CWC 27: James Papiano on leadership & culture in agencies

In the latest episode of Chats with Chip, James Papiano discusses the role of leadership and culture in the PR and marketing agency environment.

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In the latest episode of Chats with Chip, James Papiano discusses the role of leadership and culture in the agency environment.

Topics discussed include:

  • Whether “culture” is a real thing or just a consulting buzzword designed to generate more fees.
  • The relationship between leadership and culture — and whether one can be good even if the other is weak.
  • The impact of accidental agency ownership on the culture of the business.
  • How to improve culture at an agency as a newly-hired leader.
  • The role of transparency in the business and how that can improve or impair culture.

Transcript

Chip Griffin:
Hello and welcome to the Chats with Chip podcast. I’m Chip Griffin and my guest today is James Papiano. He’s an independent consultant who I’ve known for many years and will be able to offer us lots of useful insights, particularly when it comes to the leadership and culture in an agency environment. So welcome to the show. James.

James Papiano:
Thanks. Glad to be here.

Chip Griffin:
It is great to have you. We’ve been fortunate to have had lots of interesting conversations over the years and over the next 20 or 25 minutes, we’ll be able to share that with the listeners. But I thought you know, first I’d start out with, you know, we always talk about things like culture in the workplace. And, you know, a lot of people think that culture is just a bunch of happy talk and doesn’t really mean anything, so can you tell me whether I should actually be concerned about culture in an agency environment or is it just consultant lingo for “pay me more money”?

James Papiano:
I wish it were, I wish it were consultant lingo for “pay me more money.” But no, you know it is, it is a real thing. It’s pervasive. And so sometimes I think people may think it’s not really there because they can’t always see it because it’s like the fish in water,

but it is a real thing. And if you can get your organization to focus on it, it could be a real catalyst for business impact. If you neglect it, it might not mean much, frankly, it might just hum along or limp along but not have a terrible effect. But it can, you know, when things go off the rails often it’s because the culture has been weakened to a point where it starts to affect the way teams are functioning.

Chip Griffin:
Is culture something that you can control, or is it really something that’s formed in the early days, you know, when the agency is first starting and you’re sort of stuck with it. I mean, if an agency has bad culture, is there hope? Can you, can you adjust it?

James Papiano:
Yeah, there is hope. But it’s a really good question you’re asking because, of course, in some ways when an outside consultant goes into look at what’s happening in a firm or an agency, there’s, there’s an anthropological aspect to it and you’re kind of discovering what’s there, and culture is always there to your point. But it’s also possible to be intentional about it. You can you can change culture, you can strengthen it and you can certainly weaken it. But, but there’s always going to be something there and something discoverable when you get a group of people together.

Chip Griffin:
You know, I’ve been involved with it with a lot of PR and marketing agencies over the years, my own, ones I’ve worked for, ones I’ve partnered with and advised and all that sort of thing. And, you know, it strikes me that you know, agencies perhaps even more so than that

than most companies, they often start with accidental owners, right? You know, where someone just, you know, they they happen to go out on their own and decided instead of being a solo at some point they had generated enough business, they’d start hiring employees. And so they may not have thought proactively about the kind of business that they were trying to create or the kind of culture. And so I wonder if that creates particular challenges. I know you’ve you’ve seen a number of different kinds of organizations, not just agencies. So is there a difference in cultures of agencies versus other workplaces? Or is it, do they all have the same challenges?

James Papiano:
Sure. Well, there’s a lot in that question. The first part of my answer is yes, there there are similarities and differences. Most people whether they’re in a corporate environment or nonprofit environment, an agency environment, privately held, publicly held, etc., they didn’t get into their business or they didn’t create their business if they’re an owner,

for the sake of doing talent management and leading a culture, right. That’s not what most people aspire to do – if they do, they get a PhD in organizational consultant, but they they

find themselves, to your point, in this place where they’ve been successful because of whatever got them in business in the first place. And then they find out oh, wait, I have to be a manager, right. And I have to be a leader. And I have to develop followership, and calibrate the needs and expectations of the business with the needs and the expectations of the people working in the business. And then suddenly, they’re in the culture game and the leadership game.

