Every Company Has Culture - Only Some Have a Soul w/Ralf Specht Ep#147
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Anthony: Hi there, ladies and gentlemen, folks and people. Welcome to this episode of the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. My name is Anthony Taylor. On the Strategy & Leadership Podcast we interview senior leaders, thought leaders, to get their perspective on strategy, leadership, what's coming up in the future, and to help you lead your teams as effectively as possible. My guest today is Ralf Specht. I hope I got that one. He is the author of Building Corporate Soul and the co-founder and former CEO of Spark44. And Ralph is joining us from Frankfurt, Germany today. Ralf, how are you today?
Ralf: I'm fine. It's great to be with you. Great to be on the show.
Anthony: I'm so excited. I looked at your CV, looked at all of the different organizations that you've touched on, you know, working in Europe, it's such an interesting piece. You know, the transition that you've gotten in your career the last two years I'm especially excited for because you know, presumably culminating all of that experience into a book that I think is so relevant for 2022. But why don't you tell our audience a little bit about who you are, what you did, what you do and how you got to today?
Ralf: Yes, my pleasure. So as you quite rightly said, I was a co-founder and former CEO of Spark44, which was a joint venture with Jaguar and Land Rover. A global advertising agency/marketing communications agency. When I stepped down, we were 1200 people and had 19 offices. So that was quite something. We started in 2011, we were five founders. And I think a lot of the wisdom in the book comes from those nine years with Spark44.
Prior to that, I've had the pleasure to work with McCann Erickson. And I'm always in for the long run, you know, so I did that for 22 years in various executive roles, mostly global clients, global businesses. And what I figured out, both during the time at McCann Erickson, but even more at the time at Spark44, was the importance of corporate culture.
And when we founded the agency, we had the luxury to build an agency from scratch. So there was nothing there. We were a startup, the five of us. And we had to open up four offices in LA, Shanghai, Frankfurt and London. And had to do that in quite a short time. And as we got onto that journey, I think the critical key moment for the culture, corporate culture discussion to emerge was when we got the final green light, you can now do this. And we looked at each other and said, Okay, how are we going to do it? Because it's always easy when you talk from the outside, it's quite a different subject when you're on the inside. And so what we did was we sat down in a room in London, I remember to this day, and had a number of flip charts in the room. And we were like, Okay, now let's write it down. What are we going to do? How are we going to do it and all the rest of it? And it was pretty difficult. It turned out pretty difficult. Until we flipped the question. Because we were in our mid 40s to mid 50s, all of us had been in the industry for quite a while. So we've seen this and that and the other. And so we flipped the question and said, what in this new company that we're about to form, do we not want to see ever happening again? And that flip chart filled itself very, very quickly. Once we had all the points together, grouped them, did our logic, we said Okay, now let's build the organization to avoid these failures, from our point of view, and get on with it. And off we went.
>>Read more: How to Assess Your Company Culture
Anthony: Awesome. I love it. To summarize a seasoned career like that in such a short amount of time. But one of the things, I'm sure there's so many lessons learned through that time. Talking about the corporate culture, talking about well, I want to ask you about working with historic brands, because I think that's fascinating. But what I think is interesting, just out of that one lesson is it's sometimes hard for people to think about what they do want, but they're very clear on what they don't want. And to kind of reflect the question and flip the question on its head, it provides a new perspective to look at things.
We can help you align your team around a clear vision, mission, values, goals and action plans,
so you can lead your organization more effectively and get better results.
Ralf: Absolutely. And when we did that, one of the big questions, big issues that we all had faced in our careers in international businesses was the in-fight between offices of the same agency, on elements of a global account, because everybody was chasing the revenues that were behind it. So we flipped that around and said, Well, the one thing that we just don't want to see in our place is competition on money. We only want to see competition on great work. And that's how we built the structure. And I think the rest is history,
Anthony: Absolutely. So let's take it back a little bit, you know, 20 years with one organization, another 10 with another. As you've developed, what were some of your critical, you know, lessons learned that you learned in working with these great brands, and working with these great agencies? What have you found has made you successful, not just in the creative world, but in the people world that has shaped how you approach problems and solutions today?
