Culture Doesn’t Happen According to a Plan

We write often about the importance of a strong agency culture. Culture in an organization is comprised of many elements. It begins with having a vision for what you want to collectively be and do. You bring a set of values to the mix—integrity, honesty, passion for the work, a team focus, etc.—and add standards and practices, systems and processes based on those values. Then you stir in assumptions, beliefs and habits—these arise from your people and the behaviors modeled by the agency’s leaders. Factor in language (how you talk about the agency, each other, your clients and partners), and symbolism (your brand, the way you decorate your offices, signage, logo, et. al.).

In other words, culture is a big deal. It is also very unlikely to develop according to a plan. Culture is organic and “holistic” (as our late leader Tony Mikes liked to say). It puts out shoots with a little nurturing, but ultimately grows in unanticipated directions, and may bloom into something quite different from what we may have hoped for. The alchemy that changes everything has two main elements—how you lead, and the people you hire.

Leadership and Culture

Great leaders come in many shapes and styles. Some leaders are the Stonewall Jackson type – full of faith and conviction, resolutely brave, passionate about the cause. Others are more like U.S. Grant—stoic, reserved, a bit sardonic, but determinedly focused on a goal. A few are beloved, like Robert E. Lee—able to inspire with a quiet word, a strong vision, and an inherent intelligence. You might also see flamboyants, cranky geniuses, dictators, mentors and bureaucrats.

The leader influences the culture around him or her, and attracts people who aspire to or admire that leadership style. If the leader is not watchful, the surrounding culture can quickly become cult-like—more about who the leader is perceived to be, or about pleasing the leader, than about the work or the mission. It’s a form of idolatry, and can be infused with as much fear and anxiety as admiration.

Your leadership style lays the foundation for the agency’s culture. Do periodic gut checks to assess whether your style is one you want to build on—or needs adjustment to ensure the culture attracts the best and brightest, and will give those people room to grow and thrive. Your style is the one contributing factor to agency culture that you can control. Choose your style carefully, because it will determine the path your culture will take.

This brings us to the second alchemical element—your people.

Who to Hire and How They Grow

Most agencies hire people as they need them—needs that arise from acquiring a big new client, wanting to jump on an emerging service opportunity, or having to fill a suddenly vacated position. Sometimes, that means hiring from the available pool of applicants rather than recruiting for specific kinds of people or personalities. In other words, how we hire is seldom based on any kind of planning. Every new person added to the agency culture mix stirs in new flavors and unexpected textures; but not everyone fits perfectly into the existing culture. This leads to organizational change as people adjust to the new ingredient, or the new ingredient is blended in.

The people you hire may in fact be more influential than you, the leader, can ever hope to be. As the agency grows, and your team grows larger, you may take more of a “helicopter pilot” leadership role in the proceedings, while your people increasingly take ownership of the culture. You oversee the daily work—stepping in to make small course corrections, praise or correct behaviors, lend counsel and generally try to guide the culture to stay profitable, vital and adaptable.

And that is the key to a successful agency culture—adaptability. The leader sets the tone and points the team toward their collective vision; the team pitches in and supports the values and mission; and every new person who comes on board brings new input to the mix. The culture becomes almost self-driving, but must be able to change and adapt to maintain vibrancy.

While you can’t plan your culture, you can include culture checkups in your annual business planning. This assures that your culture will stay strong, sustaining your agency and its people as you grow.


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