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Culture Counts:  Three Transformation Lessons

In a candidate-driven market, culture matters more than ever. 

Workplace culture is defined in many different ways by numerous organizations and experts, but they all boil down to similar ideas. I like the simplicity of management guru Marvin Bower’s definition. He defines culture as “the way we do things around here.” 

While a company’s vision, mission and values are a part of its culture, they alone aren’t the culture. The culture is so much more – it’s the people, systems, processes, beliefs and behaviors. I like to think about culture as the “personality” of the organization – the unique and differentiated sum total of the people and parts that make the work happen.

Over the past few years at AIA, we’ve focused intensely on our culture.  In fact, when I joined as CEO in 2020 – at the height of the pandemic – I heard from our employees that AIA had lost its “family feel” and sense of community. We were low on accountability and even lower on morale – two essential elements of a strong, healthy culture.

We’ve worked hard to turn things around with great success. Together, we defined our purpose to Empower Success for our Owners, Suppliers, and Team, and we’ve realigned our internal and external calendar to ensure clear, consistent and trusted channels of communication – for our Owners, Suppliers and Team. We’ve been recognized on both the Advertising Specialty Institute’s “Best Places to Work” and PPAI’s “Greatest Companies to Work For” lists. And we’re collectively updating our organizational values to ensure they represent both actual and aspirational attributes of our unique culture. 

Through this two and half year process I’ve learned three key lessons:

  1. Never attempt to improve a culture without first understanding it. When I first became CEO, I focused on learning the parts of the business I was less familiar with and sought to understand what was happening and why. I avoided snap judgements and quick fixes, knowing that I simply didn’t know enough. 

  2. Listen more than you talk. “Telling” doesn’t work with culture change. Culture does not respond to a command-and-control approach. Make time to listen to people in every part of the organization – and truly listen, without jumping to solutions. Solutions will come through collaboration. 

  3. Set clear expectations and hold people accountable. When you do have a solid grasp of the strengths and opportunities in your culture, and you’ve listened to a broad, diverse set of voices, you’re ready to make change. But not in isolation. Involve the team. Ensure expectations are clear and understood. And don’t let any rotten apples spoil it for the rest – address performance that doesn’t meet cultural expectations swiftly. 

As Simon Sinek says, workplace cultures are not invented. A culture constantly evolves, which is why it must be nurtured. How are you nurturing your workplace culture? I’d love to hear your lessons learned.