Want to Retain Talent? Time to Appoint a Chief Culture Officer

These C-Level Execs Can Rally Employees Around Higher Ideals, Values and unified Goals

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Lorraine Lockhart
Lorraine Lockhart
Advertising-industry leaders who bemoaned the lack of talent management at the 4A's 2011 Transformation Conference might learn a lesson from eagles.

We admire the eagle as it soars effortlessly. It is symbolic of personal freedom. Rarely do we appreciate that it was nurtured in community. Eagles raise their own in the same nests protected high above the Earth. These nests can grow to be as large as 9 feet in diameter and weigh two tons. Mature eagles travel miles to source food for those in the nest.

In other words, the environment's leaders create and the sacrifices they make will be instrumental to the industry's survival.

Like a nest, the organizational culture of the advertising agency does not exist by default but by design. It is a whole-system environment for its members to protect and grow their own. Cultural norms and value systems shape attitudes and behavior. The effectiveness of any organization can be attributed in part to the strength of its culture, which characterizes, connects and compels the actions of the entire environment.

Agencies should appoint chief culture officers to develop greater organizational and cultural intelligence and work to create the safe havens where agency people can thrive.

Organizational culture is a powerful influence critical to fulfilling purpose. Culture is constructed of symbols, rituals, artifacts and stories. Less discernible are the beliefs, values and informal perspectives of the organization. Often attributable to organizing founders, values are carried forward by the culture's membership. Those entities that have lost their way have blurred their system of values.

Strong cultures improve performance by appealing to employees' higher ideals and values, and rallying them around a set of meaningful, unified goals. According to Gallup, top-performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a leading indicator of financial performance. Studies show it's just good business. Engaged organizations have 3.9 times the earnings per share growth rate compared to organizations with lower engagement in their same industry.

Chief culture officers can oversee agency culture as a means to realize the business agenda, create sustained competitive advantage and increase their own agency-brand value. The chief culture officer is not a human-resource function with a new title. It is a forward-thinking, executive-level function focused on using cultural intelligence as a strategic lens to make better business decisions regarding employees and clients. CCOs should help the organization articulate an aspired agency culture to encode in the agency DNA. Performance-management systems should reward attitude and actions that reflect desired cultural values. Leaders also need to terminate the internal practices and exit external relationships that fray the integrity of their cultural nests.

Despite rapid change, the advertising-agency value proposition remains deceptively simple. Clients will pay for ideas that are of monetary value to their businesses. They will pay for this genius, and the skill sets to bring ideas to life, because they cannot produce creativity within the confines of their own organizational cultures. They live in different nests. They also value consistency and stability. The care of our industry talent in managed cultural environments will be the business strategy that propels the agency industry forward as well as regains the respect from clients.

Interestingly, eagles migrate great distances as they fly in groups called "kettles." Elevation and lift are accomplished as they ride the thermal airwaves beneath them. They work together and soar with very little extraneous wing-flapping.

The advertising industry might be wise to do the same as it charts a new flight pattern based on cultural intelligence.

Lorraine Lockhart is the author of "New Shoes: How Understanding of Organizational Culture Improves the Performance of the Advertising Agency Industry."
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