Beyond the Potluck: Create a Thriving Culture that Rocks!


Expert Don Harkey shares his insights into how to create a culture that benefits employees and your media business.

How do you create a thriving culture within your organization? Can it really affect your bottom line? The truth is why we work determines how well we work. We interviewed CoFounder of People Centric Consulting Group, Don Harkey, to learn more about how niche publishers can bring a pragmatic approach to building culture that supports employees, business AND growth goals.

NMHQ: Where might companies start when looking at their culture? Is there a culture health check? Or certain things to looks for, particularly those that tie culture to revenue growth?

“Culture is what happens when management is not in the room.  If you feel like your company isn’t as successful as it could be, it is likely that you have an opportunity to improve your culture. When we say “improve” culture, we mean implementing a high performance “People Centric” culture that includes engagement, focus, and accountability.  These characteristics make everything work better.  Studies show that companies with a high performance culture enjoy 22% higher profitability than other companies.

There are 2 ways we’ve developed to evaluate and improve culture.  We’ve developed a self-assessment that allows leaders to evaluate their own company and identify opportunities. We will be supplying this self-assessment to anyone who wants it at the Niche CEO Summit at no cost.  While the self-assessment provides some insight, a better assessment is our Pathfinder Assessment.  This assessment is a more comprehensive look at your culture through surveys and interviews with employees.  We conduct the assessment and then present a detailed report of organizational strengths and opportunities.”

NMHQ: Can you share a couple of real-world examples of companies that made some changes within their culture that led to profitable results?

“A magazine publisher that we’ve worked with for the past few years had a history of being very successful, but they felt some culture pains as they grew.  They also wisely recognized that it was important that they develop their next generation of leaders who would champion their culture into the future.  We have worked with this company to build internal systems that support a high performance culture.  We’ve trained their managers to be effective leaders and to deal with toxic employees quickly and effectively.  We’ve implemented management systems that help managers to develop their employees.  We’ve worked to improve communication between departments by introducing effective meetings and clear role descriptions.  We’ve even increased employee engagement by creating an internal system for collecting, vetting, prioritizing, and executing ideas for potential company improvements.  The result since implementing these systems has been a double digit increase in profitability and revenue.  The company went from 27 to 45 employees while increasing revenue AND profitability.  The publisher was actually featured at the last Niche CEO Summit for his company culture.

Another great example comes from an architectural firm that we worked with.  This company has two partners with very different personalities.  One is very aggressive and the other is more thoughtful and passive.  The firm employees struggled working with two bosses who set very different expectations and had different working styles.  We worked with this firm to establish clearly defined roles for both the partners and the employees.  We shifted some day to day decision making away from the partners while increasing accountability for the employees.  We even helped them to deal with a couple of toxic employees.  The result after just a few months was, as the managing partner reported, “numbers up and drama down”.  The turnover decreased in the firm and productivity increased.  The firm was able to take on extra projects which led to a dramatic spike in revenue and profit.

Culture is often viewed as being “soft”, but I can’t think of a better way to improve profitability than to work on implementing a high performance culture.”

NMHQ: The resulting loss of productivity from less-than-fully engaged employees can impact everything a media company undertakes. What are some pragmatic ways media companies can begin to turn that around?

“This question is understating the problem.  In the US, only 32% of employees are engaged, 51% of employees are disengaged and another 16% are toxic.  The disengaged employee goes to work, does their job, and goes home… and very little else.  They are more likely to let quality issues slip by undetected.  Their lack of engagement is felt by advertisers and subscribers they interact with.  Toxic employees are even worse.  Toxic employees are those who are fundamentally misaligned with their organization or their supervisor.  Studies show that even one toxic employee on a team of highly engaged employees will decrease the productivity of the entire team by 30-40%!  Also, a highly engaged employee who works with a toxic employee on their team is 54% more likely to quit.  This isn’t a small problem.  It’s an epidemic.

Simply put, companies need to get their toxic employees back in line, or they need to promote them to their next opportunity with another organization.  We train managers to recognize the root cause of toxicity and how to handle it QUICKLY (over days and weeks, not months and years).  The most common root cause of toxicity is actually managers who aren’t trained in how to lead and manage their people.  Helping your managers understand that their primary role is to be shepherds of your culture is key.  Deal with those toxic employees and you will see a spike in engagement.

The other tip we have for companies is simple.  If you want more engaged employees, you need to engage them.  Stop solving all of the problems for your people.  Bring them to the table and have them help you solve their own problems.  Another publisher that we work with is looking to increase their sales by implementing a renewal program.  Instead of launching a renewal program to the sales team and hoping that they embrace the idea, we engaged the sales team and had them help us develop the program.  The result was a much more successful implementation from an engaged sales team.”

NMHQ: What are some good guidelines for publishers to help them determine the right accountability structure for their team?

“Everyone in your company should know who they work for and it should be one person.  There have been lots of studies on flat or matrix organizational structures, but the old fashioned tree hierarchy is the best for clear accountability.  Everyone knows who is judging their performance.  We’ve seen writers who report to 3 or 4 different managers in different departments.  That doesn’t work well.  While the writer might do work for different departments (ex: magazine, digital, custom, etc), there should be a designated supervisor who is charge of managing and developing them.

Another great way to ensure accountability is to ensure that everyone has a clear vision of what “winning” looks like on a daily basis.  One publisher we work with had a “work pile” system for their art department.  Designers would simply go to the pile to pull their next job.  The problem is that at the end of the day, the designers worked all day without a feel for if they were hitting deadlines.  We worked with the designers to redesign their own workflow so they could clearly see what had to be done as a team and see if they were on track or off track.  This visibility of success (or failure) improves accountability.”

NMHQ: What does the successful business culture of the future look like? 

“If you want to know where the most successful companies in the world focus their time, the answer is culture.  Culture has long been overlooked as something that cannot be directly influenced or impacted.  However, we have cracked the culture code and the secret is to not work on culture directly, but instead to work on systems that drive culture.

High performance cultures have reliable systems that support their culture.  They hire, on board and train in a way that puts the right people in the right roles.  They communicate effectively between departments through effective and energizing meetings.  They have managers who develop and inspire their people to perform at a high level.  They are constantly improving their processes at all levels of the company.  Finally, they engage in strategic planning and goal setting that helps everyone in the company know where they are going and what each person needs to do to get them there.

32% engagement levels are unacceptable.  I believe this number will improve in the future and that People Centric will be one of the leaders of the movement!  The results will be more successful companies with higher profitability filled with employees who live and work within their core strengths and passions with clarity and purpose.”

Editor’s note: Don will be speaking to publishers on “The Culture Club: Strategy, Company Culture, and Revenue Growth” at the Niche CEO Summit in Nashville, Nov. 14-15.



More about Don: Don Harkey is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at People Centric Consulting Group. People Centric partners with clients to help them to create and implement high performance cultures through clear direction, effective systems, and engaged employees. The company specializes in working with small to medium sized organizations and has experience in the publishing industry. Don learned the power of fostering a culture that creates high employee engagement when he was a senior-level corporate engineer overseeing millions of dollars in capital projects. After working for years as a consultant, in 2012, he merged his consulting practice with The Success Coach Network to form People Centric Consulting Group.


Diana headshot photoAbout this blogger: Diana Landau is the Content Wrangler for Niche Media. A former sales director and corporate marketing hack, she has now found nirvana in writing and wrangling quality content. Diana is a food, wine, art and SF Giants enthusiast…who sometimes gets carried away.


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