Building culture into your company can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be something you do when the hiring environment is tough or you’re worried about losing people to the competition. It needs to be core to the organization you create.
This week, Inner Circle Labs is on our annual WorkAway. Part retreat, part training exercise, part work – we spend a week working together and hanging out away from the office. This year we are on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. With a company of 12 people, we rent two houses next door to each other and set up internet, phones and everything we need to service our accounts as if we were back home. Just making this a work trip, putting people up in hotels and paying for travel, would be a nice perk but we take it a few steps further to make it a core part of our culture.
By renting houses and cooking, eating, drinking and laughing our butts off together – we become closer as a team. We also always plan for the month of our work away to be our lowest revenue month of the year. This goes against everything traditional PR agencies work toward in making their revenue numbers stable across the year. We completely understand the reasoning but would rather service our clients to the level of their budgets and cut back during the work away month so we can give everyone additional non-billable time for training time and broader, long-term projects to make the company and our culture even stronger. We’ve been doing a work away every year since we founded the company in 2010.
The traditional PR agency structure puts clients first – and employees needs come later. It’s all about selling services to the person with the biggest budget – doesn’t matter if their product stinks, they demand much more than they are ever willing to pay for, the team assigned to work the account hates it or the client contact is abusive – he or she with the most cash wins. That model needs to fundamentally change – unless employee happiness is put first, the PR industry will continue to lose great people and battle a tarnished image.
Companies in other industries have succeeded by realizing the need to put employees first and build culture into the fundamentals of their businesses. Take Zappos*, they’ve built an organization that fosters a strong, happy, flexible culture. Zappos got a lot of attention for being good to its customers and offering free shipping both ways – all super critical to what they do. But even more fundamental to their rapid growth was the way they treated their employees. Zappos is not just a bunch of employees – or collaborative teams that work together – they are a fun, wild, zany, wicked smart family.
I’ve been a fan of Zappos since they launched. In fact, it has been the longest standing wish of my 13+ year PR agency career to work with the Zappos family. Perhaps because our core values align with theirs, I finally got my wish to work with Zappos.
Building a strong culture that puts employees first is the best way to build a successful business and disrupt the status quo of any industry. It’s time for PR agencies to be part of this change – and not in name only through perk programs and happy hours. Don’t get me wrong, these things are fun and show appreciation for hard work but it’s time to truly engage our teams at every level around the things that matter most – the things that will become the core values that fundamentally drive the group. Once we can all do this – and then live those core values every day and build teams and companies around them – the PR agency business will be full of a lot more Aloha.
Julie Crabill is founder/CEO of Inner Circle Labs based in San Francisco.
*Zappos is an Inner Circle Labs client.