Clone buster Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

There are many important elements that go into building an effective business culture. The key ingredients vary from company to company and industry to industry, but regardless of what your company produces or how it does business, Gerry Rubin says there is one thing that will never go into a great company culture.

“You can’t send an e-mail or write a memo and suggest [the culture] to your associates,” he says. “To suggest in a message how they should behave, that won’t work.”

In short, Rubin says, if you don’t actively engage your employees in person, your culture will dry up.

Employees need more than a written how-to manual on company values, says Rubin, co-founder, president and CEO of Rubin Postaer and Associates — the largest independent West Coast advertising agency, with clients such as Honda, and more than $1 billion in annual billings.

Employees need to see the culture in action, which means they need to see you set the example.

Rubin, who founded RPA with Larry Postaer in 1986, has learned more than a thing or two about building a company culture over the years. With more than 40 years of experience as an executive in the advertising business, he says he has learned how motivated, engaged employees are employees who feel enabled to think outside the box, come up with new ideas and pursue them, and ultimately, help the company grow.

“You need to maintain a commitment that your culture is one where independence thrives,” Rubin says. “You put in place all those disciplines and all those resources that a client needs, and you put them in-house, as opposed to individual smokestacks located in different ZIP codes that are never, in fact, integrated under one roof.”

Surrogates for the culture

Rubin says the key to building a long-standing company culture isn’t to build a work force of people who think alike and act alike. While you probably want all of your employees to embrace the same set of values, Rubin says you need to allow them to do it as individuals.

At RPA, Rubin refers to it as becoming a “surrogate” for the company culture. He wants employees to do more than just follow the culture. He wants them to believe in the culture to the point that it, in a way, takes up residence inside each person.

In order to do that, he says you must allow your employees to consider — and hopefully accept — your company on their terms.

When new employees are hired at RPA, Rubin brings them into his office, unannounced, on the morning of the day they start. They have never met him, and he doesn’t really know who they are. Rubin purposefully makes that the first time he meets new hires because he wants to know what drew the new hires to RPA.

“I bring them into my office, I have my Andy Warhol ‘Hall of Shame’ photos up here, and we have an icebreaker,” he says. “To start off, I ask one question of all of them: ‘How did we come to you, and how did you come to us?’”

Rubin says he wants to get to the heart of why new associates applied at RPA in the first place. The answers tell him what is motivating them to work.

“The answer I’d like to hear them say, and I don’t always hear it, is that they’ve studied our Web site and this is where they want to work. As opposed to, ‘A friend of mine works here and told me there was a job opening.’ Sometimes I regret hiring a person like that. I want to hear that they’ve studied us. When I hear that, it resonates with me

“Then I ask them, ‘What do you like about what you’ve learned?’ Then you really get to the depth of their understanding. ‘Boy, I really liked that Honda ad I saw.’ Now I truly know I have someone who wants to be a part of our culture.”

He distills the initial meeting with newcomers down to one word: passion. If a new employee has taken the time to learn about your company and has become excited by what he or she has learned, chances are you are hiring a motivated, interested employee.

“They want to learn, they want to make discoveries, and they take their own initiative,” he says. “Hence, they’re surrogates, not clones.”

But in order to get that level of involvement and commitment, both you and your employees have to be willing to work at it. In other words, it won’t happen overnight.

Each employee will come to his or her own conclusion about the environment and culture of your company over time. In Rubin’s estimation, it could take years.

“I’d like to think there is a point in time on the calendar where I can say, ‘They’ve captured it,’” he says. “But if you’re looking for a numerical response, I’d say years. You can’t expect for the food to get eaten in a year’s time. You have to dribble it out, little by little.”

No matter how passionately you drive your culture, or how eager the new hires seem at first, Rubin says there are simply going to be a certain percentage that aren’t going to find a home in your company, particularly among young workers. Don’t look upon it as a failure either on your part or theirs. Rather, he says, remember the uncertainty and self-doubt of your own early working days.

“There is a group of what I call searchers at our place, at any place,” he says. “It’s the 25- to 35-year-olds who [are] not certain that this is the industry where they want to work, and if it is, that this is the place to do it. So they transition, which is why it takes them awhile to capture the culture. And I encourage them to leave. Why? Because they’re marking time. They’re standing in place, which isn’t helping them or us. If it comes to that point, they should seek other options.”

