originally published on 9.7.2014
Fallon is 33 years old. Prior to starting our business, we took a full year to plan it. We hired the best lawyers, the best accountants and the best advisors that money and the hopes of a promising future could buy. We wanted to do what hadn’t been done before – namely, start a creatively driven, national agency from a mid-sized Midwestern city.
Our aim was to build a culture of respect, transparency, optimism, honesty, fun, resilience and generosity – and by so doing, give ourselves a competitive advantage. Building a differentiated culture was a critical part of our strategy. We understood that the “culture of belief” needed to be firmly in place in order to support an extraordinarily effective, sometimes scary creative product. Our culture dictates that there are no limits to what we can accomplish. If we can dream it, we figure we can do it. It’s always been that way at Fallon.
Agency cultures don’t just happen. They are established by understanding the enormous complexities of human relationships. Cultures are anchored by a clearly articulated vision and by consistent actions over time. All cultures need to be supported and nurtured. It is everyone’s job to contribute to the culture of an organization, but leadership has to play a visible role in keeping the flame alive. The better the leadership, the more cultural evangelists there will be. The cultural evangelists are the ones who spread the messages and rally the troops. They create and sustain the magic.
At Fallon, we publish our values and require our employees to commit them to memory. More importantly, we ask that they incorporate them into their lives. These values unify an otherwise extremely divergent group of renegades. They demand we offer an environment where people do the best work of their careers in exchange for agreeing to bring their best selves to work every single day.
We instinctively know that culture is not so much about the founders of our company or its executives as it is about our “people” – across every level and every department. Therefore, we purposely and repeatedly show our employees how much we value them – free coffee and soft drinks, free after-hour meals, flexible hours, job sharing, spontaneous all-agency lunches, etc. At the same time, we never ask anybody to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves. For example, in the beginning, the five partners each had daily chores. My assignment was to clean the bathrooms, and I was damn good at it. That’s servant leadership…in heat.
Our culture dictates what is acceptable and what is not. Our people were empowered long before “empowerment” became a buzzword. The current management team is completely invested in the Fallon culture, and their commitment to success speaks to a future where the Fallon values will be passed on from generation to generation. Our employees’ pride of ownership gives us a leg up because it comes from passion. It’s authentic and it is timeless. It marks the intersection of ethics and leadership.
In addition to clearly reflecting the kind of company we want to be, our culture helps us recruit like-minded employees from all over the world to Minneapolis, Minnesota (and eliminated others whose egos were too big to tame or whose negativity would infect the fundamentals of our beliefs). The importance of such a talent barometer cannot be overstated.
A differentiated culture requires its own proprietary vocabulary buttressed by shared stories and experiences known as company lore. Organizations need storytellers. Storytelling is the device that creates and maintains traditions. Every successful company has its own tales that are kept alive through actions, speeches, writing and workplace socialization. An agency’s culture is a breathing, living thing. Like all of us, it must evolve and grow to meet the times. However, its core principles should never change because they are the bedrock foundation of any great organization. The companies with the strongest cultures impart a sense of permanency – of lasting values that make their culture a defining part of employment. Fallon is one of those companies.
So, for Fallon, the time and effort it took to set the stage for a values-based culture has paid off handsomely by providing us with a powerful competitive advantage. To be certain, we have had more than our share of ups and downs. Yet, we have been able to show the Twin Cities community and, to some extent the world, that imagination and creativity have no geographic boundaries. Perhaps not coincidentally, Minneapolis is now one of the strongest advertising markets in the country.
The culture of possibility remains intact today. Of course, with the advent of new technologies, these dreams have never been more exciting than they are at this moment – except, perhaps, for what tomorrow will offer, and the day after that as well. We look ahead with clear eyes, with confidence, gratitude and with outrageously outsized ambitions.
