Pat Fallon shares the ingredients for a successful workplace culture.
By Pat Fallon
Fallon is 32 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 of 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.