Pushing the right buttons

Getting your employees to accept and internalize your culture is one thing. Keeping them in that frame of mind is something entirely different.

Rubin says a company’s culture is not a static thing. It fluctuates based on a number of variables, including internal communication, the financial health of the company and how workers perceive management.

With that in mind, Rubin says you can never take for granted that just because you haven’t made any changes to the culture that it is necessarily staying the same in the eyes of your employees. The work environment of a company is something that needs constant maintenance, and in order to do that, you need to find the right buttons to push among your employees to keep them driving toward the same goals.

Some employees are driven by a job well done. Some are driven by recognition from their superiors. All have something you can latch onto as a manager.

“They’re all different,” Rubin says. “It’s like a manager with 24 baseball players. One he pats on the ass, another he kisses on the cheek. And he can only be effective when he manages the team over time.”

Rubin says he spends most of his days acknowledging and recognizing people because it is so important to the success of his company. He walks the halls, attends meetings and gets to know many of his employees personally. He believes that developing a personal knowledge of your people is the only way to find out what truly motivates them.

“Recently, one of our associates celebrated 20 years here,” he says. “This guy is a diehard UCLA basketball fan, and you can’t get tickets for UCLA around here. But we made sure he had the best two seats we could find, plus a bunch of UCLA stuff, pennants, pins and whatnot. What it says is that we spent the time to get to know that person.”

As an advertising agency, you might expect RPA to have a knack for drawing attention to its associates. RPA recently took some of its creative muscle and flexed it for its own workers in creating an awards program called the League of Extraordinary Associates.

RPA designers concocted a group of comic-book-style super-heroes, each representing an award given to an associate quarterly.

“We have the ‘Bionic Wonder Award,’ the ‘Chameleon Award,’ the ‘Colossus Award,’ the ‘Guardian Award,’ the ‘Secret Agent Award,’” he says. “These are all cartoon characters with a description on a card of what the award means and why that person qualifies. We have a ceremony in our courtyard for the whole agency, and the awards are presented. I’m the presenter, I have my own orange cape with RPA on the back, and we go over the top in making these awards like the Academy Awards.”

He says it’s exciting, kind of humorous and a whole lot of fun. But the underlying message is a serious one: RPA’s leaders appreciate the contributions of their employees and value the company’s culture.

“That person [who receives the award] might have only been here six months, but they’ve done something outstanding.” he says. “Think of the tingles they get. They are really taken by this, and it costs us nothing. We created it in-house. These are the small — but maybe not-so-small — things in terms of how we reward people, but also recognize our culture in the process.”

Clients and customers

If you are asking your employees to take your culture to heart, they must believe you are also taking your culture to heart. That, Rubin says, means that the words and actions that cascade down from upper management must be consistent.

Employees can develop many conclusions about how the company is run by the type of customers and clients you bring in.

Clients who don’t match well with your organizational goals and values will produce projects that don’t allow your team members to do their best work, which in turn affects how they view management and the culture.

“One of the things that will compromise our culture is not just bringing in the wrong people, but bringing in the wrong clients,” he says. “Bad clients are generally followed by bad work. Sometimes that work isn’t due necessarily to any indiscretion on our part, but it’s due to the fact that we have a culture clash.”

Rubin says there is a one word answer, simple in theory but sometimes difficult in practice: Discipline.

As the head of your company, you need to be able to create the discipline to pursue the opportunities that best match your company, but might not necessarily be the most financially lucrative.

Rubin says discipline is rooted in research. The first thing he looks at is the long-term history of a potential client.

“A client that is already established or mature, you just look at the past work,” he says. “That’s the easiest way to make an assessment of what you think your opportunities will be with that client. You want to look for continuity and longevity.”

Rubin says your company and your clients need to have a realistic idea of what one can do for the other. If there are inflated expectations or unrealistic promises from one side or the other, it can sabotage the relationship before it even starts, which in turn can deliver a black mark to your company among your employees.

“We want our associates to go home, share with their loved ones, their friends, their neighbors, the dog — if the dog will listen — that they’re proud of the work they did that day,” he says. “That is a tall order. It’s very daunting and very challenging.

“But I am responsible for creating an environment for good people to do good work. You do that when you have good clients. It really goes hand-in-glove.”

HOW TO REACH: Rubin Postaer and Associates, www.rpa.com