So I think that’s true in all kinds of organizational environments, there are some particular things in agency-land where, or even I would say, in most professional services environments, regardless of what you want to call the business type, where you find people more entrepreneurial, you find professional services folks to be

very smart and very savvy. And so that sort of ups the ante for people who are in an environment where professional services, where everybody is an expert, and wants to learn about what it takes to make the organization work, or at least has an opinion of what’s not working. If you go to some other sectors, people are less interested in that. And there might not be, might not be such a high bar, I had someone tell me once, if you can do HR and culture work in professional services environment, you can do it anywhere, because you have such competition. So many smart people and high achievers going after the the understanding. But that said, when people find themselves in that leadership and culture moment that they didn’t know they were signing up for, or they didn’t know what it would be like when they got there. They often will try for what I would call a technical fix. They’ll, they’ll try to start thinking about, hey, well, can we just put in this software system? Or can we change this policy? Or can we change a practice? And those technical fixes are often part of what may direct or influence the culture. But typically, if you want to leverage your culture, or if you have a problem, and you need to address that in your culture, that’s an adaptive problem. So what Ed Shine calls an adaptive problem and that means it technical fixes might be a part of it, but the overall flow is it an adaptive problem is we take a step and we see what happens, then we take another step when we see what happens. And that’s where those leaders you’re talking about, who didn’t get in the business for to do this kind of work can get frustrated because they’re used to being able to fix problems pretty quickly, by comparison. And culture work, leadership work, developing teams can often have a longer trajectory than they’re they’re used to.

Chip Griffin:
So we talked about leadership and culture are the two are obviously related, but are they inextricably intertwined? In other words, could you have bad culture and good leadership or the other way around? Or, or do they always go hand in hand?

James Papiano:
They do go hand in hand. But you could have, you could have some strong leaders in a weakened culture. And you could have a strong culture and have some bad leaders. But they do go hand in hand, they’re two sides of the same coin, in part because leaders have such wide wake in an organization, they have an enormous influence on the state of the culture.

And also because the culture is what empowers and validates leaders and creates followership. Leaders, can only follow in an organization that people are willing to follow. And that might say, that might seem odd to hear, because, oh, gosh, that guy has the title, right. But when you start to look at an agency, or an organization with a little bit of an X-ray, you start to realize that there are lots of ways to, to, to look at it. And the formal reporting structure and the business structure in terms of locations and facilities and things like that, is just the first lens. There are lots of other lenses that you can use to, to understand who these people are, how they’re working, and what they want,

Chip Griffin:
Right. I mean, I, we probably should have done this earlier, but, you know, how do you define culture? Right? I think it’s it that is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot. But I, you know, I wonder how much people actually think about what it means and how much should they just assume it? So, how would you define what culture is in an organization?

James Papiano:
Yeah, it is, it is tricky. I’m not in love with the idea of defining it. But it is useful to some degree to try to, try to caption it. The two definitions I use, the one I just mentioned, which is, Who are these people? And what do they want?

That’s one, so that touches on identity, who do these people think they are, not in that, you know, who do they think they are sense.

Chip Griffin:
Maybe that too, in some organizations.

James Papiano:
Hopefully not. But in the sense that, in the sense that they have some self image of themselves individually and collectively, and that reflects their values. And their values, predict their behaviors. And their behaviors are aligned to getting some kind of recognition or reward or some kind of feedback. And so, the culture is set up for certain kinds of mindsets, certain kinds of behaviors, and that’s why you have some agencies that would, you know, look very traditional, and their cultures would be be very, more or less formal, and others that would be sort of on the list or end of the spectrum, maybe more unconventional. So, so there’s that definition.

The other, the other way I think about what is culture is, it’s the mindset and behaviors that people inhabit, as they get the work done. So how are they, how are they showing up? And you could put, you know, we all know, people who have left one place and gone to another and they have to deprogram themselves from the first place, right? And reprogram themselves for the next place. And that, that’s because the cultures are widely different, and what people want or how they’re what the acceptable mindsets are, the rewarded mindsets and behaviors are quite different.

