Culture is my competitive advantage

Mark Coad, CEO of PHD, contemplates what he'd do if he took over a new agency. And in doing so, he shares his tips for a competitive advantage, because "the industry needs it". The churn rate is too high. As is the perennial vacancy rate. And culture, he says, is the answer.

Last week, a close colleague asked me a question: How do you create a great culture, one that makes people feel supported and frees them up to think clearly and push for innovation and high performance? And then, this follow up: What three things would you do immediately if you took over a new agency?

Pretty good question, I thought. It takes more than three things, I said. But here goes…

1. Vision and values

I’d spend a lot of time defining our vision, purpose, values, and the things we are going to work on to achieve all of this. In other words – our what, why and how.

Culture is defined by a shared sense of direction and values. It galvanises teams, and should be developed by the executive team with a great deal of thought on how we share, articulate, communicate, and bring this to life with the whole company.

This is a cornerstone. I’ve told my team openly, on several occasions: If you ever find yourself working for a company that has not got these in place or can’t articulate them, leave.

2. Buy-in

Start at the top. Your leaders need to understand their role in driving a high-performance culture. They also need to know that leadership is not defined by their pay grade, where they sit on the organisational chart, or whether they have an office. Leaders are only leaders if they are being followed.

In order to drive self-awareness, we asked our leaders: Are you a leader worth following? And now, ‘leadership worth following’ is an internal mantra.

Then, I’d move to the rest of the company (and that could be six months, or even 18 months, after starting at the top – depending on progress).

The narrative? If we are to be high performing, it won’t be because management said so. We all have a role to play.

That sets up self-leadership – so that everyone can ‘take a step forward’ and be responsibility for their own development. It informs the training program and performance reviews. And it helps position the company as a good place to work, as a place that nurtures and develops staff, and as a place that attracts the best talent.

3. Set the standard

“Your culture is defined by the worst behaviour you are prepared to tolerate.”

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

We’ve heard both of these quotes before, but they’re pointless if you don’t deal with the difficult issues. To me, this is the most important point.

And it applies to everything. From a dirty office kitchen, to the crooked logo in reception, to a prickly management issue.

Let me explain (and I do, to my leaders, all the time… maybe even too often).

When we were kids in a media agency (or any other environment), we watched our leaders with eagle eyes. We knew everything (and if we didn’t, we’d make it our business to find out). We watched them deal with difficult situations and people (or not deal with those things), and we made decisions on how good they were based on what we saw and how (or if) they dealt with it.

If you’re a leader, that is happening to you right now. You are defining your leadership and your culture based on how (or if) you are dealing with the difficult issues. Anything you walk past will be deemed to be the standard you set. Guaranteed.

You can make up all the excuses you want… but your team won’t buy it.

And the footnotes…

This isn’t one size fits all. The stuff above may not be the answer at all, depending on your circumstances, the rate of buy-in, or simply your ability to get it right.

Communicate. One of the most consistent issues raised in staff surveys (and I hope you have one!) is that management are not effective or timely enough in communicating to staff. How many times have you been sent an email, telling you a colleague is leaving this Friday? They resigned a month ago. Madness.

The vast majority of you know this stuff. But for every one of you who does, there’s someone out there who doesn’t.

So why share this? Why give everyone else my tips for a competitive advantage? Because the industry needs it.

Media agencies have a perennial vacancy rate of 6%. That’s alarming. Six out of every 100 desks in media agencies don’t get filled because we don’t attract and retain enough talent.

PHD certainly isn’t 6%. It’s closer to 0%. That means someone else out there must be 12%.

And I bet they do very little of this stuff.

Mark Coad is the CEO of PHD


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