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February 2007

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Creating a Place Extraordinary Employees Choose to Stay

By Sherri Leopard

Like every agency that has been around for any length of time, Leopard has struggled with the notion of culture. Over the years, we've fought high turnover. We've regularly heard complaints about the lack of accountability. Yet, since hitting bottom in mid-2002 (a 38 percent drop in revenue, a 50 percent reduction in our staff, and the ìluckyî ones who stayed all took pay cuts, some of them permanent), we've learned a lot about culture. About building the kind of company where the right people choose to be, and choose to stay.

Not to say that everyone who comes to Leopard loves it and stays. The company has a very distinct culture ó and some find it's just not right for them. But the data says a lot. An executive team with an average of 11.2 years with the company. Twenty-five employees with more than five years on the team. A 2002-2006 retention rate (exclusive of involuntary turnover) averaging 88.4 percent.

As a management team, we're clear that recruiting, growing and retaining top talent is an investment, and it's in everyone's best interest to keep employees engaged and on board. Recognizing that the economy is continuing its transition to an employee-centric market, I'd like to share my beliefs on what it takes to create and maintain a great culture.

Lesson #1: The backbone of a great culture is a professional HR team.
If one were to contrast pre-2002 Leopard to the Leopard of today, the single biggest difference he or she would see is an HR department run by trained professionals, not simply people who like to make others happy. In a word, the team has brought us discipline. But discipline flexible enough to respond to the individual and unique needs of our staff and organization. A disciplined, yet flexible, approach to the way we hire. The way we welcome people to the company and the orientation we provide when they join us. The way we evaluate performance and the way our managers provide regular coaching. The way we give pay increases.

Why is professional HR so important? One example will make the point. During the dot-com craziness, we were out of control, hiring madly, throwing money and perks at people. Yet at one point, an employee quit after one week on the job. Why? Because he had been with us for a full week and no one had spoken to him. No one had welcomed him. Or explained how we operate. Or what we expected from him. I'm happy to say that today new employees tell me that ours is the best orientation process they've ever experienced.

Lesson #2: Think beyond benefits when creating a thriving culture.
When employees leave companies, no one cites health insurance as the reason for leaving. In exit interviews, employees typically focus on feeling underappreciated and underchallenged. We all work to hire the best and the brightest; the challenge is to help them continue to grow and to ensure they understand where they fit inside the larger context of the company and feel appreciated for what they bring.

Agencies are creative places. We hire creative people. And creative people are passionate. They want to work at something they truly enjoy. Our challenge as agency owners and management teams is to help our employees pursue their passions within a context that creates great value for our clients and our companies. Sure, there's a balancing act here. Not everyone will be able to continue to pursue passions within any given company, so part of the culture has to include candor and recognition that sometimes there's a great path and sometimes it's better for everyone to part ways.

In addition to doing what they love, people need to understand how their job contributes to the overall success of the company. To do this effectively, you have to put the structure and framework in place to guide managers, and you have to teach them how to proactively work with their staff to find meaning in what they do, as well as to see a path for growth that is exciting and motivating. In the agency business, it's easy to let this focus fall by the wayside when things are busy. That's why we've built in a number of mechanisms to ensure that these conversations take place: coaching sessions, company meetings and a highly structured performance management plan.

Another key is to make employees feel appreciated. Encourage spot recognition by reminding managers to take the time to appreciate people in the moment, rather than waiting for an annual performance review. Thank you is a phrase that never gets stale. It's not complex, but often managers forget that saying thank you is the easiest way to keep morale high. If your employees are going above and beyond for your company, go above and beyond for them. We allocate funds for managers to use for small thank you gifts like a Starbucks card or a massage.

And don't forget the importance of camaraderie and the power of a team. Set aside time and budget for lunch, team building activities or something that is just plain fun. This gives people an opportunity to connect with each other on a more personal level, which enhances their ability to work together.

Lesson #3: Don't skimp on the benefits.
While benefits may not be first on the list, a solid benefits package is a basic need, a requirement. The best insurance you can afford. A solid vacation package that gives people time away from the office. Profit sharing. In addition, we provide smaller perks. During our busiest quarter, we know that employees are making an extra effort, so we bring in catered lunch every other Wednesday and offer free massages on the Wednesdays in between. It's a way to demonstrate appreciation and recognition that people are working hard. Little and big perks matter to employees, and they go a long way toward setting your culture apart from the competition.

Lesson #4: Rest is not a four-letter word. Commit to work/life balance.
One of the most important lessons we've learned along the way is that many employees would trade less money for shorter hours. A recent study of more than 50,000 employees from a variety of companies found that two out of every five employees are dissatisfied with the balance between their work and their personal lives.

Today's smart employers understand that work is only one dimension of an employee's life. The most valuable employees are multidimensional human beings who have families that are very important to them (spouses, significant others, children, parents, siblings and, of course, pets). Most also have other passions: sports, travel, food and wine, volunteering. Creating a culture that supports people as they balance all the dimensions of their lives creates loyalty beyond compare.

One of the things we've heard loud and clear about the culture at Leopard is that it's really heads down. The office is unusually quiet. Not a lot of socializing or extraneous chitchat. Sure people have friends at work. But when we're at work, we work. That's so we can go home at a decent hour. And make work on the weekends the exception, not the rule. Now some people find they don't like that aspect of our culture, but plenty of people do.

Lesson #5: You ask your employees to work hard. Make sure they see you do the same.
Great employees work hard. Great bosses do the same. After 22 years in the agency business, it's pretty clear to me that clients aren't going to stop making unreasonable requests. Yet when a strong culture is operating at its best, teams pull together. Everyone pitches in, and as a result, no one person is stuck pulling an all-nighter or cancelling family plans.

Agency life is demanding. A strong culture with people who are passionate about their work, their lives and their team is the key to making the business rewarding for everyone involved.

Leopard, a B2B marketing communications agency based in Broomfield, has long realized that taking care of its biggest asset ó its employees ó will increase the bottom line. Through feedback from its employees, the company has been named as one of the best places to work in Colorado by the Denver Business Journal, ColoradoBiz and the Society for Human Resource Management.

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