Nancy Ruscheinski has done all she can
to drive growth at Edelman.
She’s helped make the nation’s largest
public relations firm tops in Chicago, she’s
responsible for carving out a niche for the
company by founding its interactive and
creative services groups, and, of course,
she took more than a monthlong sabbatical
not too long ago.
That’s right, she took a nice, long sabbatical to clear her mind and do some traveling with her family. Look, Edelman is not
Ebenezer Scrooge’s PR company. With the
competition constantly vying for
Edelman’s top clients like Burger King and
Wrigley, Ruscheinski and the leadership
team are forever pushing new angles on
how to spark growth through creativity.
“The industry that we’re in, creativity is
table stakes,” She says. “It’s not a luxury;
it’s a necessity for us, so there’s real self-interest in creating an environment that
spurs creative thinking.”
Creating that environment isn’t easy, so
Ruscheinski, who is president and chief
operating officer for Edelman U.S. and
chairman for Edelman Digital, is constantly
thinking about what motivates her people.
And the more time she puts in, the more she
realizes she is at her creative peak when
her mental batteries are full, and maybe,
just maybe, it’s the same for the roughly
1,900 people in her charge. So while nobody
likes to see a good employee take several
weeks off, Ruscheinski and the other leaders at Edelman have been pushing for more
open ideas the past few years to give it an
edge in innovation. Edelman has been
focused on creativity for a long time, pushing beyond $200 million in fees early this
decade, but Ruscheinski, who is also on the
firm’s executive committee that oversees all
3,100 of its employees, is part of a new leadership breed that has focused on a people-first strategy to drive growth.
That drive has been built around two
things: the internal creativity in the office
and the space people need outside the
office to keep from burning out.
Bring creativity into your office
Like you, Ruscheinski has spent the time
vetting candidates and hiring creative people
in her company, so that should be enough to
move the Edelman engine, right? Well, even
in the most creative industries, many of your
people are saying the same thing.
“I try to be creative every day, but I’m so
busy, and I’ve got these tasks to accomplish, and we’re all going so fast, we don’t
pause to celebrate creativity and really
think about it,” Ruscheinski says.
So at Edelman she really began to think
about how to get employees to be more
creative. The first step was giving them the
time and power to think about what would
help them — remember, telling them what
will make them more creative won’t make
them more creative.
“Half the secret is just realizing that some
of the best ideas aren’t your own,” she says.
“We encourage people to innovate here
and come up with new ideas and what can
we do to make this a better place, not just
to come up with new ideas on behalf of
their clients but for Edelman.”
Part of that was the time. Sure, it costs
money, but employees sometimes need to
be away from the daily monotony —
phones, computers, cubicles — to free up
their minds. So Edelman closes down for
creativity days a few times a year, taking
employees on field trips to places of their
choosing, like The Art Institute of Chicago.
That doesn’t take much effort, really. You
can ask employees for a list of places they’d
like to visit and then vet which ones are realistic from a time and budget standpoint.
And, before you start adding up the costs
of a field trip and a closed office, consider
that the main idea is to stretch people’s
thinking to create new ideas and keep
them fresh. At Edelman, Ruscheinski
helped push the company to be the first to
embrace the Web as a medium, and in 2007,
she helped spearhead Edelman Studios, a
virtual film studio that connects brands
with emerging filmmakers. She’ll be the
first to say that those ideas didn’t come from meetings in boardrooms.
If you don’t want to shut down operations
to let people get creative, you can go with the
old standby: a little competition and cash.
Edelman has given out small money grants to
the person with the best idea for redesigning
his or her cube. The firm also recently created a cash award for creative excellence that
is given for the company’s most creative idea
that’s used — whether it’s something that
runs in a campaign or an internal idea.
“We put a big spotlight on them and celebrate those, so things like that help keep
the concept of creative very fresh and
dynamic here,” Ruscheinski says.
Those little freedoms — a cube wall that
someone turns into a Hawaiian theme or
an award given in front of the company for
creativity — can be more than enough to
start people’s innovation machine and
keep them happy with their job.
Edelman also did a contest where people
could submit ideas for redesigning office
space to become a creative space. The
reward was given based on the top design
that mixed both a sharp, relaxing setting and
a meeting room where work could be done.
By letting employees enter the contest, creativity and energy instantly began brewing.
And while those spaces are relaxing, they
are also functional: They are filled with white-boards, markers and other tools to start a
brainstorming session. The idea is if you’re
not comfortable giving people entire free
days for creativity, then find ways to put a
hint of the office into things that help people
feel relaxed and in touch with the world.
