Ignore your agency culture at your peril

culture is not a fussball table

A healthy agency culture is critical – so why do you neglect it?

What came first, the culture or the foosball table? Was it the attitude of the founder that created an approach that spawned a business or once the business got going, did an agency culture evolve?

The answer is probably yes. Founders have an impact on agency culture, and that impact can continue to be felt for years or it can dilute and evolve over time. But one thing never changes. All companies have one. Whether you like it or not, whether you “believe in culture” or if you think it is an unnecessary new age distraction, it exists in your business. As leaders and managers, you can often have a more immediate impact on that culture than others, so you have a responsibility to recognise and nurture it.

As Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker so wisely said, “The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” I often quote this to my clients (hard to believe the phrase was only coined in 2015 from their book School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Asses, and Transform It). It’s a brilliant observation on several levels:

  • It insists you recognise that a culture exists in your business, even if you don’t acknowledge or care for it.
  • It links culture to behaviour. A lot of firms define their values but far fewer define what behaviours they expect within their community.
  • It identifies that it is your willingness to tolerate specific behaviour that impacts culture within your business.
  • It implies that tolerance is to be cherished and nurtured, not neglected and despised.

Whenever I quote that, it’s normally followed by a small pause and then nodding. It is so unarguably true. And it is so clearly correct. Yet it comes to many as a revelation. Within that reaction is a clue to the importance of a strong, supportive, consistent culture. We instinctively know that cultures exist, and that they impact our businesses and that we can affect them. And yet we don’t seem to prioritise agency culture. We struggle to quantify the impact of a strong culture and the impact of cultural activity on success. “If you can’t measure it, don’t do it” has become a reflex in recent times. If you can’t quantify the outcome, the implication is that the outcome is somehow less important. With agency culture, or for that matter society as a whole, we couldn’t be more wrong. And we know it!

We’ve all worked in businesses with toxic cultures. Where there is weak or divisive leadership, where the bad apples are tolerated, or worse, pandered to. Morale falls, productivity declines, good people leave. Clients smell it. Candidates can sense it. There’s no hiding a toxic culture. I once interviewed for a Robert Maxwell organisation and interviewer after interviewer told me (one way or another) how dreadful a place it was to work. So we know there is a material impact, we just struggle to tie culture to specific financial impacts.

I keep coming back to one key observation when I am looking at organisations. Most poor cultures are not created by evil megalomaniacs. They are created by nice people. Decent people who are well intended. Thoughtful, bright and considerate people who don’t see nurturing culture as a priority. It feels neither urgent, not important, when compared to retaining a client, winning a pitch or recruiting for that oh-so-pivotal role. Damaging cultures exist because of de-prioritisation, neglect and a lack of focus. All of which can be easily addressed*. Here’s what you might consider:

  • What is the culture within your business? What does culture mean to your team? If you can’t define it, you can’t affect it.
  • Does everyone, particularly in your leadership team in the early days of cultural change, really buy in to the value of culture? If they don’t, you will fail.
  • Do you have someone accountable for culture in your business? If not, find the culture advocate (they can be anywhere).
  • If you do, is their report the one you “never quite get to” in your leadership team meetings? Q.E.D.
  • Have you defined the impact you expect a thriving culture to have on your business? If not, do so.
  • Do you quantify the impact of cultural initiatives? It’s hard, but there are many indirect indicators you could measure.
  • Accept that you can’t control exactly the type of culture that will evolve. You create the environment for a great culture to develop, but you’ll be surprised the shape it takes.
  • Behaviours dictate culture. What you do trumps what you say every time.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the sticking plasters of culture such as free fruit or a foosball table – these things are consequential in a strong culture.

So what did come first – the culture or the foosball table? You tell me.

* By “easily” I mean with great effort, changes in behaviour across your entire business and by reprioritising your time. You know the kind of easy I mean here!


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