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“Celebrate your culture” With Tyler Gallagher & Cheryl Durst

Articulate your culture. Align your culture. Celebrate your culture. Whoever you are as an organization, whatever you do, manufacture, produce, sell, or represent, be authentically that. You can’t fake or impersonate culture, nor can you adapt one that is not aligned with your core business. Unapologetically say, “This is who we are and what we do,” […]

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Articulate your culture. Align your culture. Celebrate your culture. Whoever you are as an organization, whatever you do, manufacture, produce, sell, or represent, be authentically that. You can’t fake or impersonate culture, nor can you adapt one that is not aligned with your core business. Unapologetically say, “This is who we are and what we do,” because you have to own it and believe it to make it, sell it, represent it…whatever “it” is. And, if you are a “Chief” or C-suite anything, you have to cheerlead and embody that culture. At IIDA, we have the Design Manifesto. I created it for our members, but more broadly, it is what we believe and are as a professional membership organization for designers. We use it as branding and a graphic, so it is visible, bold, and a great reminder of why we exist.


Asa part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA).

An exceptional communicator, innovator, and visionary leader, Cheryl Durst has spurred progress, driven change, and encouraged the expansion of the Interior Design industry. As the Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Cheryl is committed to achieving broad recognition for the value of design and its significant role in society through both functionality and engagement in everyday workspaces and the built environment. Demonstrated by her active involvement in connecting industry professionals, including designers, manufacturers, clients, end users, and employers, she has worked to promote an understanding of how design impacts human behavior and affects all aspects of shared spaces.


Thank you so much for joining us CherylCan you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After graduating with a background in journalism and economics, I entered a recessionary job market, and took my first job as a substitute teacher. It was during this time that I began honing my presentation skills — taking on the responsibility to engage my students with information, meeting them at their level.

From there, I was hired by the Washington Design Center, where I initially worked in event and meeting planning, and then moved on to work in sales for a couple of the design showrooms. After spending some time learning about design and the A&D market, the design center ultimately hired me to create a continuing education series/curriculum for designers — programming that was necessary for designers to gain and maintain professional licensure.

When my husband was transferred to work at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, I began seeking local employment prior to our move and came upon a very new design association — the International Interior Design Association — that was in search of a director of education.

I moved to my current role as EVP and CEO not long after joining the team, and have since spent over 20 years serving the international community of commercial design professionals.

According to studies, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Oftentimes, people take jobs to take jobs — they want to move to a specific city, are seeking a particular salary, etc. For so many, it’s not so much about what they truly want to be doing with their time and how their job reflects who they are as a human; those things aren’t a consideration. When we’re spending the majority of our waking hours at work, that is simply not a recipe for success.

Even for the small fraction of the workforce that is being intentional about securing employment that fits with their passions and skillsets, they often run into an issue of a mismatch of culture. If a workplace culture isn’t aligned with your beliefs and work styles, going into the office can turn into a negative experience extremely quickly.

This leaves us with an overwhelming portion of the population that has not been able to achieve those two all-important aspects — finding a job that suits their abilities and interests and finding a workplace that matches their unique personality.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact company productivity, company profitability, and employee health and wellbeing?

In 2016, IIDA released a report in collaboration with BIFMA, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, that centered on the impact of workplace design on job satisfaction, corporate culture, and business results. The research found that — at statistically significant levels — employees who are more satisfied with their workplace are less likely to quit; are more engaged at work; have higher job satisfaction; make better co-workers; and show more support for corporate goals. This data directly points to high productivity, profitability and wellbeing as outcomes of a satisfied workforce.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Articulate your culture. Align your culture. Celebrate your culture. Whoever you are as an organization, whatever you do, manufacture, produce, sell, or represent, be authentically that. You can’t fake or impersonate culture, nor can you adapt one that is not aligned with your core business. Unapologetically say, “This is who we are and what we do,” because you have to own it and believe it to make it, sell it, represent it…whatever “it” is. And, if you are a “Chief” or C-suite anything, you have to cheerlead and embody that culture. At IIDA, we have the Design Manifesto. I created it for our members, but more broadly, it is what we believe and are as a professional membership organization for designers. We use it as branding and a graphic, so it is visible, bold, and a great reminder of why we exist.
  2. Invest in employee perks and added benefit. Take the time to discover those “extra” things that employees value. At IIDA, we have a masseuse come in 2–3x a month and everyone gets a free 20-minute massage during the workday. It is about wellness and wellbeing and care-taking; it demonstrates an extra level of awareness.
  3. Be mindful of burnout. It’s a question asked across every industry: What are the things that overload or overburden our employees? You can’t necessarily get rid of those things, but you can help alleviate some of the negative side effects. For instance, at IIDA, I noticed we were having way too many meetings. Staff was not getting the time to handle emails and member correspondence, or getting enough time to just get their jobs done, whether that was “heads down” work, or working on projects. So, I instituted “No Meetings Wednesday”. On Wednesdays, we all take the time to just GSD (get shit done). It has been a morale booster, and we are all finding that we are more productive and satisfied.
  4. Show gratitude and appreciation. All the way from a simple “thank you” to employees for a job well done to recognition for work anniversaries and special achievements, show your team that you appreciate and value their work. At IIDA, staff receive additional PTO/vacation days at 3, 5, 7, and 10-year work anniversary intervals.
  5. Acknowledge that employees have a life outside the office — and encourage that life. This demonstrates that you care for employee wellbeing. You want your team to enjoy the lives that they are living outside of work, and you want to encourage a healthy work/life balance. At IIDA, we have summer hours, closing early on Fridays. Throughout the year, we work a half-day on the last Friday of the month, so that you can leave the office and do what you need/want to do. During the winter holidays, we are closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with pay, giving employees time to travel, be with family and not stress about using their PTO/vacation days. Employees are also encouraged to explore continuing education (costs covered by IIDA), and this year, we were flexible with time and workload for an employee who wanted to take the time off to volunteer on a political campaign just before mid-term elections.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

