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Vanessa Cartwright Shares Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture

When evaluating a company’s culture, notice if a company’s executives deviate from the company culture that’s expected from everyone else…

Vanessa Cartwright CEO and Managing Partner, FLUID

When evaluating a company’s culture, notice if a company’s executives deviate from the company culture that’s expected from everyone else. In well run organizations, the company culture permeates from the CEO downward. In poorly run organizations, you’ll see pockets of great culture and pockets of poor culture across different departments — there won’t be consistency. Always notice if the executives of a company follow different work hours/schedules, act secretively, lack transparency, take credit as opposed to giving it. These tell tale signs will always tell a different story than what a company’s employee handbook might say.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Vanessa Cartwright from FLUID for the ongoing series: CEOs Share Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture.

Vanessa Cartwright is CEO and Managing Partner of full-service digital agency FLUID. She was recently named to Campaign’s ‘Digital 40 Over 40’ list, and led the merger of FLUID and Astound Commerce in early 2018.


Krish Chopra: What are the 3 most important values that your company’s culture is based on?

Vanessa Cartwright:

Transparency — It’s always important that people understand what’s going on within a company, and it’s your responsibility as CEO to provide access to that. This includes consistently sharing financial results and changes within the company.

Strong Culture — We are great at encouraging people to be “proactive,” meaning that we expect employees to have a certain level of accountability. We are always open to feedback and suggestions, and we promote that openness every single day, resulting in a culture without finger pointing. After all, proactive risk taking does not go hand in hand with blame.

Intense Informality — We strive to be approachable, warm and human. Always. We aim to be informal in our culture. This doesn’t mean we aren’t serious and passionate about what we do, but it allows our workspace to feel like home, where people are comfortable to bring ideas to the table.

At the end of the day, people who work hard are given a voice, whether they are a millennial or not

Krish: Managing millennials can often be a polarizing topic. Can you elaborate on your advice for managing the “millennial mindset?”

Vanessa: Millennials transcend generational boundaries. Some of the most committed and hardest working people we have working at Fluid are millennials. To me, there is danger in categorizing demographics in any way. People are people, and we hire great employees and do everything we can to make sure we understand how to adjust managerial styles to optimize employee satisfaction and performance.

That said, we are not very hierarchical and believe that suits the millennial mindset very well. It isn’t unusual to find an intern working alongside one of our Founders; these are the kinds of experiences millennials gravitate towards when searching for a job. At the end of the day, people who work hard are given a voice, whether they are a millennial or not.

Krish: What are your “5 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Culture” and why.

Vanessa: Embrace clarity and transparency.

In order for people to feel inspired, they need to understand a company’s purpose beyond, of course, generating profits. Sharing the company’s vision, values, goals and strategies has to be a part of the daily routine. There is no such thing as over-communicating these critical messages. Each team member needs to serve as a company’s brand ambassador, and be capable of explaining to clients, prospects, partners, new employees, and even to their moms, exactly what it is they do!

We also need to de-mystify through transparent communications. FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) can spread like wildfire, and while it is easy and fun to share good news, it is far harder, and far more important, to get the bad news out quickly, and frankly. Openness and accessibility engender a trust and inclusion that creates a strong sense of belonging in the workplace.

Encourage action.

A healthy company empowers its employees to make decisions and take action every day in order to move things forward. Not every decision will be the right one, but any combination of blame, finger-pointing, or punishment will result in a culture of fear and inaction. We should provide direction, coaching and tools, and create a sense of accountability through example, reward and recognition for achievement. Make your employees want to put in the effort.

Create a warm workplace.

As we work across national or even global markets, it is inevitable that our teams may be remote and dispersed. That said, in-person collaboration still remains essential, and a work space where people want to spend time is vital and should symbolize the values of the company. For example, a lack of individual offices shows a lack of hierarchy and encourages collaboration across departments and levels of management. Glass meeting room walls are a visual metaphor for transparency. Utilizing local craftspeople to build tables from natural materials shows a level of appreciation for entrepreneurs, sustainability, and the community. Allowing dogs in the workplace creates a sense of home, acknowledging that people have lives outside of the 9–5. Every company has different values, and representing these in the workplace requires more thought and involvement than simply creating a “beautiful” space.

