Culture Factor 2.0

What Does Leadership Look Like in the Future? How Lessons from the Past and COVID will Shape Our Outlook for Company Culture and Business

Episode Summary

Joanne McKinney is the CEO of the Burns Group in New York City and founder of BGIN, Burns Group’s branding accelerator. The agency she leads is an integrated engine for strategy and creativity, devoid of layers, hierarchy or fussy departments. The team has built campaigns or brought brands back to relevancy for clients like Labatt, Chapstick, Centrum, Terra Chips, Simmons Mattress and Yellowtail Wine. Her nimble team is small by design, getting them to solutions faster. Today on The Culture Factor, we will learn how Joanne keeps her company culture healthy.

Episode Notes

https://www.companytribes.com

https://www.burnsgroupnyc.com

 

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1:
Welcome to The Culture Factor, where we talk to founders and influential leaders about company culture. We share stories from the C-suite that help executives engage their business from the inside and create a map to transform their culture. Because the truth is culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Holly Shannon:
This is The Culture Factor and I'm your host and co-producer Holly Shannon. Please subscribe, rate and review our podcast. Our journey into company culture has just begun and we'd like you along for the ride.

Holly Shannon:
Joanne McKinney is the CEO of the Burns Group in New York City. She's also the founder of BGIN, a branding accelerator for the Burns Group. The agency she leads is an integrated engine for strategy and creativity, devoid of layers, hierarchy, or fussy departments. The team has built campaigns and created relevancy again for clients like Labatt, ChapStick, Centrum, and Simmons mattress. Her nimble team is small by design, getting them to solutions faster. And today on The Culture Factor, we will learn how Joanne keeps her company culture healthy. Hello, Joanne McKinney and welcome to The Culture Factor.

Joanne McKinney:
Thank you very much. It's lovely to be here.

Holly Shannon:
At The Culture Factor, we're talking about company culture being a fluid thing right now. What worked before may not work perfectly in six months. So we truly believe that there's strength in the core values, however that can be leveraged and that there's the lessons learned during COVID can be applied to a healthy company culture later. So my question to you is, can you describe your company culture in the beginning and in six months from now, will you be leading the same way or has your vision changed?

Joanne McKinney:
Oh yeah, it's a really interesting time for companies across the boards and for people as individuals. And I think in general people are coping with the current situation on many levels personally, professionally, emotionally. And culture within the company has to adjust and change to support wherever people are. And right now we're all in a very unique situation. We're all in a situation together though, which is also a pretty unique place to be. So I do think some of the core tenants of culture, as personally I see it as a leader, are being leveraged today in really new and unique ways. There likely are changes and expectations are changing, I think, in terms of what people want from their companies, particularly when we no longer have the opportunity to be face-to-face with each other on a daily basis. So if I think back to what I thought was really important, when I stepped into a leadership role, I really wanted the company to feel a great deal of honesty and transparency coming from leadership. And that we would always be open with information and have sort of a shared fate model where everyone's a grownup and everyone can be part of the knowledge base of where we are as a company and can contribute because they have that knowledge.

Joanne McKinney:
So that idea of transparency is a really interesting one. And I think one that always needs to be balanced with safety, in terms of how the company perceives all the actions the company is taking. So as a leader, when you try to drive a culture of transparency, you learn really quickly that that level of transparency can be really positive for certain individuals and actually can be negative for others. One of my first experiences as a leader, first time I stood in front of the company and shared, for instance, our financial projections and realities, it was something that hadn't been done in the past.

Joanne McKinney:
And I found that there were equally faces in the crowd of great interest and excitement to be seeing a bit under the skirt of the company. And at the same time, there were people who looked very frightened by the information that I was sharing. And actually I think that was somewhat generational too. And a multigenerational workplace from a culture perspective is always something that's a little bit of a challenge to navigate. So I think in general, as we look to build a culture around transparency, how do we do that in the same time while keeping people's focus balanced, making them feel safe within the organization, making sure they're not being highly reactive to the information that leaders need to react to. So it's always a really fine balance.

Holly Shannon:
So do you think that the measures companies are putting in place now to create safety, transparency and security within the whole concept of company culture, do you think that they should continue doing this? And maybe the question is what are you doing specifically now to do that? And will you maybe take that forward in six months?

Joanne McKinney:
Yeah, I do think if you look at what the world's going to look like six months from now, a year from now, people are going to really be judging organizations based on how they behave right now, during this pandemic crisis and how they step forward. So I do think it's going to be really important for there to be a through line from a corporate perspective to employees and in terms of the culture that we breed. I would say in general, one of the ways that I felt culture was really grown within the organization was finding time to come together, both around our business and in non-business ways. So for instance, we have done, since I became CEO, we do every Monday morning stand up meeting where we talk about everything that's going on in the company. And actually, we highlight what's happening on each individual business so that people understand what other work is happening that perhaps they don't touch.