At the most basic level, business leaders need to acknowledge the human part of our work. We must be both responsible and responsive to the things that support our teams as they carry out the important work of our organizations each and every day. Focusing on the wellbeing of our people, maintaining the flexibility and function of our workspaces, and ensuring our culture exemplifies the true purpose of our organizations are the vital endeavors of leadership in any sector — it’s those human elements that drive satisfaction and success.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I view our office as a community. We have conversations much more often than regimented meetings and formal presentations. I aim to approach my team as collaborative colleagues, while at the same time providing them with guidance and coaching. One of my most important roles as CEO is to support my team so that they — and ultimately, our association — can be successful.

The aforementioned “No Meetings Wednesdays” is a good example of this. After noticing the problem of overwhelm and considering the best approach that would free us up so we could move forward with our tasks, I decided to institute the rule — which operates exactly as it sounds. And, the solution doesn’t stop there; yes, we have a day free of meetings, but we also have looked at ways to make the meetings we do have more effective, as well.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

One of my very first mentors was the Director of Marketing at the Washington Design Center, Sian Imber. At the time, she was one of the most difficult people I had ever worked for, because she instituted a strict culture of “getting it right” — and it ended up being a valuable lesson for me. We were working to produce events specifically for the design community, and she reminded me often to keep the desires and expectations of that audience in mind at all times. Her mantra of “know your audience” has remained with me ever since.

I absolutely cannot talk about the support I’ve received without mentioning my husband, Troy Durst. He has been my sounding board and biggest champion throughout years of hard work, extensive travel, and raising two children.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As much as my role is centered on supporting our members and staff, it is also my objective to reinforce the power of design to the world at large. When I dedicate time and effort to commencement addresses and public speeches wherein I discuss the value of design as a career, as a creative pursuit, as a necessity for the future — that’s when I feel I am bringing goodness to the lives of others. I take the responsibility of being public very seriously; whether it’s a major moment or a short conversation, I’m mindful that people are listening and watching. Being cognizant of your influence on others is the first step to making a positive impact.

I’m also aware of my position as a person of color in an industry where people don’t typically look like me. I have the ability to be an example of someone succeeding in this profession, and I take every opportunity to speak about my experience and the vital pursuit of inclusion in the design industry and beyond.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Plan for the best. Anticipate the worst. Capitalize on what comes.”

My mother shared this notion with me in various iterations as I was growing up. It’s really about that mixture of being an optimist about what’s ahead, a realist about what you’re dealing with right now, and always making the best of whatever comes your way.

By nature, I am quite optimistic. In the world of work, however, you have to be pragmatic. Whatever challenges you face, the outcome is in your hands.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Such an incredible and thought-provoking question! I’m on a personal mission, that as I speak to people, whether in groups or as individuals, I will do a better job of making eye contact and to truly listen to them. It sounds so simple and so basic, but by making the most intrinsic of human connections — seeing and hearing and actually physically doing that — we are saying, “I see you. I hear you.” Both of these phrases in colloquial English or contemporary vocabulary mean, “I acknowledge your humanity.” It’s about seeing, hearing, and recognizing the whole person and their place in the world — not the demographic, not the gender, not the race, not their earning potential, not the CV, not a category you’ve been put in — but the person. Who they are. What they feel. It’s about empathy, and it’s beyond empathy, in a way. “I see you. I hear you.”

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