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Reflections on Building a People First Culture

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I like to read when I can — on airplanes, in coffee shops before meetings, and on weekends. I should read more, but I squeeze it in when I can. This year most of my reading focused on scaling our business while preserving our culture. Yesterday, I turned the page in my current book to find this quote under the chapter heading:

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

It’s a quote from Stephen Covey that I’ve seen before, but seeing it again prompted me to contemplate this oddly worded statement. How often do we confuse what the main thing is?

When we started GALE we had an idea of what we wanted to do as an agency and we knew people were important. I often say that we hire, mentor, and grow great people. That is one of the core purposes of GALE.

And to that end we have invested heavily in infrastructure around our people. Our people set goals and objectives on a regular basis, we have a comprehensive competency matrix for all roles, and we have recognition systems in place. In 2016, we hired an Organizational Development Coach to mentor our people. All of these activities support the idea of growing and mentoring our people while creating a great culture that aligns with our core values.

All of the systems were in place, but were they working?

To find a clear answer to this question I went back and read all of the exit interviews from people who left GALE in 2016. I also read our Glassdoor posts to see if I could find a theme (Glassdoor is a place where people post anonymous online reviews about companies. We take it seriously as it can reveal important feedback).

There was a clear theme — people felt like they should be at a Director level when they were still at a Senior Associate level. One former employee (who had 3 years of work experience) commented that he could do the job of a CTO — someone that has been perfecting their craft for 25 years. This theme was concerning, so I went back and looked at all the people who had left, their performance, and their levels to validate that we did not have a systemic problem around recognizing performance.

After reviewing the people who had left, I felt we’d made the right decisions around people, their roles, and their performance. But clearly something was off. Why did people have such a different perspective of themselves and the roles they should have, when compared with GALE’s assessment of their current capabilities?

I realized something critical. There was one core value that was not getting the same attention as the other values, by our people or by us — “Masters of Our Craft”. It’s not as though we’d completely ignored it, but as we pursued a tight culture, our other values had become more strongly weighted.

So my answer is yes, I believe we have been successful in keeping the main thing the main thing — our people. But in my journey to answer this question, I discovered another important area of focus for the year ahead — being “Masters of Our Craft”, both as a company and as individuals.

We know we have some of the best people, strongest performers, A+ people at the agency. But how do we grow B+ people into A+, and how do we attract more A+ people? It’s a process, as well as an outcome. At the end of the day, people need to want to master your chosen domain. That means becoming an expert at the level you’re at now, and then leaning into the next level up. This isn’t about knocking things off a checklist or simply a job description. It’s about effort. It’s the quality, dedicated time you invest outside of the spotlight, grinding hard on problems. It’s learning how to answer the questions set in front of you, and those someone hasn’t even asked you yet.

It’s not about accolades and awards, it’s about the passion and commitment you pour into your craft all those hours in the dark. At its core, mastering your craft is a personal commitment that goes above and beyond the job. It’s what you do, driven by curiosity and passion, not for a promotion or pay cheque.

As GALE grows, our people and our culture will grow and evolve. We established a strong base in the first few years and now in 2017 we’re going to focus more on creating the environment our people need to grow to the next level — while providing a great culture.

We’re going to increase our peoples’ autonomy, while increasing accountability. We’ll raise the bar of excellence, while continuing to provide great opportunities (along with the support/coaching/teaching) to hit that high bar. Some might argue we’ve been doing this all along, but in 2017 we’re going to resurface our core value “Masters of Our Craft” and make sure this expectation is a key part of our culture.

We’ll continue to foster a great culture and promote our core values. We’ll do our part as a company, but in return, we have high expectations for our people. It’s on all of us to be better. Working at GALE is a career for the best of the best, for people who have the internal fire and commitment to achieve excellence and master their craft. These are the people who will help to change the trajectory of our clients’ business.

Brad Simms
President & CEO