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Culture Conversation: A Q&A with Kathleen Lucente

Last week, Kathleen Lucente, president and founder of Red Fan Communications, attended the Culturati Summit in Austin, Texas. The conference gathered 100 C-suite executives throughout the U.S. to discuss the importance of company culture and employee engagement. Lucente recently sat down with me to reflect a bit more on the ideas presented at the summit.

Why did you decide to attend the Culturati Summit?

As someone who’s constantly working with CEOs, it’s not often I get a full day to invest in engaging with a diverse set of executives who are focused entirely on culture. It attracted me immediately because at most conferences, culture might be a pull-out session, not the sole focus. Seeing CEOs from around the country coming together to focus on this topic says something.

I’d like to focus briefly on this idea of an adaptive culture, as I think it’s especially prevalent for a company like Red Fan that is experiencing rapid growth. What does that term look like to you in practice?

During rapid growth, you have to know where you stand, what your values are and how to to hire against those values. It became clear that a company without established and understood values is like a ship without a sail.

There was a lot of talk after hearing from Patty McCord, Netflix’s former chief talent officer, about avoiding hiring the “Brilliant Jerk,” the person who looks amazing on paper, yet isn’t going to tow the line around your company values and is going to be an “always-look-at-me person” in the middle of a team culture. If you hire with your values in mind you can avoid making that mistake.

The summit’s keynote address proposed that the command-and-control leadership hierarchy is dying. What was the panel’s definition of the command-and-control structure, and what was its message about why it’s declining?

Command-and-control is a top-down structure that emphasizes a hierarchy of authority and a pre-established way of accomplishing tasks. It’s the old-world ruler. It hasn’t worked for a long time, yet many companies cling to it in fear of what may happen if they attempt to change it. They should really be afraid of what will happen if their structure and leadership models don’t change. The millennial generation is forcing this issue in the workforce, although to some extent it’s been a glossed-over subject all along. Now more than ever, companies are trying flatter, more dynamic organizational structures. These new environments are all about building trust, efficiency and productivity through transparency, autonomy (“Yes, you can service the request without a million levels of approvals.”) and empowerment. Part of the reason so many people came together at this conference was to hear and share lessons learned around implementing change in an established company or establishing values and culture in an evolving, fast-growing or emerging company.

As the president and founder of Red Fan, how do you balance your vision of the agency’s future with the natural progression and evolution it will take as it continues to grow?

What I love is that we have already embraced a flat structure and yet we have quality assurance systems in place within that structure. We’re collaborative by nature, and now I’m even more confident we can continue to scale in wise ways that benefit the team and our clients.

Public relations is an interesting industry in that we work directly with the media and with our clients, who in turn work with their own customers. How do you ensure that the agency’s company culture and values are reflected in the firm’s diverse portfolio of clients?

You start with your values and then you look at clients and employees and make sure they align with your company values to ensure that prospective client or employee is a good fit. We want to work with companies that recognize our strategic high-value role. We know they’re the right client when the CEO wants to be involved from the get-go. Another marker for alignment is based on shared values. For example, we give back to the community and have employees who love this aspect of our business. We have clients who ask us how they can map their philanthropic efforts into their culture and marketing.

Some of the case studies or programs presented at the summit are known for challenging the traditional, sometimes-stale lists of “company values.” What lessons can you take from those and apply to the culture at Red Fan?

A list of values needs to be a list that resonates with your employees and feels authentic to anyone externally who engages with your business.

The bottom line is the values need to be cultivated from within and throughout the entire organization. If values are outlined, but senior management is off doing their own thing, those values fall apart. The same is true if values are stated or dictated from the highest levels and subsequently aren’t perceived as authentic at the lower levels. It’s a collaboration that helps to fine-tune the values of an organization, and it involves input from every source.

In Netflix’s culture deck, the company defines its values “as the behaviors and skills that we particularly value in fellow employees,” suggesting that the company’s culture is curated and grown at the grassroots level. Why do you think this is a more effective approach than some of the wistful, nice-sounding value sets brokered at the highest levels of a company? How do you think these ideas apply to Red Fan in particular?

I’m all about involving the team in defining the values for Red Fan. We have off-sites where we talk about the values we care about and how that maps to the types of people we like to work with. It’s simple: We work with people and brands we believe in. When I started Red Fan, I wrote down our mission and what I wanted to focus on, whom I wanted to work with, whom I would and would not take on as clients. My team has continued to evolve this, and our values and culture reflect it. My initial ideas for our mission as an agency attracted top-tier clients and talent, and the values and culture have taken root through collaboration and smart growth.

Also, early in my career I sat through value and mission brainstorming sessions that didn’t involve employees beyond the C-suite and the heads of HR and PR. It wasn’t a good approach then and it’s not a good approach now.

What are some of the most important lessons or ideas you’re going to take back to the office with you?

Part of growing is taking some risks and learning. Some may define this as failure. But as Steven Tomlinson pointed out, it’s time to reframe failure and restructure it as an opportunity to view failure as “fast acting interactive learning.” Being in a startup is all about moving forward, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, improving and moving forward. If you haven’t made mistakes you’re probably not pushing the boundaries enough in my book. That said, they need to be mistakes that are about smart growth, where the intention is good and the people involved have good heads on their shoulders so they can stop, learn and adapt.

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