Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes a company’s culture tick. Having spent the past year working remotely, leaders have a fresh perspective on the type of environment they want their employees to work in. We all want an inclusive, accepting company culture, but sometimes, we might be hired into an existing culture or merged with/acquired by another company with an established culture. What happens when we walk into a toxic situation? How do we correct the situation and create a safe environment for the staff?
I have had the privilege of working at many different companies over the years, as well as starting my own. Company culture is key to the growth and happiness of the employee, and it cannot be emphasized enough. I have seen many different types of company cultures and have been impressed with some and frightened by others. I have worked in super corporate environments where individuality was discouraged — the only focus being on unrealistic growth. I’ve seen family businesses where the patriarch or matriarch struggled to turn the business over to the next generation, especially when the family head had created a successful, thriving business. I’ve witnessed company cultures with personality cults, businesses founded or led by a strong individual who bends everyone to their will.
All these businesses have their pros and cons. But it all comes down to how the individual employee is treated and how they feel their worth is measured by those in charge.
I recently came across a company that had a combination of cultures that made for an interesting case study. It is a long-standing family business with all the intricacies that come with the territory: questions of succession, sibling rivalry and a reluctance to reinvest in the company. There were two divisions within this company: sound and picture. The culture within each of these two divisions was as different as could be.
The sound department was welcoming and collaborative. The employees worked well together and supported each other — an extraordinarily strong and bonding culture. They helped the younger employees, teaching and encouraging them through mentorship. They gave clear instruction to the junior staff, and if there were issues, they addressed them head-on in a constructive manner. One employee just did not cut it, yet he was given every opportunity to succeed. When he ran out of chances, a decision was made as a department that the employee was not a fit, and everyone agreed and moved on.
Meanwhile, the picture department had a culture that was just the opposite — it was a bit of a personality cult. It was not welcoming to outsiders at all; if someone tried to come into this group with outside ideas, they were either ignored or spoken over. The leader decided who he liked, and the other two senior employees followed his word like gospel. If an employee made a mistake, they were marked for life, and there was a lot of behind-the-back talking. It should be noted that as individuals, these were not bad people, and they were good at their jobs, though they were by no means at the top of their profession. I observed them in action for some time, and it was apparent there was either a lack of self-awareness of their behavior or, more likely, an air of arrogance that made them not care.
As I observed these two departments function, I thought what an incredible Harvard Business School study this would make: one highly functional employee-oriented group of individuals creating a welcoming, warm culture and one totally dysfunctional group creating a culture of exclusion and nastiness. It was Gilmore Girls and Mean Girls under one roof.
The question from ownership was: How do we fix this? It was an interesting question without an easy answer, especially if the Mean Girls showed no interest in changing.
The solution to this situation, as it turned out, was a painful but necessary one: Rebuild the department, and eliminate the problem at its source. Rebuilding a department costs money and time, and is a difficult thing to do. It would be easy to continue down the same path and let the employees continue their behavior as long as the business was making money. New employees were bought in who did not believe in their way of working, both on a technical and personal level. They saw the change coming and decided on their own to leave.
Simply because an employee is a star does not give them the right to treat others disrespectfully. Over and over in the entertainment business, losing the star because of abhorrent behavior is painful, but life goes on — the company survives.
What can we as leaders in the entertainment business do to make sure we’re setting our company up for success? Here are some general best practices:
• Create an environment that is inclusive, caring and tolerant of teamwork and acceptance but not tolerant of “star” behavior.
• Stress that it is OK to disagree as long as the goal is the successful completion of the project and the client’s best interest is the center of the discussion.
• Lead by example; treat everyone in a fair and equal manner.
• Do not be afraid to hit the reset button, however minor or drastic. The temporary loss of revenue can always be replaced. Eliminating an abusive employee sends the right message. Talk to your employees, especially the ones on the front lines, as they often have the answers you are looking for.
My father-in-law had a great saying: You get respect when you earn it. You have to earn your employees’ respect every day. It is good to disagree — different viewpoints create amazing results for the company and the clients. Everything needs to be done with respect — great companies are made that way.