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5 Tips for Building a Real and Successful Company Culture

4A's Transformation panel talks values and engaging millennials

A strong company culture starts at the top but leaves room for employees to help shape and define it. Photo: Getty Images

There's no doubt culture is a key driver when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, but even the savviest branding effort can't create culture out of thin air.

Instead, it takes ongoing and consistent contributions by leaders and employees alike, according to an expert panel gathered to discuss company culture at the 4A's Transformation conference this week.

The Wednesday panel included Jay Haines, founding partner of Grace Blue; Eileen Benwitt, evp and chief talent officer of Horizon Media; Tim Cecere, managing partner and chief talent officer of GroupM Worldwide; and Charles Day, founder of The Lookinglass.

So what defines a great company culture, and how can marketing agencies develop one of their own?

Here are some of the tips the panel shared:

1. Don't simply stick a set of values on the walls and on your website

Companies that display a set of values around their office, but don't truly believe in them, cannot expect to develop an honest and authentic culture that employees will stand behind and fight for, the panel of experts said. "Culture is a consequence of a company's values," Day said, noting that companies often spend more time talking about these values rather than actually living them and believing in them, making the culture feel forced or inauthentic. 

"When you see companies that are really committed to [their values] they've embedded them into the leadership behavior," he added.

2. Culture starts with the most senior leader of the company

"The cultural piece is to my mind now the single most important component of any chief executive role," Haines said.

He believes that the ability to drive culture through an organization is the best way to help a company navigate thorough times of disruption. However, the person at the top needs to embed those values into his or her everyday actions for culture to cascade down to the rest of the company.

Sometimes, and possibly often, that means making hard choices that forego short-term gain in favor of long-term values.

3. Provide room for employees to contribute to culture

While creating a culture starts at the top of a business with the leader or group of leaders at a company, everyone must be able to contribute to it in order for it to be authentic.

"It's important that you get the support from the top, but you can't do it unless it's also grassroots from the bottom up," Benwitt said. "Employees are responsible for the culture. They're bringing their entire selves to an organization, and it's their level of engagement that is creating culture."

4. Give millennial staffers experiences and help them make a difference

Perks are always a plus for staffers, from free meals to yoga classes. However, millennials continue to value experiences, the panel said. Horizon Media chief talent officer Eileen Benwitt said one of the best ways to engage with millennial talent is through offering not just experiences, but experiences that can help them make a difference.

"We have a very strong nonprofit culture," Benwitt said. Horizon Media has partnered with organizations like Habitat for Humanity and invited its employees to apply for trips to Peru and El Salvador to participate in philanthropic experiences. While it may sound pricey, Benwitt said it doesn't have to be. By asking employees to help raise money for the trips, she said, the cost stays low and the team can bond even more. 

5. Take interest in and care about your people 

You can't expect employees to be happy all day, every day. However, it's up management and chief talent officers to take a genuine and authentic interest in the lives of their employees by asking questions and earnestly getting to know them.

"Being unhappy is, for the most part, a temporary state," Day said. "You need to offer people a place where they can go, a safe place, to discuss things that they are unhappy about."

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