How to create a fantastic work culture: “Compliment in public, criticize in private.” with Pete Imwalle and Chaya Weiner

Compliment in public, criticize in private. Work can be stressful, and business isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. Never use a keyboard to argue or share bad news. Compliments are great things to share in email threads or team chats. Bad news or constructive criticism should always happen face-to-face. As a part of my series about […]

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Compliment in public, criticize in private. Work can be stressful, and business isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. Never use a keyboard to argue or share bad news. Compliments are great things to share in email threads or team chats. Bad news or constructive criticism should always happen face-to-face.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Imwalle, EVP/Chief Operating Officer at RPA. Pete is responsible for the day-to-day management of RPA, a full-service ad agency. He was a pioneer in digital marketing and helped build RPA’s truly holistic service offering. Pete champions RPA’s People First philosophy every day. He has worked on a variety of clients, such as American Honda, Farmers Insurance, Southwest Airlines, Intuit, and, plus clients in entertainment, consumer electronics and packaged goods.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Most of the people in my family were either farmers or lawyers. I grew up farming, so I thought I would try law. As I got closer to graduation at UCLA, I realized the farmers in my family seemed happier than the lawyers. I looked for a new path, and a career counselor at school recommended advertising. In 1993, after seven years at Saatchi, I followed an opportunity to work on Honda at RPA. That same year, we used the Prodigy Network to help launch the Honda Passport. It was the Internet before Web browsers had been invented.

I was intrigued by the opportunities that the Internet promised to present. By 1995, RPA created a digital incubator to develop a practice around the new channels. I moved over to lead that team and rode the waves of digital growth over the next 20 years. As digital moved from the back burner to the front in marketing plans, I helped fold our digital practice into the larger full-service agency. We like to think of it as holistic, rather than full-service, or integrated.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Several years ago, Honda put its creative and media business with RPA under review. We ended up keeping the creative business but losing media. Two years ago, we won Honda’s media business back, resulting in hiring more than 100 people over the course of four months and creating an even more holistic approach than before. What was one of the most trying times during all of our years in business, ended up being incredibly validating years later and we came out the other end much better for it.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There are always a thousand client projects going on, but right now a lot of my focus is on the ad agency business model. Our core business has evolved while the client/agency relationship hasn’t. Ad agencies used to produce low-volume, high-touch projects. Primarily, TV and print campaigns. The flow of investment toward digital means that we are transitioning budgets to high-volume digital projects. The industry still expects high-touch workflows, which are impossible to scale on high-volume digital projects. As agency margins get slimmer and slimmer, it puts pressure on agencies to push people to work harder and harder. Our goal is to optimize workflows to allow associates to do more work with less labor. Profitability shouldn’t be dependent on running your agency like a sweat shop.

One exciting agency project that we’ve spent the last year working on is a qualitative study on Generation Z and how marketers can engage them in meaningful ways. Our goal is to be better equipped to develop creative work and strategies that will resonate among this generation — one armed with $44 billion in spending power and a new set of principles. The report, called The Identity Shifters, yields insight into virtually every aspect of Z lives, from social media habits to social activism.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

That study is depressing, but not surprising. We see over and over again that employees don’t leave for money. They leave for the promise of satisfaction and happiness. The two really simple reasons are trust and a sense of value. There is a general lack of faith in institutions in our society. People have less trust for their government, their church, their financial institutions and even their own company. Increased competition in almost all industries has driven margins lower. In an effort to increase margins, business has turned its eye toward cost-cutting. Cost-cutting gives immediate, tangible results to profitability. However, there is a difference between trimming the fat and trying to get blood from a stone. Consistently putting the interests of shareholders ahead of employees kills employee trust.