Ralf: You just pointed out exactly the right word, the 'people' word. There's only one thing that is at your fingertips if you work in these industries, which is people. And I always call this a human centric, performance driven organization. But at the end of the day, that's what it is. And that's what you need to create. And you need to create an environment where that can happen. Where people can give the very best, and are happy to give their very best.
>>Read more: Why Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
And I always say to leaders, listen, there's one thing that you got it you got available to you, which comes, I would say for free, right? Because you're always in situations where you have to deal with constraints. There's no time, there's no budget, there's not enough people, there's not enough expertise, and all the rest of it. There's always something missing. I haven't seen any leader in my over 30 years of work who ever said, Oh, I'm happy, I've got plenty of everything. Ain't going to happen, you're never going to see that. So the one thing that comes for free, which is something that leaders often didn't or don't tap into, is commitment. And commitment is something that can happen at the team level, it can happen at the corporate level. And commitment is a very easy thing to generate. It's not difficult, it really is not difficult.
But you often wonder why leaders complain about oh, but people aren't committed, they're not fully engaged, they're not 100%, 150% behind it, or whatever they're gonna want to say. And if you think about it, the basic requirement for commitment is to align the goals of the team with a corporate objective and make sure everybody feels they're part of that team. Which basically means you got to create transparency about where you're going, you got to create an understanding of where you want to go, and you got to involve everybody to actually participate.
And you know, these things sound very banal. They're not. If they were, by now they would happen every everywhere all the time, but they don't. So you've got to create ownership with your team members, so that they can actually feel that empowerment and deliver the commitment - and go the extra mile. And as a leader, what you're going to do is recognize that big time. Make sure everybody knows about it, celebrate, and if the results don't come, also communicate and say, well, probably missed the boat at this junction. But we learned a lot, right? So you always have to communicate and make sure that people get it. And then commitment is a resource that can really get you much further than you ever thought. When we started the agency I put a South African proverb on the walls of the agency. Because I thought this captures everything in just two wonderful sentences. And it says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." So bring everybody along, make sure everybody feels that they are there on the bus, part of the team. And then you get more results than you think.
Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. We've definitely heard that proverb, I drop it almost every day, because I love it. And I'm kind of glad that getting alignment and clarity isn't banal, because it keeps us in business as facilitators, because it's foundational to all of that success. But what I heard from what you shared is, you know, regardless of what organization you're in, people are at the heart of it. And it's free, because they're there.
So harness the greatest resource that you have, in creating that guiding coalition with people, making sure that they're coming together, making sure that the strategic objectives are aligned with everybody's goal, and make sure that everybody has that level of commitment. If you don't have commitment, you don't have anything to be able to move that forward. So I have a question. From your perspective, because you're the top of your field, you're working with other people that are at the top of their field. And I see kind of a parallel by putting high performers in a room with different personalities, different backgrounds and experience, and then running that parallel to different brands coming together to try to create something. So what were some of the lessons learned? Either, hey, I did this really well. Or I did this really poorly. From gathering together high performing teams. How did you manage the conjunction of brands and conjunction of personalities?
Ralf: The hardest thing is to take the egos away. It really is the toughest thing. And sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you don't. And the way we approached it, there's a there's a nice anecdote, probably. I already said that. When we started the company, we looked at the things that we didn't want to do again. And I mentioned that there was always very often an in-fight between offices on the money. And so in the in the beginning, we really tried to keep the origin of the work or the team that originated the work as a secret. So clients always wanted to know, so who did this? And where did it happen? Was it this office or that office or all the other offices? And we kept on saying No, it's backward, forward. Don't worry where it where it's coming from, we only worry whether it's great or not. And if it's great, it doesn't matter where it's coming from. And if it isn't great, you shouldn't see it in the first place. So that's kind of how we approached it.
But I mean, it's something where you have to unlearn a lot, right, you have to unlearn a lot, because people are trained when they're joining companies. And that is something that you have to really, really fully understand. And the same is true for corporate culture, right? I mean, we were a company that didn't exist before. So you start from scratch, perfect. But then you have people joining who are coming from different places, and you've got a few who it's their first job. So for them, what you're creating is the new normal. Right? So we saw it when people who joined in the beginning, left after two or three or four years because they wanted to move to another city or had another plan. And and I often remember there were conversations with people that have been around for longer in the industry, that always said, Okay, so just make sure you understand that when you're leaving, and you're going somewhere, you expect something similar in terms of the culture of the place. But you know, it might not be that similar. And every now and then when people came back, popping up in the office saying hi to their previous colleagues, those experience were actually happening and do what I'm telling.. we thought some of the things here were challenging, but actually compared to where we are now, this was just great.