Joanne McKinney:
And we do what we call shiners, which is where we give people the opportunity to have shout-outs for other people in the company to show their gratitude and celebrate accomplishments and celebrate progress and have people all be aware of how much people care for and appreciate the actions of others in the company. So that's something that we've always done and now that we're working remotely, I think that habit is even more important and has become the place where every Monday morning we start the week together. And now we're of course all doing it from our various homes and we're not physically together.

Joanne McKinney:
But the fact that we had those muscles trained to interact with each other in that way I think has been really useful, now. I do think we place a big emphasis within our organization on finding ways to come together outside of work. That's been a little more challenging right now because we do things what we call family lunch and we've tried to do a few of those on Zoom, where people can just bring their lunch and do this together. It's obviously not as fun or effective as it is when we're having a chance to really be social together. So I think what we're doing outside of that is becoming even more important because the lack of that more downtime together.

Holly Shannon:
That's great. One of the things that we talk about often at The Culture Factor is impact stories. It's really important that when there are emerging leaders within a company, that we take these stories and that we share them with one another. And if we can even document them, that's even better because there's a lot of people in the company that are always working towards making the customer happy or refining the product that you have. And they're working with different departments and different people to create that magic, right, to streamline that product, reduce costs, make a win-win for the customer type of thing. So it's really great that you're sharing stories and doing that shout-out to each other when you have those meetings because it's important to recognize what people are doing and more importantly, to show that they are really following the mission of the company. Right? That they're being creative, especially in a creative company like yourself. So do you also find that you have, actually we had talked earlier about some check-ins and other things that you did more one-on-one.

Joanne McKinney:
Yes.

Holly Shannon:
Have you found that to be as beneficial as the group?

Joanne McKinney:
Yes. So I would say I've tried to do one-on-one meetings with everyone in the company at least every six months, giving people a chance to share their own feedback on how it's going for them, whether their longterm needs are being met by the company, if they have feedback for management. I often find in a group situation, there's typically a handful of people who feel really comfortable contributing and being open. But there's a whole lot of people who aren't. So the one-on-ones really give a chance for everyone's voice to be heard. I will say having just done these one-on-ones again last week, I found it was super useful. First of all, I was able to reach out and have both a personal conversation about how people are doing, but also hear any of their professional concerns. And I was able to answer some of their questions that perhaps they weren't as comfortable asking for the group.

Joanne McKinney:
One of the big benefits of the one-on-ones that I did last week was actually a benefit to me, which is, since we're not face-to-face and because this is such an atypical time. And I think because there's so much fear and anxiety in the world, I'm not getting a lot of feedback around whether or not people are getting what they need from me or from our leadership team in general. So having a chance to literally ask people point blank, "Are you getting what you need? Is it too much? Is it too little? How can we better meet your needs?" It was a feedback loop that I was really craving. And actually I didn't set up the one-on-ones with that in mind, but it became a really positive byproduct of it for me to really understand where I could potentially improve my own communication or my own focus.

Holly Shannon:
Yeah, that's fantastic. As a leader, having that type of relationship with the people that work for you, is tremendous. But also as a leader, I would think that you might need something within your own peer group. Is there an exercise you partake in that maybe you would share with other leaders that's worthwhile?

Joanne McKinney:
Yes. Growth as a leader is highly dependent on having sounding boards outside of your own company and having mentorship from people that you admire as leaders. And I will say this is something in my career that has been really hard to find. I often found, at least growing up in the business, it was hard to find people like me with the same life issues. Whether that was working mom also striving to be a leader, seeing leadership in a way that felt comfortable for my self and my personality. And I was really fortunate that coinciding with my stepping up into the CEO role, that I was able to join an organization called CHIEF, which has provided a community for me, of leaders. Leaders who face a lot of the same issues, have a lot of the same values that I have. And I'm a year into that relationship with a variety of leaders, but also within what we call the core group. So a smaller group of us who have met with each other monthly for over a year and know each other well. And that group has become really critical for me, particularly now that we all are facing decision-making that we've never faced before in our career. We're facing a circumstance that really no prior work experience has prepared us for.

Joanne McKinney:
So I think in general, having a group of other leaders to shape your own vision for culture and the way you work has been incredibly invaluable. And then this flash moment right now has made that even more valuable because we're navigating similar things. I mean, whether we're having a conversation about, how do you have hard conversations with people with your company. Or, how do you deliver bad news? Or how do you think about making decisions around people's personal safety? All of these are very big responsibilities that most leaders have not faced before. There was a few potential situations where people have been in similar circumstances, whether that was post 9/11 or other things that happened during a particular global events. But this is a really unique situation. So having a peer group to problem solve with, to support, to even just empathize with and have a good cry with, has been really invaluable.

Holly Shannon:
Excellent. Thank you for sharing that, and the vulnerability that went with that. That's not easy. I want to just shift gears a little bit. One of the conversations you and I have had is that Burns Group has a partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and in it there's work in behavioral economics that is a project that you're working on or with. Can you share with us how what you're learning there might help with taking a look at cultural changes in the future? Maybe you could share with the listeners that.