Companies should do more to involve their associates in the challenges we face instead of just making them the victims of industry trends. Transparency isn’t that hard. It doesn’t mean tell everybody what their boss gets paid. It means try to run your company with no surprises. Involve people in the challenges, so they are invested in the solutions. That not only engenders trust, it makes them feel valued and included. Companies tend to think of value as compensation. Its more than compensation. It is feeling like what you do matters, and that people appreciate your contributions. A simple thank-you and passing out credit for a job well done is the easiest way to show appreciation. Especially as the margin challenges won’t allow us to throw money at people to demonstrate our appreciation. All that being said, most exit interviewees site money as a key reason for leaving because that is objective and unlikely to offend their current employer or boss. Maybe that is why companies think it’s more about the Benjamins than research indicates?

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

Ad agencies don’t have a physical product. We have people and the intellectual property that those people bring to our clients’ businesses. If the people aren’t happy in a service industry, the service suffers. When the service suffers, so do company profits. Aside from the general tensions caused by failure and financial losses, the ability to work as a team is also greatly compromised with an unhappy workforce.

Our business is completely dependent on collaboration. Nobody makes a multi-channel ad campaign on their own. Collaboration thrives when teammates trust each other. When people are unhappy, and a team is struggling, individuals are prone to finger-pointing. Finger-pointing turns teammates into competitors, instead of collaborators. Competition kills collaboration. Happy, trusting teammates support each other and build on ideas, instead of criticizing them.

Our client Southwest Airlines is the perfect demonstration. Their amazing founder, Herb Kelleher, recently passed away. So many people shared stories about his philosophies for business. This one says it all on this topic:

If the employees come first, then they’re happy . . . A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy, so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders. It’s not one of the enduring green mysteries of all time, it is just the way it works.

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. Be accessible. I once heard an executive refer to subordinates as “one-downs and two-downs.” My jaw dropped. All associates are people. They all have hopes, fears and ideas that can make or break your company. If I insulated myself by only meeting with my direct reports, I’d not only have a ton of blind spots, I’d also be demonstrating to the masses that they don’t matter.
 I spend much of my day in meetings. Our Santa Monica office is spread over 200,000 square feet in two adjacent buildings. Every time I leave my office, I try to take a different path when walking to my next meeting. It’s not that I want to be seen. I want to see. You can see where the energy is, you can see where the anxiety lives. You can talk to people that will never take advantage of your open-door policy.

2. Compliment in public, criticize in private. Work can be stressful, and business isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. Never use a keyboard to argue or share bad news. Compliments are great things to share in email threads or team chats. Bad news or constructive criticism should always happen face-to-face.

3. Hire people who add to your culture instead of conforming to it. Diversity of thought comes from diversity of people. We all think from our experiences and backgrounds. Bring people with different experiences and you get a broader range of solutions. We need to get beyond just hiring more women and people of color. We need to develop more leaders from these groups. Advertising will struggle to attract the diverse talent we crave if our prospects don’t see “people like me” in leadership.

4. Celebrate your associates’ whole lives, not just their work. RPA has an awards program called, Beyond RPA. We celebrate the things that people do in their personal lives that makes them a better person. Some are directly relatable to advertising, like painting and film-making. Others have been for coaching Little League® or running a marathon.

5. Have public office hours. Town-hall meetings are great when you have a space that can accommodate your whole team. The point is, be willing to address questions and comments publicly. It keeps people invested and it keeps your management team honest. I moved my monthly open office hours to the courtyard in the center of our building and started serving donuts. I connect with a lot more individuals than I did when a few brave or ambitious individuals would line up outside my door. Plus, everybody loves free food.

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 U.S. workforce’s work culture?

The ultra-competitive nature of business today and the extreme need to cut costs and be more productive have people working more than ever. Not only do our people work more hours than they did in the past, they are also “always on.” If you carry your office in your pocket, you never leave the office. There are a few things that we need to change to bring better balance to our lives.