Chip Griffin:
I mean, let’s, let’s sort of follow that thread a little bit. If, if I’m a, a leader, a new leader, coming into an organization, I’ve been hired, you know, for a fairly senior position, and, and I come in and I find that the the culture is, is weak or needs work, in some area, you know, how do I how do I think about that? Do I, you know, do I first have to adapt to the existing culture and then try to effect change? Or, you know, do I do I try to do it from the get-go? Or is it case by case, you know, because I think we’ve, we’ve all either been in that situation ourselves, or seen people who have gone through that, where they, they end up in a place where the culture needs work, and, and trying to figure out how to navigate that in an existing organization, I think can be challenging.

James Papiano:
Yeah, I think you’re right. So, you know, I agree with your first answer, which is, understand what you’re dealing with. And that takes some time, especially if you’re new to the organization, that that understanding of, of the culture is really important. And this is where I’ll loop back to what I was saying before you, you know, when you when you land at your new organization, you’re going to be very keen on understanding the formal reporting structure and the business structure. But there are other ways to look at the organization that will help inform you of how you of what the culture is, and then inform that question of, well, how do I want to show up as a change agent or not. So, for example, there’s that after the formal structure, you might look at the power structure.

You might look at how, how the work gets done, because the work doesn’t get done evenly by every person in the organization.

You might look at the social structure of the organization, who are the connectors? Who are the people who are on the outside of a cluster?, and rarely, you know, make their way across the diagram to another cluster. And you sort of look through these x-rays and you started to answer the question: who and what are the dominant coalitions here? What is the, what is the conversation that’s happening in this culture between those people who who may not be really perfectly aligned, and typically, all culture have this right, that there’s no group of human beings that’s entirely aligned on all stuff. So so you start to say, Okay, well, now, I’ve identified that maybe there’s a, you know, one of the things we’re seeing in organizations a lot right now is a desire for more transparency. And that’s sort of a societal trend that’s infiltrated the workplace. And there may be people who have higher or lesser tolerances for that. There may be people by definition, their roles, there are some things that in an organization you can’t or shouldn’t be transparent about. So that may be something that’s part of that dialogue, and the new leader who comes into that organization can decide whether she wants to engage that or not, and likely, my advice would be in that situation, to start small in your immediate team, right, and to figure out and do some testing. So once you have a sense of it, and you’ve done your diagnosis, or your preliminary evaluation, you have some hypotheses, then you move on to Okay, well, let me let me try some things in my team and see how that goes and see if you can get some good information that way.

Chip Griffin:
Well I think that’s, that’s good advice. Because, you know, one of the things that you typically see in agencies or professional services firms more broadly, is that unlike a company where you’ve got a real Board of Directors, or you’ve got investment capital, so that you don’t have a dominant owner, most agencies and professional services firms have, you know, one or a small number of majority owners who are still there, they may have their name on the door, or they were the founder or whatever. So, it It strikes me that that creates a more challenging dynamic to change culture, because it’s hard to do it as even part of the senior leadership team without that person on board. Whereas perhaps in a larger company that’s governed by a board, you know, that maybe there’s more levers you can pull to make adjustments in those cases.

James Papiano:
I would agree with that. And I think any privately held company, whether it’s a partnership or some other configuration will have more gravity to those individuals. Whereas in a corporate structure, particularly if it’s been around for several generations of leadership, they’ve scaled their business, they are, they’re seeing the power of culture, they’re seeing the power of systems, structures and processes that are more durable than their founders. And they’re, they’re creating standards of conduct and expectations around the culture. And they’ve clarified their values in such a way that it works for their marketplace, both in the talent marketplace and in their customer marketplace.

Smaller organizations that are privately owned or partnerships, law firms are notorious for this, because because there’s so much leeway that partners have in a law firm to kind of run a silo.

The calculus is quite different. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t good cultural work that can go on in there, or there aren’t good leaders, but the calculus is very different than in a corporate hierarchy or a startup for that matter

Chip Griffin:
Right. I think that makes sense. Now a moment ago, you talked about transparency, and, you know, differing views of of how transparent organizations should be, you know, I think transparency is an important part of modern organizational culture. Where do you come down as far as you know, is transparency on the whole a good thing, is it overhyped? Is it you know, how do you perceive transparency and the role that it plays in culture?

James Papiano:
Yeah, it’s big, it’s really big. I think transparency relates to information or, and in some cases, knowledge, and that’s power.

And so I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer to that question. Each business is going to have to navigate this for themselves and figure out what works.

