Creative differences Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

When Brian McHale became president of Empower MediaMarketing in 1999, his biggest challenge was sustaining and building upon the culture that Empower’s founder, Mary Beth Price, created when the company formed in 1985. Even as the media planning and buying firm grew in size from four employees in 1985 to 150 employees today, the entrepreneurial, creative and flexible culture has stayed the same.

“We are a different company in many ways, but we’re not,” McHale says. “We want the same types of people working here, we want people to continue to do the same types of things for our clients, we still want people to be ethical and honest, and we want to give people the opportunity to grow at the company.”

Empower’s winning culture has helped employees feel like they are valued and has given them the freedom to be open and creative. McHale says employees who feel valued are more productive and stay in their jobs longer.

This culture has led Empower to other successes, including landing big-name clients, such as Honey Baked Ham and Dick’s Sporting Goods, and increasing revenue almost 45 percent over the last three years. While the company doesn’t disclose revenue numbers, various industry reports state the company had more than $300 million in billings in 2006, and the firm is one of the largest independent agencies in the United States.

McHale says to create a winning culture, you must find the right employees who will take your company to the next level, successfully communicate to them and energize them to make a difference.

Finding the right employees

Finding the right people is a constant challenge, but McHale says Empower’s best source of solid candidates comes from its existing employees.

“We’ve had such good luck with leads from employees that we put a bonus program in place for successful referrals,” McHale says. “The fact is, employees are excellent screeners. They’re not going to refer people who are underperformers or unqualified or difficult to work with. After all, they’ll have to work with them.”

McHale says it starts at the first interview. Empower tries to find candidates who will fit in to the company culture and help it grow and flourish. He looks for people who are curious, creative, open and honest.

“We want people to be honest with each other and direct,” he says. “Honest is honest. We don’t want people to operate internally or externally with our clients or suppliers in any way other than completely honest.”

Candidates meet with employees from different departments, which allows them to get a sense of the working environment and for McHale to see if they will work well with a team. Candidates also complete personality profiles during the interview.

“A personality profile is just one more data point, one more window into the person you’re thinking about hiring,” McHale says. “It’s obviously not something that we depend on solely or even primarily when making a decision. But it can help complete a picture.”

Empower also looks for people who can be future leaders and molds them to become involved.

“We look for people with passion about our business, a drive to understand consumers and what motivates them, and have a pervasive curiosity,” he says.

McHale listens to candidates discuss their past experiences because that’s where the passion and drive often come out.

“We also look for people who have been successful in developing others,” he says. “Leaders are people who are not only good at what they do, but good at helping others be their best.”

McHale says coaching and mentoring is important once a new leader is hired. Employees are given opportunities and room to show their leadership capacity, but you have to step in when your direction is needed. To be effective at this, you have to spend time watching these employees in action and to create opportunities for them to feel valued and to demonstrate their skills.

The end result is employees who can help the CEO spread the vision of the company and can help all employees to work toward common goals.

The open door

A culture cannot be successful if you do not communicate it to all employees and make sure they understand it and buy in to it. Empower strives for communication and has the hardware to prove it. The company was ranked No. 4 on Fortune’s “Best Small Companies to Work for in America” list in 2006.

McHale is a firm believer in keeping his door open to employees but says it takes time and effort to do this.

“You can’t just put a memo out to the company and say, ‘Today, we have an open-door policy,’” he says. “If you just sit in your office and say, ‘We have an open door,’ very few people are going to come find you. But if you’re out of your office and interacting with people on a regular basis, that’s when people will approach you.”

An open-door policy creates an environment where employees are not afraid to go knock on a co-worker’s door if they think he or she can help them solve a problem.

“It increases communication because it allows people to broaden the number of people that they can interact with or who they can tap for information,” McHale says. “But it also gives people permission to talk to people they might not otherwise talk with, just because it’s accepted.”

An open-door policy cannot be successful unless you model it.