First, stop celebrating the people who work the most as the most valuable. The people who are the most valuable are the ones that make the biggest contribution. That doesn’t always align with working the longest hours. Some of the most productive associates at RPA are mothers and fathers who leave by 5:30 every night. In my own life, work/life balance has completely shifted. I used to define balance as getting home at a decent hour and then trying to shut off and focus on family time. I’ve come to realize that balance means I often take a call or write a presentation in the evening or on a weekend. I also make an effort to go to every family event, even if it happens during the work day. That flexibility needs to extend to people at all levels. 
 I’d also love to see more progress in telecommuting. The hours we work are long enough. When you add commuting time, the days are even longer. We need to get more comfortable with allowing people to work remotely. Those that have the discipline and autonomy to work remotely should be encouraged to skip the drive. Almost everyone who takes a “work from home day” reports amazing productivity.

All these things cost less than overpaying to keep your talent. If people are leaving from unhappiness more often than a bigger paycheck, why not try to just make your company a more attractive place to work?

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

I would describe myself as an “active aggressive” manager. RPA is a very friendly place to work. People love the culture and many never want to leave. Those that do often want to return. We celebrate our culture as “People First.” We treat our associates with respect. We think of our clients as individual people, not just a company. We also extend that thinking to our marketing. Reaching the right people at the right time, with the message that is the most impactful, requires a deep understanding of human behavior.

Our friendly and respectful atmosphere can be mistaken as nonconfrontational. I constantly preach that we should be respectful, but there is nothing wrong with spirited debate. If your idea or POV can’t hold up to some challenges, then it probably needs some more work. People that avoid confrontation also frequently turn passive aggressive. Much better to respectfully speak your mind. The same is true in managing people. How can you expect behaviors to change if you don’t actively coach. I definitely see myself as more of a coach than a manager. Coaches want to get the best from their people.

I am also a big believer in humor and levity. Work is stressful. Let’s have a little fun when we can and not take ourselves too seriously. I hope that sets a more supportive and relaxing attitude.

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?

There are so many people. I think good leaders have to be good students. The curious learn from everything they see and do. My earliest bosses probably had the most to teach me. Warren Benjamin ran the Toyota business when I was at Saatchi, just out of UCLA. He was smart and fun and had great rapport with clients and creatives alike. I always appreciated the amount of trust he earned from his clients and co-workers. Trust is so critical to partnership. When you believe your partners have your best interest at heart, you put your attention on the problems instead of the politics.

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

Goodness feels like a high bar. I do what I can to try and give back. Personally, my wife and I are involved in a number of philanthropic causes. Professionally, I dedicate a lot of time to the advertising industry. I’m in my second year as co-president of ThinkLA, the industry trade group developing and promoting the LA advertising ecosystem. I also participate on 4As committees and a number of industry groups. 
 The most rewarding way that I give back is mentorship. I have been mentoring for three different organizations for years, so I am adding a handful of mentees each year. My preference is to mentor women of color, as they are the most under-represented group in the industry. Working at the industry and company level, you don’t always get to see the fruits of your labor. Mentoring individuals gives more immediate and more satisfying feedback.

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

Everybody is going through something. The most common cause of conflict in life is misunderstanding. We have a tendency to judge people by our own experiences, values and success metrics. In my experience, almost every conflict comes from either misunderstanding others or their motivations. Consequently, I think that listening, empathy and understanding are critical skills in life.

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. 🙂

The thing that most concerns me in the world at the moment is that major issues seem to be more polarizing than ever before. Society has become way less tolerant of those that don’t think exactly what I think. Whether it’s politics, sports teams, religious beliefs, or global warming, people are more divided than ever. The Internet has had the power to change the world and bring people from around the world together. It has also enabled those who hate to find others to validate their anger. It stems from the ability to get your news from the sources that reinforce what you already believe. When I grew up, we watched and read THE news. Now we get OUR news.

If I could snap my fingers and change the world, I’d give people a pair of goggles that would help them see the similarities in others instead of the differences. To help them pursue what unites instead of divides.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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