Changing Your Culture Is Like Pushing Water Uphill…

Changing Your Culture

Culture is a huge buzzword among businesses aspiring to grow. Aficionados in the ad agency and marketing professions were early adopters of the use of culture in building tight-knit, collaborative teams. But many businesses, agencies included, think culture is something they can dictate. 

The simple truth is, culture grows out of things already in place—your people, internal policies and practices, the kinds of clients you work with, the boldness of your creative vision, your existing leadership. Those things cannot be shoveled into a new mold and remade overnight into your “vision” of what your culture should be.

Culture IS. That is why changing it is so difficult.

Open Your Eyes to Your True Culture

We’ve had conversations about culture with many ad agency principals over our 30+ years as consultants to the smaller ad agency industry. One thing most principals are unprepared for is learning that their employees often experience the agency’s culture very differently from their leaders… or that the leaders’ enabling of certain behaviors has created a culture that is anything but inclusive, or creatively rewarding for large numbers of employees. [Read “Ad Agencies and Sexual Harassment in the #MeToo Era” in the Spring 2018 Second Wind Magazine.] Employee viewpoints are critical when trying to reshape culture to help the agency stay vibrant, attract better clients, and improve its brand positioning.

One of the biggest employer-employee disconnects is that the agency is a sunny, familial place where there are no conflicts or negativity. In some cases, that belief not only is inaccurate, but flies in direct conflict with reality. And when surveyed, the employees refute that belief… only to have the shocked and even angry principals assert that the results of the survey are just wrong! 

“My employees couldn’t possibly think that about my agency!” exclaimed one principal. “You must have mixed up the results with those of some other agency.”

Step #1 in cultural change: Admit that the culture in your agency exists, and listen to the people who live within it daily to get the true picture. Leaders may be unpleasantly surprised by this feedback, but until you see the true state of your agency culture, change for the better will be impossible.

Making Changes to Your Culture

Once you acknowledge where your culture actually stands, you can work on ways to change it, and bring it closer to the culture you believe will help the agency grow and prosper moving forward.

Change is terrifying, because people tend to cling to the certainties of the status quo. Change means uncertainty and risk, so you need to recognize the difference between comfort zones and “safe” zones. A “calculated risk” is not the same thing as “dangerous.” Understand where your employees’ change resistance lies—their reasons for resisting—and you’ll be able to develop persuasive arguments for letting go of that resistance.

Identify key behaviors that are most likely to create positive change quickly. Prioritize one or two and implement just those few changes. Trying to completely flip your culture at one go is pretty much guaranteed to alienate valuable employees and create organizational chaos. Baby steps work best. Once the first few changes “take,” you will likely enjoy greater support for the next few changes. 

Here are some other steps for moving employees toward cultural change.

Understand what your changes will demand of employees “in the trenches.”It’s easy to ask for changes that don’t directly affect your job performance. Your priorities may call for specific changes that painfully disrupt current internal operations. Understand potential impacts, and be prepared to step in and make adjustments to eliminate friction points, and help employees make the transition.

Reassure employees, and make sure managers support and lead change.Emotions drive resistance, chief among them fear… that attempts to innovate will be punished if they fail, that employee actions will not be recognized nor rewarded, that C-suite and manager support will not happen. All leaders must model support for changes and reward adoption. 

Look for employees who lead the way.Informal agency leaders will be the strongest advocates for change, and also the best source for insights into the existing culture. They also are the most trusted voices for recruiting other employees to adopt changes.

Owners/principals cannot dictate change—they need to live it.Do not create inspirational posters and announce changes with a pep rally, and then expect employees to execute. That approach often has the opposite effect to what is intended. Most employees will default to “how we’ve always done it.” Leader commitment to “walking the walk” can and will inspire change. It can’t happen remotely. Leaders must step out among employees and be visible, present, actively listening, and supporting the change they want to see. If they fail to model and actively promote desired behaviors and practices, employees will lean away from, even fight change.

Get feedback.Ask employees how the change rollouts are impacting their tasks and responsibilities. Check to make sure managers are not inciting resentment and rebellion with bullying tactics. Encourage and support people in areas where change is causing disruption. If feedback is substantially negative, call a working group together to discuss, re-evaluate and adjust.

Keep the team involved in decision-making.The more you involve your people, the more likely it will be that they will embrace change and make it a part of your new culture.

Over time, change momentum will take over and carry you forward. Your agency culture will acquire new, more invigorating energy. And your team, processes and work will all benefit. Cultural change is not easy... but it is worth it. 

See also: Culture Club: One Dozen Steps to Great Agency Culture

How Real Are Your Agency Values?

What Agency Culture Are You?


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