The Foundation of Culture


Sep 08, 2017 - by Indra Gardiner Bowers
The Foundation of Culture

After more than 20 years of leading and living agency life, there are a few truths I believe in more than ever when it comes to culture. There is a lot written about company culture, and in the agency business the naval-gazing, self-obsession about it borders on the obnoxious.

Yes, there are all kinds of perks that people who work in agencies have come to expect and smart shops deliver on those. For us, they include a keg filled with local craft beer, a keg filled with “healthy” cold brew (yes, that is a thing and it’s delicious), weekly yoga, monthly volunteer opportunities, potlucks, BBQs and unexpected days off.

But all of that is window dressing for the thing that makes or breaks culture. In the end, none of that will matter if there isn’t a strong level of trust within the team and that starts at the top. The team first needs to know that senior management trusts each other. Then they need to see that the senior team trusts them. That creates the safe, fertile ground from which the team can come to trust its leaders and each other.

And how is trust gained? I think it starts with vulnerability and being up front with the team about what’s going on - the good, the bad and the ugly. Putting a shiny spin on things doesn’t work. People always know, especially in a small company. Being honest can be scary, it can leave you feeling vulnerable, but I believe there is true strength in that. Vulnerability takes courage and courage is something we try to embrace in everything we do here at i.d.e.a.

Demonstrating not just with words, but deeds, that you have people’s backs is also critical. Talk is cheap and there tends to be a lot of it in agencies. I’ve learned to watch people’s actions, as it tells me more about who they are and what they value than anything they choose to disclose to me. When you work to support people, trust them with responsibility and celebrate them, you give a gift more valuable than any cool perk.

I once had a boss who would immediately throw employees under the bus if a client started complaining. Talk about shifting sand under your feet. That person was technically outstanding at his job, but he was a terrible leader and the culture never felt gelled in that office. Blame is a culture killer and must be rooted out for what it is – fear of accountability. I strongly believe that accountability sets you free. Owning your role in successes and failures is big time “adulting” and it feels great.

We spend more time each day with the people we work with than with our families. Enjoying each other is wonderful. Helping each other do great work is even better. But best of all is when we trust each other. Then we have a team that can’t be beat.


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