In summary, our formula for a vibrant, distinctive culture is “Leadership + Values + Aligned Actions = Culture.” Of course, people need to feel “safe” and supported. It needs to be fun, challenging and interesting, rewarding the right things for the right reasons. But our culture is an enormously valuable asset. This way of monetizing a belief system has worked for us for over four decades. It might work for you as well.
originally published on 3.24.2010
Pick up The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, etc., and you will see that virtually everybody is an expert on leadership. In fact, alleged experts are coming out of the woodwork: writing books, making speeches, charging people money for imparted, often reheated, wisdom.
In this piece I will simplify the topic and, in doing so, provide all you need to know from the “outside” about how to lead. Yet, the heart of leadership – the principles that really matter – come from the “inside.” Leadership style is different for every person, even though many of the principles are the same. To be authentic – to be truly authentic – it must come from the fabric of your being. It must be DNA-driven. If not, your constituency will smell the book learning or the mimicking. The odor will be as unpleasant as the results will be disappointing. The truth is, leadership is not formulaic. There is a lot about leadership that cannot be taught. Just as being aggressive can’t be taught. Or being tough can’t be taught. Or having common sense can’t be taught. However, successful characteristics can be learned from experience if they are lived, shaped and internalized.
Therefore, in this article I am attempting to share what I believe to be the important, foundational building blocks of leadership. They have mostly worked for me over the years; maybe they will work for you as well. Yet, as previously expressed, they have to be adapted to who you are, how you present yourself, and, importantly, the values with which you lead your life. This is not a Cliff Notes-version of leadership. What I offer are gender-neutral principles from someone who does not read books on leadership. And it is presented in conversational language without buzzwords and without the explanatory, tired case histories we are all so familiar with.
So, here goes:
Every leader has one thing in common – the need for followers. These followers cannot be effectively mandated; their trust must be earned over time based on actions, not words.
Leadership has an implicit “greater good” promise with every action. Successful leaders cannot be seen as selfish or greedy – although, regrettably, often they are both.
Leadership is charged with having a vision that is clear and simple over an extended time horizon. Great leaders excel over the long term. Great tacticians are better at managing over the short term. Great leaders are valuable well beyond the metrics of how they are assessed, while great tacticians are valuable when they play within the parameters of their job description. They are, by their nature, more like interchangeable parts.
Leaders are optimistic. There can be no such thing as having a bad day when you are the leader.
Leadership has the responsibility to align actions with words. Promises must be kept. Dreams can be expressed as hopes, but reality must be the basis for moving forward. “Fluffy” language frequently gets leaders in trouble because it lacks rigor and aligns only with the vapor in someone’s mind. Leaders use a language that everyone understands.
In high-performance organizations, leadership is everyone’s job. It’s all hands on deck. Yes, there is a hierarchy, but everybody needs to decide how best to act and how to contribute within his or her own abilities and levels. When this happens, the organization will prosper. There are no exceptions.
Effective leaders must be honest in everything they do. Making occasional mistakes is tolerable as long as he or she accepts responsibility. Being dishonest – including omissions – is never okay. The cost of being dishonest to the leader is profound and often irreparable. It leads to people following you because they HAVE to, not because they WANT to—a huge difference in emotional capital.
The leaders I most admire are humble – truly humble, not rehearsed humble. They pass bouquets and they rejoice in the success of others. They don’t want the spotlight in good times, but they step up and assume the spotlight in bad times.
Effective leaders are courageous. They have a relentless sense of what needs to be done and will not give ground to anything in their way. Their resolve needs to be unquestioned in order for employees to feel safe.
Although these days pop culture is led by celebrity, great companies are usually not. Sure, there are exceptions, but behind every celebrity CEO you will find a humble, steady, make-things-happen-the-right-way leader.
Leadership is the privilege of a lifetime. It has to be approached that way every minute of every day. With leadership comes the responsibility of employees, their families’ lives and clients’ well-being. That is real and pretty damn serious stuff. It is an honor that has to be embraced today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Well, you get the idea.
That’s what I believe. It is a result of experience and common sense. And those two sources are usually reliable.