Share activities.

Long-lasting relationships are formed over time through shared activities and the creation of memories. Rather than formal ‘team-building’ outings, choose to do things together that reflect your employees’ interests, and encourage a range so that everyone can find a way to join in the fun. Write New Year’s resolutions together and review them the following year, celebrate work anniversaries, volunteer at a local food bank or art installation, work out at the boxing gym or have after-work cocktails around the kitchen counter, or have a Slack channel for a book club. When traveling as a team for business, consider staying at an awesome AirBnB, rather than an anonymous hotel. Big and small, these things all encourage teams to spend time together, learn about each other, and build a sense of togetherness.

Lead by example.

Most importantly of all, a CEO needs to set the example. Don’t just say you are going to do something, commit to it and lead the way for employees. Stay in that AirBnB and go to the early morning barre class with your employees. Don’t opt out. Send regular business updates that celebrate wins, and explain the hard stuff and remind people why we are doing what we do. Stay calm when someone makes a mistake that costs you money or a client, and figure out what to needs to be learned and how it needs to be taught.

I think that sometimes founders have a tendency to surround themselves with people who are a lot like themselves, losing focus on the importance of having a diverse team with both hard and soft leadership skills


Krish: Strong company culture is something that everyone likes to think they have but very few have it. Why do so many organizations struggle with creating strong, healthy work environments?

Vanessa: Organizations often struggle because their leadership team doesn’t lead by example. If a company is managed from the top down, it is difficult. If you sit in a room with a bunch of executives trying to figure out what your culture is, I think you have failed. As a founder, your company culture should, of course, be based on who you are and encapsulate why you started the business in the first place, but right from the beginning you have to be open to suggestions from the people who work for you, and be open to the fact the company (and the people) will continuously change. A company is always evolving, and so should its culture and environment.


Krish: What is one mistake you see a young start-up founders make in their culture or leadership practices?

Vanessa: Highly entrepreneurial people have an incredible drive to get something done, and this creates a very single-minded focus on their path, and a belief that their way is the only and right one. From a broad cultural perspective as you start to grow, you need various types of people and a range of skill sets in order to thrive. I think that sometimes founders have a tendency to surround themselves with people who are a lot like themselves, losing focus on the importance of having a diverse team with both hard and soft leadership skills.



Krish: To add to the previous question, young CEOs often have a lot of pressure to perform and often wear many hats. What’s a simple time efficient strategy they can start doing today to improve their company’s culture?

Vanessa: Young CEO’s may not have a team, and may find it difficult to let go and allow others take the reins. Building an empowering culture where you can comfortably trust the people you have brought in to help you is important. Take on exercises to make you feel at ease delegating tasks to others early on.


Krish: Success leaves clues. What has been your biggest influence in your leadership strategy and company culture?

Vanessa: I was hired by Virginia Green, previously the President of Go Direct Marketing, when I first moved to Vancouver from London as an Account Director. Virginia was an amazing person who influenced me a lot when it comes to company culture, and her leadership style left a huge imprint on me. She was determined and successful, but everything she did was done with grace and respect, and she made sure her employees encompassed this mindset, too. She also had amazing balance between work and everything else in her life. My friend Cindy Gallop has also helped me in many ways over the last several years. Her continually sound advice, “Don’t tell me what job you want to do, tell me what you want your life to be like,” has guided and allowed me to have a great perspective when it comes to company culture and what employees want.


Krish: What advice do you have for employees that have bad bosses? How can they take control and improve a bad situation?

Vanessa: I don’t think anyone ever intentionally sets out to be a bad boss. But, as an employee, trying to understand a leader’s goals and motivations can help improve a bad situation. That said, if someone is not treating you with respect or allowing you to grow in a workplace, don’t stay. You need to be not only in a job you want, but a situation that serves you.


Krish: Okay, we made it! Last question — what’s one unique hack you or your company does that has enhanced your work culture?

Vanessa: Dogs! Bringing dogs into our workplace has built relationships, a sense of home and family and also creates ease. I got my dog because of my job at Fluid!


A note to the readers: Improving company culture happens at any level in an organization. If you learned one thing in this interview, please share this with someone close to you.

A special thanks to Vanessa Cartwright again!

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Originally published at medium.com

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