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Customer Channels & Operations Management, Business Analytics & Data Management, Risk Management & Regulatory Compliance

5 minute read

“The Spinnaker Way” and a People-First Culture Drive Business Success

Dec 22, 2020

Written by: Shawn Sweeney

As most entrepreneurs will tell you, developing a business plan is one of the first critical to-do’s for establishing a new entity. Once that item is checked off the list, there’s often an eagerness to move straight into execution. But hammering out the details of your organization’s “what” is only a starting point. Particularly in professional services, there’s tremendous value in solidifying the very meaningful – albeit intangible – elements around team and culture, which are big drivers in enabling effective execution.   

For Spinnaker’s part, I knew right away that we would be consultants who help the nation’s leading financial services companies get where they’re going – faster. What required targeted mindfulness was framing how we were going to do that work, who we were going to hire, and how we could create a corporate culture that would scale and adapt with our organization. We needed to identify and incorporate intangible ingredients that would fuse into what we now call “The Spinnaker Way.”

 Before we look at where we’re going, let’s step back to Spinnaker’s early, pre-launch days. At this point eight years ago, I’d invested a dozen years in the corporate environment at a major financial services corporation, on top of a Navy career. I was ready to move into a new phase of my professional life.

As I started visiting consultancies, a common thread in those conversations was how many leaders viewed their employees as yet another commodity. They focused on driving them to bill as many hours as possible to generate as much revenue as possible. Many people can’t – and don’t want to – sustain that kind of pace, but there’s always another eager young MBA graduate ready to step up when they burn out.

That idea infuriated me, and, as I decided to start my own firm, I refused to follow that model. In fact, I largely flipped it on its head.

Envisioning “The Spinnaker Way”

“The Spinnaker Way” reflects both who we are and how we deliver for our clients. Starting with our people, it’s woven into every decision and action we take. We focus on hiring proven experts. Our consultants have worked on the front lines and filled leadership roles at major banks, making them uniquely qualified to deliver the insight and experience our clients need and deserve.

 Our approach aims to inspire people to come to work each day empowered and trusted to contribute at the top of their game. When you value your people, you give them the resources and support they need to be their best, which pays off for both your clients and your organization. We consistently go a step further by regularly recognizing and appreciating our people for great work.

 I intentionally set out to build a firm where our people are not expected to give everything to this business. I want them to find and enjoy balance in their lives, to have time to devote to their families and different interests outside of our business. Personally, I have a college-age son and a toddler daughter, and I don’t want work to overshadow joining my wife in experiencing moments that matter for my family (which, as you might guess from our company name, might include a sail on the Chesapeake Bay).

 One of my interests is reading, which also helped spark ideas on how to reinvent the consultancy model. My nightstand always holds a book or three, as I look to learn from other business leaders – insiders and outliers alike – and rethink the possible. That self-reflection helped me refine what matters most to me as both a practitioner and as a leader. I built the culture I personally want to be a part of, and I made sure we had the right pieces in place right out of the gate.

Humility Moves the Needle

Guiding us in the day-to-day are our values, and I want to specifically call out our focus on humility which might seem counterintuitive in our industry. When you think about it, clients hire us for our expertise and skill. Many of our competitors take a more arrogant approach, thinking they can walk in the door and deploy cookie-cutter solutions.

 We don’t think that way, because it’s not the right thing for our clients. We invest the time and resources to learn and understand those organizations and their problems. Until we’ve rolled up our sleeves and dug deep, we can’t recommend the right strategies or solutions. We want to make sure we’re addressing the right issues, finding the best answers or opportunities, and ultimately positioning our clients for long-term success.

 That’s another thing that sets us apart. We’re there to make life easier for our clients, not create extra work for them. We always seek out the most pragmatic route to the solution, because that practical answer is what the client can maintain for the long term. We ultimately strive to work ourselves out of a job with every engagement, and we integrate training and coaching into every workplan so that clients aren’t locked into long-term dependencies.

 In return, we find that clients re-engage us to take on bigger and deeper problems, because  they recognize how we are advisers and tested extensions of their own teams – and we put their needs first. In other words, every Spinnaker consultant has worked on the business side and has likely also hired consultants. Our unique perspective allows us to be the consultant we once wanted to hire.

And when the coronavirus pandemic arrived with a decisive bang last spring, our culture ensured we never missed a beat. On the business side, it was easy to adapt to Zoom calls from our kitchen tables since our people have mastered working remotely without losing forward momentum.

I’m proud of how our culture has come to life in our everyday internal interactions during this time. For example, our team includes many parents, and the immediacy of navigating their children through modified homeschooling environments was tough for them. Internal Slack channels popped up organically as team members shared resources and tips to help others with similar obstacles and celebrate successes.

That’s just one of many touchpoints that showcase the fact that our values aren’t just a bunch of words. During a time of stress and crisis, you can clearly see people’s true colors. How many companies can definitely say their culture mirrors exactly who they are?

External Awards Reflect Our Culture

Even in a pandemic, we’ve have received much good news in recent months. Even though we’re still a young company, others are recognizing that we’re accomplishing great things. What humbles me most about these accolades is that they honor both our culture and our business.

On the people front, we’ve been among national honorees as a Great Place to Work, with 97% of our people giving us top marks. We were also named among “Top Workplaces 2020,” compiled by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In many cases, these workplace rankings are shaped by employee surveys, and I’m gratified that the Spinnaker team holds such respect for our organization. It’s important to note that that goes beyond offering competitive compensation and attractive benefits – which we do, but only as a foundation. Again, it’s the culture piece that sets us apart. We have a business goal to grow, so how do we do that? Every individual completes 40 hours of training and development to build new skills that help us take the next step. The bonus is that we’re truly redefining the consultant experience along the way.

 On the business front, we were recently named among the “2020 Best Small Firms to Work For” and ranked number one among the “2020 Fastest Growing Firms” by Consulting magazine, the top publication in our industry. Our business trajectory has earned us spots on the Inc. 5000, celebrating the nation’s fastest-growing private companies, and its related Vet 100, which lists specifically veteran-owned businesses. And we’re one of the fastest-growing companies in the RVA25, compiled by Richmond BizSense.

Together, these awards illustrate that “the “Spinnaker Way” resonates with our clients and our people. And it underscores that we’re doing things the right way.

Client Benefits

Spinnaker is always open to conversations with potential hires and businesses that value our approach. Contact us to start that dialogue, and let’s see where we can go – together