Four Ways To Build A Winning Culture

In the age of #MeToo, widespread burnout, attrition, disengagement and other culture eruptions, Human Resources (HR) often appears to be missing in action, relegated in many companies to little more than the department of complaints, forms and policies. And yet it is exactly this moment – with its complexities, dilemmas, crises – that both demands and offers the opportunity for an entirely new approach to people management.

Now is the time, more than ever, for Human Resources to step out of the shadows and lead.

In 2016, I joined KBS (Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners®), a global ad agency based in New York City, as Global Chief Talent Officer. In conversations we had before I even started working at the agency, KBS Global CEO Guy Hayward and I agreed to rebrand the Human Resources Department as Talent and move the team out of the only existing self-contained office still left at the agency. When Guy positioned my seat right next to his in our open floor plan, I thanked him for sending such a positive message to the company about where we were headed.

“Where else would you sit?” Guy asked. “You’re my business partner.”

With that simple but powerful gesture, we began our incredible journey to create the modern-day Talent Department, one that puts people at the core of our business. Not only has the collective culture in and out of the industry changed drastically in two short years, but that culture shift has created an astounding level of return on investment.

In those two years, we expanded our portfolio of clients to include PODS, Seagram’s 7, Hyatt, and Dean Foods, among others. During that time, we also won more industry awards globally than in any previous year. We attracted and hired some of the most effective leaders in the industry. And, as of last month, we became one of only four companies that have been 3% Certified by the 3% Movement for our dedication and effectiveness in creating a high level of workplace equality through education, partnerships, inclusion and leadership initiatives. We have our employees to thank. As a result of our material and visible investment in our culture, employee resource groups have been consistently forming. These are groups of people that voluntarily organize to support a diverse and inclusive workplace aligned with our values and company goals. Some of these groups include LGBTQ+, Parents, Social Purpose, an Action Network dedicated to supporting underrepresented individuals in our agency and community, as well as a Women’s Network and a group solely focused on our New Employee Experience.

From the inception of our company 30 years ago, the HR team was a “back office” function that sat in a private office and was treated like the secret keepers of the agency. While talented HR professionals came and went, they did not have a valued voice in the company culture.

As a result, a lack of transparency, collaboration, authenticity and trust prevailed. Sadly, this is not a unique situation for most companies. By moving Talent to the core of our business strategy and empowering leaders to empathize, I knew what was possible. Walking into this environment in my new role was challenging. However, by partnering with senior leadership and making HR a vital part of the agency’s strategy, I knew I’d be able to perpetuate a stronger, healthier business and culture.

I’ve been able to succeed. HR is now a key pillar of KBS’s global business plan. My fellow executives don’t just approach HR when there is an issue to be “managed.” Our executives are vital to defining and realizing our Talent Mission – to create and foster the most inclusive culture so our teams can do the most transformational work of their careers. We won’t stop until we are the gold standard.

Leaders, listen up. If you haven’t taken the time to get to know your Talent Executive (I’m assuming you have one), you are already way behind! Building this relationship is not just a nice thing to do, it’s imperative to the success of your future business. Here are ways to start understanding what’s fueling (or killing) your profitability, culture and innovation.

1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Provide your Talent Team and employees with an authentic, safe space to share their points of view and ideas without backlash or judgment. As an executive, you have a skewed perspective on what it’s actually like to work at your company. The good news is that the rising generations in your workplace have no issue telling you what’s really up. So please, just ask. Then, do not talk. Listen. I repeat, don’t talk – listen. Like really listen with no interruptions. You’ll be surprised at what you hear.

2. Identify Expert Partners to help

That kick-ass Talent Executive you have has a roster of partners he or she is dying to work with to help improve your company’s culture. KBS has engaged several partners and our list continues to grow. Some places you may want to start are pay equity, diverse and inclusive recruitment platforms, employee sentiment tools and inclusion surveys.

3. Invest time and money in your People

It’s a tough time in the world and everyone is learning how to navigate the “‘new norm.”’ It’s your role to give your employees the tools to succeed. Invest in training that is adjacent to diversity and inclusion like how to find purpose, how to build emotional intelligence and how to actively listen. These are tools that stretch far beyond workdays and lead to higher levels of employee happiness and effectiveness. Increase your recruitment budget to expand your company’s reach. Fund travel to less tapped markets, promote meaningful connections with high schools and colleges, ensure your job postings are unbiased by using Textio. Post your open roles on the ever-expanding list of platforms available, including those that specifically feature candidates from underrepresented groups.

4. Publicly take a stand

Your employees are waiting on you – but they won’t wait forever. They want to know where you stand on relevant topics that affect their lives every day. They need to know you appreciate them as the company’s greatest asset for achieving business success. Be human, honest, transparent and vulnerable. That’s right – you’ll be a better leader once you let your guard down and humanize yourself.

We cannot rest until every single employee comes to work Monday through Friday as the same person they are with friends and family on Saturday and Sunday. Until then, celebrating the small wins is essential. However, knowing we are still light years away from true psychological safety and belonging should be the engine that keeps driving us toward genuine equity.

Inclusive cultures where employees of all ages, colors, identities and abilities can thrive and take risks are breeding grounds for creativity, innovation, higher profits, lower turnover and happier employees – including you.

Michele Prota

Chief Talent Officer at KBS Agency

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