Creative relations Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

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.

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