“People spend a good chunk of their lives
here in the office, it’s not a 9-to-5 environment at all, so we’ve brought the outside
world in,” she says. “We’ve done wine tastings with a little education thrown in —
teaching people how to be knowledgeable
about wine when they take clients out to
dinner. We’ve done panel discussions on
politics and the elections, trying to stimulate intellectual curiosity to get people to
stretch their thinking. They are little, easy
things, but it makes a world of difference.”
Push employees toward an outside life
OK, this next part might hurt a little. If you are really trying to
push your people to do something your competitors haven’t
thought of, Ruscheinski says you might want to send them home
for a while.
“We encourage people to be curious about and active participants in the world outside of their cube, the world outside our
offices,” Ruscheinski says. “So we like people to be active in the
arts and the community and politics, to really sort of stoke those
interests. We try to give people the ability to pursue those interests
outside the office, and that is directly related to motivating staff
and creating a creative culture.”
When Ruscheinski says the company encourages participation
outside of the office, she really means employees are given a good
shove in the direction of having a life. She recently helped create a
program called Edelman Escapes, which gives employees an extra
week of vacation and $1,000 — with the only caveat being that they
must first fill out and have approved a form detailing why they will
use this time for a vested personal interest.
“We’ve given out dozens of these over the last few years,” she
says. “We’ve sent people to cooking school, we’ve given people the
opportunity to finish a novel, to visit an exotic location, to record
a CD, and in a lot of cases, it’s to support a cause. So it’s highly
motivating, and that’s gone a long way toward keeping people
refreshed and energized and motivated.”
Before you think Ruscheinski and Edelman are being a bit too
kind, remember that they wouldn’t keep doing these things if they
didn’t find some value in it. Every leader has had a good employee
quit or retire early to pursue a personal passion, but when you can
find affordable outlets to let them tackle a passion and keep their
job, you create a bond with your company.
“We’ve reaped the rewards,” she says. “It’s a great retention strategy, so again there’s self-interest here, too. It’s an incredibly nice thing
to do for employees, but it keeps people feeling very good about the
How great of a retention strategy has it been? Edelman tracked
its most recent turnover rate at about 15 percent. The industry
average is 24 percent.
So that brings us to the sabbaticals, the most outrageous contrast
to the old axiom that the best employee is eternally at his or her desk
working quietly. If you want the outline for how a plan works, here it
is: Employees at Edelman are eligible for a sabbatical for the first
time after they’ve been with the agency 10 years. At that point, they
get three weeks. Every five years thereafter, they are eligible again
and get another week added on — and, yes, this is on top of vacation
time. The limit is six weeks, and the time must be taken all at once.
First, Ruscheinski wants you to know this formula wasn’t just
pulled out of midair. If you want to give employees extra time off,
start with accountability. Making 10 years the minimum amount of
time before someone can take a sabbatical ensures that the person is
probably a pretty valued employee who can balance his or her work
with this break. And, even with 3,000 employees, she says you’d be
surprised by how little overlap there is with the time rules.
“Obviously, I will say we did all the metrics before,” Ruscheinski
says. “We figured out the cost associated with it and the metrics and
how many people hit the 10-year mark every year and how many
people in the same group would be out at the same time, but it is
extremely manageable if you do your homework in advance — it
ends up actually being kind of naturally staggered.”
Beyond keeping turnover numbers low, the break tends to give
experienced employees a new lease on their career.
“It’s incredibly hard to quantify, but anecdotally, I’ve seen it, I’ve
heard it, you can talk to any of the people that have come back
from sabbatical, and it’s like they come back as refreshed and energized as a new employee, and they’re just going, ‘Bring it on,’” she
And perhaps there is one way to quantify it: Edelman has continued
to grow through its creative ideas. In fact, the company did more than
$400 million in fees in 2007, roughly doubling its size in the last four
Not every leader is going to be able to succumb to the idea of
sending people away for weeks at a time or paying for them to take
cooking classes, but the thing that Ruscheinski has seen and
helped create at Edelman is that fresh, energized employees motivate a company’s innovation and growth. She knows that if you
can create even one or two programs to do that, your competition
will have a hard time keeping up.
“I’ve been told this by several employees who have come here
from public companies, it’s much easier to invent things here, try
new things and scrap things when they don’t go well,” she says.
HOW TO REACH: Edelman U.S., www.edelman.com