“I get out of my office and walk around,” McHale says. “I try to be as visible as I can within the company. Obviously, time constraints don’t allow me to do as much as I’d like, but I try to make the time to get out there and chat with people.”

You also need to be sure that employees know you are doing something with the information they have shared.

“The worst thing that can happen is that they feel like their conversation has fallen into a black hole,” McHale says. “I always go back to the employee at some point and give them an update on what I did.”

Informal and formal means of communication are also ways for you to keep up to date on what’s happening at all levels of the company. McHale has lunch with employees during their anniversary month of when they started at Empower. These lunches allow him to get to know his employees on a personal level and vice versa. It takes away some of the hesitancy if employees need to come to him with an issue and creates greater trust and productivity throughout the company.

“They know me,” he says. “I’m not just someone who sits at the end of the hall and they see at a company meeting once in awhile. It’s important to have a different level of relationship, otherwise I don’t know that the open door would work. No one would know me, and no one would understand my personality.”

The open lines of communication paid off when the company needed to change its organizational structure. The concept was introduced at the companywide level, and smaller meetings then took place with each department to go over specifics.

“These smaller groups allowed us to answer employee concerns, as well as allowed employees to understand what the changes meant to them individually,” McHale says.

Creating these types of interpersonal avenues allows you to form closer relationships with your employees.

“It’s very difficult to lead a company and develop a level of trust if you have no idea who the people are that are working for you or are the ones you’re asking to help you get to a certain point,” McHale says.

Keeping the energy flowing

Empower certainly lives up to its name by empowering employees to be creative and work independently to reach goals.

McHale says empowerment starts by showing you trust them. This means motivating them through financial and personal compensation and not micromanaging them. Goals are set for the company, and goals are set for each employee, with he or she being held accountable for reaching those goals.

“All of those goals can be, and should be, rolled up to fit with our corporate vision and goals,” McHale says. “Our employees not only understand what’s important for the company, but what’s important for them as individuals and how what they do as individuals ties back to the company as a whole.”

Constant communication helps reinforce how important the employee’s role is at the company. McHale says discuss the company vision when the employee first starts, then reinforce it at monthly and annual meetings. Department leaders also help explain the employee’s role in meeting company objectives and make sure he or she lives the vision each day. Annual reviews are also important for empowering employees because you can tie individual success back to company goals.

But goal setting and accountability are both just one part of keeping employees energized.

Employees at Empower spend countless hours at the office working on projects, and McHale says it is equally important for employees to have fun and interact with each other, so they can better perform on the job.

Empower breaks the tension by sponsoring cornhole tournaments, outdoor happy hours and off-site fun days. Employees also get to try out the latest technology so they are familiar with products and have received iPods, satellite radios and digital video recorders.

“Why shouldn’t they (have fun at work)?” McHale says. “Our clients expect a lot from us because they have a lot on the line. In turn, we expect a lot from our people. But, at the same time, if they’re not having fun, they’re probably not going to stick with it for long.”

Even with these creative outlets, employees get drained from time to time. McHale says you need to have individual conversations with the employee to get to the root of the problem and re-energize him or her.

“If they’re feeling like they don’t have the opportunity to grow, it’s important to talk to them and see if there’s anything you can do to help them get over that or offer them other opportunities,” McHale says.

If the employee has reached a point where there is nothing more he or she can offer the company or vice versa, it may be time to part ways. McHale says individual conversations are good in these situations because if the employee is not energized at your company, you can help him or her find other ways to be energized, be it internally or externally.

McHale says without a winning culture and the right people, Empower would not have achieved the success it has, and it’s important to find and nurture those right people to sustain your culture over time.

“You have to look for those types of things at the very beginning,” McHale says. “If you don’t feel like somebody’s going to be able to operate well under your culture, you’re probably right, and you should find somebody else who you think could. It’s easy to kill a culture, but you have to work to keep it going.”

HOW TO REACH: Empower MediaMarketing, (513) 871-9454 or