I think from where I'm coming from, with the work on Building Corporate Soul, is when I stepped down as CEO, the most normal thing happens. Everybody gives you an email or WhatsApp or call or what have you. And you get tons of messages. And we all know these messages when we swapped jobs and when these things happen. This time was very different. For I think for two reasons. One, I was the last of the founding members who left the leadership team. And people took stock of what they have experienced or had experienced inside Spark44 and looked at me as their leader, in terms of moments that they didn't forget, that meant a lot to them. And we're putting them all in the context of the industry, and everything else they experienced. And so I thought, listen, this is something that is bigger than a nice or terrible message to arrive. This is actually testament of a company with a strong corporate culture and company with soul. And that's what inspired for the book.
And hence, I created the framework, which is in the book, The Soul System. It has got three levels. First one is what I call the shared purpose. Everybody talks about purpose, that's been the buzzword for the last 10/15 years. And there's nothing wrong with purpose. But to me, purpose only unfolds its potential and its power, if it's a shared purpose. And it means shared by the leadership team. Everybody needs to be on the bus, and shared with everyone inside the company. Everybody needs to know that.
And there's a wonderful study called the Business Case for Purpose, where they've asked leaders around the world about what they think about purpose, and it tells you why the notion of shared is so critical. 89% of the leaders that were asked, are saying an organization with shared purpose will have employee satisfaction. Okay, cool. So you read that and you think, oh, boy, they got it. Job done, don't need to write a book. Then, when you go down in that study, you read our organization strategy is reflective of our sense of purpose. And that's only 50% of the leaders say that,. Okay, so the organization might have a purpose for what they're doing but the strategy is not in sync with their purpose. And then our staff have a clear understanding of organizational purpose and commitment to core values and beliefs. The number is 38%. In other words, it's 62% that don't. And so that notion of shared is the big dilemma. In corporate corporations around the world, people often don't know. People see the words in the reception or on a corporate video or what have you. But they don't come down to earth, in their everyday experience. The employee experience is not reflective of that, and that is a nightmare.
Anthony: So I want to hear about the next two steps of your model before we move on. But before we do that, you said so much really great stuff. So high performing leaders, one of the things to kind of keep in check anytime you add somebody new, is taking the ego out of it. And high performers, whether or not you like it, many of them have an ego, because they are put in that position to be successful, and everybody leads a different way.
So in the creative industry, your creativity, which is you, is the thing you bring to the table. So it's even more challenging in that environment. Recognizing that it's not a zero sum game, in those situations. We've got a global business that we work with, they got offices all over the place. Well, it's one team, not 100 different offices. So how do you make everybody recognize that there's that common purpose? And then one of the other things that you talked about is about culture and behaviours, which I think is kind of like level one. And then it turns into, if you make culture and behaviour, and you evolve it, it really turns into that soul. It's the amalgamation of everything in the soul. The values, behaviour and the culture are a part of the soul, and the purpose.
So the first step that you share, to be able to create that shared purpose, because if we don't have a shared purpose, we have different purposes, which means we're moving in different directions, and we're working on different things. So how do you create that shared purpose? So step one shared purpose. Let's see if we can get those other two before we finish up today.
Ralf: Okay, so step two is what I call the shared understanding. Okay, and what's behind that are all these wonderful things from corporate strategy. What's your vision, what's your mission? What are your values? Then I've added one thing, which I consider really, really critical. And I call that spirit. And we often talk about corporate spirit and all these things. What I mean by spirit in this sense is what is the intended corporate culture? What is it that we want to see, feel, happen in this place? Okay, so you're going to make sure that these four are in sync with a shared purpose and shared understanding.
Now, you could argue, step one and step two are basically theoretical steps, right? You're basically putting strategic thinking on paper and make sure your thinking is accurate, and is strong, it is really critical that it's strong. The best example from my experience, and from everything I've seen is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is such a clear company, if you like. So the purpose is very straightforward to facilitate professional networking. Everybody inside the firm knows what this is about, right? Facilitate professional networking, and in addition create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. Everybody inside the organization now understands, what we were about to do is not just facilitating professional networking, but to do it in a way that it creates opportunities for those who are on the platform. And the mission is to connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful.
