Blame It on Culture.

Blame it on CultureWe tend to think of business and sales cultures for how they enable, elevate and extend our work. A strong culture gives our people clarity on the mission, helps them make appropriate decisions and level sets the expectations around behavior and tone. Good culture provides a platform on which a lot good things can be built.

But culture can – and our fast-growing digital marketing world, often does – fulfill a darker purpose. If left undeveloped, company culture can be the low ceiling that shackles your people, stymies your growth and assures that the potential of your people and technology will remain unfulfilled.

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Over the past two decades I’ve had the chance to work with hundreds of digital media and technology companies, big and small, and have been exposed to hundreds more. Patterns repeat and familiar scenarios play out in a continuous loop. Well-meaning CEOs and compliant leadership teams fail to recognize the warning signs that their “culture” has become little more than a license to perpetuate bad behavior and poor decisions. Here are a few of the more toxic cultural models and how they could be holding your business or sales team down.

Flat and Leaky. Having started the company with an idea, three other guys and a dog, the CEO wants to stay accessible to everyone – despite the fact that the company may now have scores or hundreds of employees. The illusion of an “open culture” obscures the fact that he’s undermining all of his managers and department heads and sowing confusion and generally gumming up the works.

“Watch How Cool and Busy We Are!” You just think you’re a culture of multitaskers equipped with all the latest digital tools. You are actually a culture of clueless tools incapable of providing full attention and respect to people and ideas. Perpetually late for meetings, constantly doing email at the expense of those in the room. If you don’t start calling out and ostracizing this boorish behavior it will kill your company.

“Bro!” A closet full of hoodies and Adidas shower shoes does not make you Mark Zuckerberg. But beyond the stunted sartorial choices, “Bro-Culture” can cause some serious problems. Ask the women in your organization how welcome and empowered they feel in the office every day? And when you invariably hire the inevitable second wave of experienced sales and tech pros, watch how the bros close ranks.

“We Got This!” The one quality most likely to cripple a company culture? Self-congratulation. It’s great to have confidence in your technology, but craving the certainty that we have “the right answer” can easily bleed into “we’re right about everything.” To succeed, you need a company of seekers; an openness to well-meaning dissent. Hire the curious and weed out the absolutists.

Peter Drucker famously said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”   Ask what your culture is swallowing that might better be used to nourish your team.

The Culture Wars.

I’m posting this from the iMedia Agency Summit in Austin, where I’ll be giving this morning’s keynote on “The Tyranny of Dead Internet Ideas.” But these thoughts are based on yesterday’s keynote by Starcom USA CEO Lisa Donohue.

Among many other provocative, challenging and sometimes inspirational memes, Lisa addressed the issue of agency — and industry — culture.  She tossed in a gem from organizational guru Peter Drucker:  “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Starcom, other agencies, and our industry as a whole have a big job ahead when it comes to instilling an empowering culture in our business.   You’ll be able to access Lisa’s remarks on the iMedia Connection website, so I won’t recount them all here.  I just want to add two of my own suggestions for any business leader — agency, media owner, service provider, whatever — who’s looking to create a winning culture in the digital media and  marketing world.

Engagement: When I look into the eyes of young people in our business, I too often see a weary detachment, a sense that this is all temporary.  Very few feel a real sense of engagement or belonging to their companies.  Read some of Gallup’s work in this area (“Engaged Leadership” is a good start) and pay attention:  the difference between “I’m a part of this!” and “I’m out of here!” is actually pretty subtle.

Compensation: Think creatively and holistically about compensation; it’s very rarely all about dollars and options.  Have a conversation with your employees — individually — about the things that would make their lives easier and more enriched.  Your support of a personal charity, a non-traditional work schedule, the pursuit of a personal ‘big idea’ or achievement can be worth far more than the additional cash the marketplace is using to woo your best people away.

Without great culture, great technology or ideas rarely succeed over the long term.  The active disruption of staff attrition and the quiet crisis of employee disengagement are too strong of an undertow.  Look up from the quarter you’re in the middle of and look into the eyes of your team members.  An empowering culture is not something that just happens.