Joanne McKinney:
Sure. I think anyone who has a passion for behavioral economics or human behavior is really interested in leaning in right now to what's going on in the world. We've got this historical partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health, where we look at issues of behavior change and we work on a lot of health and wellness brands. And I will say, I think the common sentiment from our own experience in trying to commercialize these brands and obviously in the Harvard School of Public Health's experience in trying to change behavior for the better, whether that's reducing obesity or getting people to not text and drive or to wear a seatbelt or to stop smoking, changing behavior is really, really hard. Even with the best intentions, so many people fail to do it. Even when they have the greatest motivation you could possibly imagine, a life and death situation.

Joanne McKinney:
So driving behavior change is something that is incredibly complex and not typically very successful. So one of the things that's really interesting, that's happening right now, is we're seeing some really interesting changes in everyday daily behavior. And we're actually doing a tracking study right now to sort of understand how do people predict some of those new behaviors might either maintain or change. So, for instance, we're seeing a real flattening of generational differences in behaviors, right? Older consumers are now buying everything online, like younger consumers. And younger consumers are cooking at home, the way older consumers do. So there's some really interesting things happening. And when you look at that and you think about, well, what's new? What's next? What's going to be normal six months from now, 18 months from now? You have to look at that contextually inside your company as well.

Joanne McKinney:
What would we be doing differently as an organization for either our people or for our clients to reflect that new normal? And I think that's really a fascinating time right now. There's a lot of people making a lot of predictions. I think we'll see what actually bears out. But I do think we're in a really interesting step-change moment that many of us have never experienced before and that's going to cause a lot of new behaviors, both internally in companies and externally just out in the world.

Holly Shannon:
I don't disagree. I think you're uniquely positioned to address that, being in an agency that's always looking at behavior, but then also studying this partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health. It's interesting the two ways of looking at business and people and how they behave. I think we're going to have a whole diagnosis around the fear of COVID, when people return to the office.

Joanne McKinney:
Yes.

Holly Shannon:
Like how people are reacting, how they shop, how they show up, what they wear.

Joanne McKinney:
Oh, yeah.

Holly Shannon:
Just their fear level.

Joanne McKinney:
I mean it was interesting. One of the things I had communicated to the company was, in addition to all the scenario planning we're doing around what's the world going to look like and how do we exist in that world as a company in our offering, I had let people know that we were, I was personally doing a lot of research on return to work. What's it going to look like to come back to the office? What's going to have to happen? And there's a lot of really practical considerations. For instance, the availability of things like hand sanitizer and face masks and touchless soap dispensers, toilet paper, to the idea that people commute or the fact that the schools are closed and parents are going to not be able to come back to work. So I had just been sharing that, I was doing research. And when I did my one-on-ones, I found that a lot of people expressed a great fear that perhaps we were moving to open the office and they weren't comfortable with that yet.

Joanne McKinney:
That's of course not, we're certainly not going to put anyone in an unsafe situation and we're not going to force anyone who feels uncomfortable to come back to work until they feel comfortable. But you really have to see what the internal effect is of that level of fear and lack of safety, and what that's going to mean for the way we come together. How are we going to sit in a conference room together and collaborate together? And will we be afraid of each other? Where before we were so excited to greet each other with a warm embrace. So there's a lot that's going to change in terms of our culture. And when I look at the core values that we have articulated for our company, things like creativity and bravery and comradery and a growth mindset, all of these things are going to be tested in brand new ways. All of them.

Holly Shannon:
I agree. I agree. I am confident that people will want to gather together again and the warm embrace will be in our future again and high fives and things like that. They may look a little different initially, but I do believe we're going to come back to that. History has shown that. I mean we've been through the Spanish flu and Zika and SARS and all sorts of things, and we were hugging after that and gathering for festivals and joining an offices again. I'm confident. On that note, I want to end in confidence.

Joanne McKinney:
Yeah, absolutely. I do think though, like as leaders, when you think about how do you set policy within your company that creates a culture of community and one that people feel that they want to be a part of, we just have these new interesting things to think about in the context of that. Suddenly if you were putting your values on pen to paper to articulate your values, would you add safety to that, in terms of providing a safe and comfortable place for people to come together and be creative? So it's just a new dimension that we have to all think about.

Holly Shannon:
Absolutely. And I'm glad that you shared that with other leaders that are listening to this and emerging leaders that are listening to this because it's nice to know that those conversations and the thought process behind it are taking place. And it's great when we can share this information because everybody's trying to figure out how to move forward six months from now.

Joanne McKinney:
Absolutely.

Holly Shannon:
So I thank you Joanne McKinney. This was really great. Thank you for coming to The Culture Factor.

Joanne McKinney:
Well, thank you so much for having me. What a nice conversation to have on a Friday morning.

Holly Shannon:
Thanks. Have a good day.

Joanne McKinney:
You too. Bye-bye.

Holly Shannon:
I want to thank our listeners for joining The Culture Factor. And I ask that you subscribe, rate and consider leaving a review. We'd love to hear who you'd like to listen to next. And a thank you to our sponsor, Company Tribes. They have an app and a virtual experience to help keep your tribe together during difficult times like now and business as usual. How strong is your company culture? Reach out to Paul at companytribes.com.