So the end benefit is make sure Anthony is more successful. That's why he needs to be on LinkedIn and all the rest. But when you then add the set of values, and we've all seen corporate values being very superficial and exchangeable. Very often you see a lot of things and you think like we heard that before.
The LinkedIn ones I think, are real great example, there are seven of them. And they are a great combination of inward and outward focus. So they start with an outward focus - members first. So you understand, you remember the purpose, the mission, the vision, it's all very clear. And now you hear the values - members first. So it's very clear, this is what your focus is, members. And then number two is relationships matter. Okay, that connects perfectly. Then they will switch to the internal and say, well, you're going to be open, you're going to be honest and constructive. And the fifth one is known as raise the bar, demand excellence, right? Demand excellence. And the two last ones, basically appeal to everybody as an entrepreneur inside the company. So the sixth value is called take intelligent risks. So if we have these, you already got a great sense of what the spirit of the company is supposed to be.
And then you can go to the next level, which is what I call the shared behaviors. The shared behaviors are the actions that are recognized inside the company, this is how we do things here. This is how we deal with things here. And they cover everything inside the firm. I mean, not everything needs to be planned from the get go. Some things develop organically, and that's a good thing. As long as they are in sync with the purpose and shared purpose and shared understanding. But you got to have a view about how do you hire people? How do you promote people, how do you develop people? How do you find external partners that you want to associate yourself with? And everything that happens in corporate life. And the way I would put it is, every company has a culture, some have got corporate soul, and those that have soul are the ones who created integrity between the purpose, understanding and the behaviours.
Anthony: Awesome. I love that. I it aligns very well with how we do things. I think it's a really easy structure for people to follow. I think it's harder in practice. But you know, you have to start off with the intentionality of where you want to go. Like you said earlier, that commitment. I think as leaders, if you are committed to creating that purpose, that structure, that shared understanding and shared behaviour, then you're going to be well ahead. I'll say, if you would like to do that through a strategic planning process, we can help. You also definitely want to connect with Ralf and get his book. So Ralf, where can people connect with you? Where can they learn more about your work? Where can they learn more about your book, and how can they get in touch if they want to learn more?
Ralf: So the book is obviously available everywhere where you can buy great books, right? So the official official launch is on the 22nd of February. So right now it's open for preorder and obviously, just in a short four weeks, it's going to be on the bookshelves. You can learn about the book on my website, which is buildingcorporatesoul.com. So pretty straightforward, you can connect with me on LinkedIn, and over the website. So I'm looking forward, and there's two features on the website that I would like to highlight where people can interact. One is what I call the soul check, on the website. So you can basically go through a little test and see where you end up in terms of the status of the soul of your company. And the second one that I would like to highlight is, if there's someone in your company that you think is a role model.. he or she embodies the soul of the company, just drop me a line. There's a space on the website to recommend anyone who's a soul driver in your company. I'd like to feature them in our newsletter, which you can also sign up for.
Anthony: Awesome. I love that. Well speaking from experience of going through this process and leading teams through that process of getting alignment, purpose, understanding on behaviours, it is so rewarding for organizations. Not only to accomplish it as an endpoint, but to go through that process of assessment to say, Hey, how can we improve? And then really, as you talk about the implementation of it, talking the talk, walking the walk, rewarding the walk, and acknowledging people that are living in line with what you want to have is so critical to an organization's success. So Ralf, thank you for sharing today. I'm looking forward to the book, I'm looking forward to hearing about not just the model, but you who developed the model over 20 plus years in the industry. There's got to be some gold in there about your your past experience. And I appreciate you sharing that on today's podcast.
Ralf: And it's been my pleasure. So let's totally make soul-less companies a single thing of the past.
Anthony: I'm with it. I love it. Thank you so much, Ralf. So my guest today, Ralf Specht, who is the author of Building Corporate Soul, and the co-founder and former CEO of Spark44. So if you have somebody in your organization that you want to support developing their own corporate soul, be sure to send this podcast. If you haven't, be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. And if your team is doing strategic planning sometime coming up, be sure to reach out to us at SME Strategy.
My name is Anthony Taylor. This has been the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. Thanks so much for joining us, and we'll see you next time!