And my recommendation is that they lean into that in such a way that they’re, they’re asking themselves that question so that the leadership team is asking themselves that question so that they are not on the defense when it comes to situations that arise in the business or engagement survey feedback that comes back or culture surveys that come back. You know, one of the key recommendations also, one of the hardest to follow that I give a lot of clients is, you know, you want to be ahead of the curve when it comes to culture. In this case, we’re talking about transparency and in fact for that matter, on all talent management considerations and organization management considerations. So what that means is, you have to ask yourself that question and not and not wait until it arises as a problem. That said, there are there are studies that have shown good and bad things, for example, around compensation transparency,

Chip Griffin:
right,

James Papiano:
Or goal transparency, we all have our goals done this year, and now everybody’s going to know what my goals are, and I’m going to know what your goals are. And you can see the value of that just off the top that that I can support you, if I know, this is what you’re working toward, hey, I saw this or you should meet this person or something like that. On the other hand, it can sometimes go off the tracks. And so you really is an adaptive problem, transparency, that or and an adaptive opportunity that leadership teams will have to take and customize to their environment.

Chip Griffin:
Well, I think, you know, what you touch on, there is also it’s indicative of one of the challenges that I’ve seen in some organizations that profess transparency and take steps towards transparency. And that is that they do transparency on its own, without linking it to context and education, which I think is just as important if you’re going to be sharing things like goals, or comp, or p&ls or those kinds of things, you know, with your team, they need to, they need to understand how to interpret that data, right. Because, you know, it does you no good to throw out a lot of that data, if you’re not explaining what it means, how you got there, you know, and why there may be things in that information that, you know, to the person who, who’s not spent as much time looking at some of those kinds of information flows, so that it just may not make as much sense.

James Papiano:
That’s right. There may be actual sense-making that needs, needs support through training and the internal narrative that leaders can offer. But there also I think, to your point, is just making sure that when you’re making these moves, they are going to be if they work out, they’re going to really strengthen the culture. People are going to feel respected, they’re going to feel engaged and committed because they’re more connected. And because you’re sharing more information, they don’t have to make up stories where they have an information gap. But that said, there is there is a risk that they’re in sharing more information, that their people are not either emotionally mature enough or professionally mature enough to make sense of it. So I’m only pointing out that some of that training is cognitive, like, here’s how you make sense of this p&l, right. And some of it is professional development on the personal side.

Chip Griffin:
Absolutely, I would argue that, that you that it is important for the organization to engage in that kind of, you know, education, in any case, regardless of how transparent you are, because to have a more knowledgeable workforce, you know, will overall benefit you down the road, it does take time. And as you point out, you know, some of it is, you know, when it comes to things like emotional intelligence, that’s, that’s a little bit harder to teach, I think, and, and, you know, so, so, there are, there are certainly going to be challenges. But at the same time, you know, most organizations are more transparent than they realize if for no other reason than that employees talk to each other, right? I mean, it’s, I’ve seen this happen in countless organizations where, you know, leadership may assume that certain things are secret, but, you know, 90% of the staff knows, because they all talk to each other, right? So you have to be careful assuming that something is secret, because it that’s almost more dangerous than knowing that people know.

James Papiano:
Right, there are different levels of secret. There is secret when nobody knows about it, there is secret when some people know about it, and then there is secret when everybody knows about it, and we’re not talking about it. But

Chip Griffin:
The last one I think is the most deadly to organizations, by the way.

James Papiano:
I agree. I think it’s it’s not a good situation. It’s, it’s it’s denial, and it erodes leadership credibility, big time, right. That said, there is there’s a lot to be said for recognizing that the generational story here is that Gen X, Gen Y, into Gen Z, there’s a there’s a progression here of wanting more transparency, and it’s going to happen whether you figure out a way to harness it, or as you say, whether it happens, you know, on the wire and in the trailer, right, it’s gonna it’s going to be there. So you might as well get with the program

Chip Griffin:
Well, hopefully after listening to this conversation, the listeners here will be able to get with the program themselves in their own organization. But if they want to learn more about you, connect with you, how can they How can they find you online?

James Papiano:
They can find me on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter or on my website Jamespapiano.com.

Chip Griffin:
Fantastic, well thanks for joining me today. Again, my guest has been James Papiano.