really create a culture’s fabric. We believe that if you’re going to create a different place to work, it must be rooted in your values. But it does get harder as you grow – culture’s really easy when you have four or five people sitting around a table together. As you add people, you try to select people who have those same values, which is something we recognized early as being important.
Q: Now that we know about the importance of your culture, can you talk about what it means from a broad perspective and on a day-to-day basis for employees?
KM: Values are an essential ingredient in culture, and culture is a big, amorphous concept – it includes things like norms and the day-to-day way people show up and interact with each other. Values are what guide behavior and they become the cornerstones of your culture.
Culture is an everyday thing. For example, we run our business as a meritocracy, which is one of the original 12 values. We don’t hold people to a pre–defined career model; instead, we let them progress at their own pace. This results in people getting promoted early or taking on stretch assignments. Meritocracy is alive and well within West Monroe, because people come to work for us having heard they can accelerate through their career faster.
SS: The thing you’ll hear our team members talk most about is the idea that we’re a people–first organization, which is our No. 1 value. That might sound unusual for a client-service organization – where clients are usually placed first. But we believe that if you develop, train and invest in people, they make great decisions for clients, and they’re excited to do great work. If you ask anyone who works here, they feel they have a voice about how to grow the firm and they feel invested in the organization, regardless of where they are in their careers. That’s really core to what we are, and it creates a special dynamic – that our clients also see in our client work.
Q:When it comes to your culture, how important is your employee stock ownership plan?
SS: If you look back at our initial planning session, we wanted this to be an all–for–one organization with every single person pulling the sleigh in the same direction. We weren’t funded by anyone else; we were doing this from the ground up as far as earning our clients and asking people to come work for us. So, being an employee–owned company was very important. Each employee is asked to make decisions as employee owners. We’re expecting them to spend money (regardless of their role) as an owner. It’s not about us putting controls on them – it’s about them making decisions that are right for the company.
KM: Employee ownership is an incredibly important element of our culture and one that is uncommon among consulting firms. There’s a financial element to it and an equity element, but it’s more about how people show up every day highly engaged to think and act like owners. That means they’re not just doing a lot of work to make other people prosperous. They have a vested outcome in working hard.
Q:What were some of the biggest moments along the way?
KM: The biggest one I remember was when Dean and I were sitting in our old office in Chicago and someone walked by who was new and I didn’t know who the person was — and neither did Dean. That was the first time we smiled and said the company was bigger than the founder group. This person had been hired by an empowered group of employees and we didn’t have anything to do with it. I realized this thing we had conceived at Miller’s Pub was actually happening and taking off on its own.
SS: The first time we got the totality of our firm together was during our five–year anniversary. We brought everyone from across the country together to celebrate the fact that we had made it to five years (and we have had similar events at the subsequent two five-year marks). And if you look at the past 17 years, one big moment was that we weathered the storm of the Great Recession. We were able to do so only because we all got in a room together and decided to take lower salaries. We didn’t have to make anybody do it. You don’t get a lot of opportunities in your life to be in a room with people who want to give – to allow what they’ve created to get to the other side.
Q:What’s ahead for West Monroe?
KM: We’re a success story in the making – but we’re definitely not done. We have visibility and a strategy that we think we can double the firm again in both employees and revenue. We think we can continue our growth as long as we maintain the values, the culture, and the strong leadership.
We’d like to offer the West Monroe experience to more and more people. Our reputation and brand are getting noticed and people are seeking West Monroe to work for – and work with. We wanted to be the firm that was sought out and respected, whether as a client, an employee or a partner, like the work we do with BPI group in coaching and mentoring our people. But there’s a lot of runway left for West Monroe. We’re not declaring victory and we’ve got a lot more to do.