Episode 186

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Every agency has a culture. The question is – is it intentional? And when I say culture, I’m not talking the beer thirty or holiday party aspects of culture. I’m really focusing in on the shared beliefs and agreed upon “rules” of engagement in terms of how we work together, deliver for the client and push towards our goals.

In too many agencies, this is not as intentional as it needs to be. The agency’s vision, mission, and values may exist somewhere, in a file folder, or at best in an employee manual, and then agency owners check off the box, hoping that their team picks up on it. It’s culture by default, not by design.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that culture isn’t just a nice idea. It’s not simply a day out serving the community or a potluck lunch held the first Tuesday of every month. Those things can be good and a part of the culture but the concept goes much deeper than that and it has implications for the bottom line.

In this episode, I talk with Tristan White, who early on in his business realized that intention and methodology were necessary to build a strong and healthy work culture. He soon realized that culture isn’t a distraction. It isn’t peripheral to business. Culture is everything.

Tristan White is the CEO of a company called The Physio Co. in Australia. Its core purpose is to increase the physical wellness and activity levels of seniors to keep them healthier, happier, and more mobile.

In the process of building The Physio Co., Tristan did a lot of learning and a lot of experimenting with respect to culture and its influence on company performance. He ended up writing a book called Culture is Everything. Inside that book, Tristan lays out a system for building a foundational culture inside your organization. We explore that system and dig into why culture is so critical to running a long-term successful business.


What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • Why it’s never too late to grow and foster a healthy work culture
  • How to live the corporate values you espouse
  • A methodology by which to operate from your core values
  • Why culture can equal cash
  • How to design a culture that withstands challenging times
  • How to develop a culture of substance
  • Why a healthy work culture must go beyond a day of service and Taco Tuesdays
  • How to bake things like empathetic connection into your culture
  • How to interview for alignment with your culture
  • Where to start in shaping or reshaping your agency’s vision and values

The Golden Nuggets:

“Brand and culture are two sides to the same coin. We can define it as a company and brand is how it is lived and seen externally, and culture is how it is lived and experienced by the team internally.” – @tristanjwhite Share on X “The foundations of culture are about connection. They're about communication and discovering the goal and documenting the future. When challenges come along, you are able to face them and grow in spite of them.” – @tristanjwhite Share on X “Culture that gets you through the tough times is where you build really strong relationships.” – @tristanjwhite Share on X “It is never too late to establish a culture by design rather than by default.” – @tristanjwhite Share on X

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Ways to Contact Tristan White:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business, that’s why Agency Management Institute started to Build a Better Agency podcast a few years ago. We help agencies just like yours, grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. Bringing his 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. If this is your first episode ever, you’ve picked a great one. This topic that I think is going to resonate with many of you today, and if you are a longtime listener, this is a topic we haven’t spent a ton of time on in the past, so I think it was well past due for us to chat about. So the topic of today’s podcast, and I’ll tell you a little bit about our guest in a minute, the topic of our podcast is around culture and how a culture and a foundation of a good strong culture actually helps an agency scale, grow, and helps the agency owner get out of the day-to-day work, and focus on the work that is uniquely theirs.

Now, when we talk about culture, and I will ask our guest to define this through his lens as well, but when we talk about culture, I think a lot of times when I say to an agency, “Tell me about your culture,” and they say, “Oh, it’s great, and we do all these great things. We all like each other, and we have Beer Fridays, and we do habitat builds once a quarter,” or whatever it is that you do, we tend to focus on the play side of culture. And don’t get me wrong, I think that’s super important. I think it’s very important that we explore and play and discover as a team, and that we do things out in the community together and that we socialize together. I’m all for all of that, but I think there’s a deeper meaning to culture, and I think that’s around this idea of do we have a shared set of values? Do we all understand that we’re headed in the same direction? Do we all know why we get here every day and what our purpose is in being here?

And that sense of culture, that sense of being and belonging really does define the agency, and I think it also defines how our clients experience the agency because the reality is I can’t be one kind of person inside the agency and be a different kind of person outside the agency. I may be able to fake that for a little bit, but that’s not something that is sustainable long-term. And so this idea of culture and really having people aligned to our culture is critical. And for many of you, the biggest challenge that you’re facing right now is finding good talent, and then once you find them, keeping them and really making them a part of the whole where they really feel like they have ownership and a commitment to the team and your clients and each other, and I think a lot of that struggle comes from either not really articulating what your values are. Maybe some of you know what they are, but you just don’t talk about them very often.

I was with a client the other day, and I said, “Do you have a set of core values or principles?” And they said, “Absolutely.” And I said, “Okay,” and I said, “And tell me how those are infused into the business,” and they said, “Well, they’re in our employee manual.” And then there was the silence, and I said, “Okay. So what you’re saying is on the very first day of employment, I read through the employee manual, I see them there and then they’re never talked about or expressed or celebrated or used in decision-making ever again?” Yeah, that’s probably right.

And I said, “Okay. So if I stopped someone in the hall and I said, ‘Tell me the core values of this company,’ could they tell me what they are and what they mean?” And there was this sort of awkward long silence. And they said, “I guess we don’t really have core values,” and I said, “Well, you have them, you just haven’t taught them. You’re not living by them, and so you can’t really expect the employees to live by them because they don’t even know what they are.”

So all of that is going to be what we talked about today. So let me tell you a little bit about our guest, and then let’s just get right into the conversation because I think going to be a juicy one. So Tristan White is our guest today, and Tristan is the CEO of a company called The Physio Co, and they are based out of Australia. And that company, their core purpose is to bring physical wellness and activity levels to seniors, to keep them more mobile and healthier and happier. And so Tristan started the company more than a decade ago, and in the process of building this company out, he did a lot of learning and a lot of experimenting inside his own company around culture and the influence that it has a company performance, he ended up writing a book called The Culture Is Everything. And inside that book, there’s sort of a system or a process for building this foundational culture inside your organization. We’re going to talk a lot about that. Book is excellent, it’s a great read, and it’s a nice blueprint.

If at the end of the podcast today, you realize that maybe this is something that you could improve on, or that you could embellish inside your own organization, I highly recommend the book as a good starting point, as a thinking stimulus to get you going. But anyway, I’m going to talk to Tristan about all of this and what he’s seen in other companies and how he’s seen it manifest itself in his own company, and what I’m hoping is, as we’re talking, I want you just to use the conversation as a litmus test and see how much of it rings true about your agency, and the work that you do, and the people that you employ and if you’re all sort of marching to the same beat, if you will. So without further ado, I want to turn the mic over to Tristan, welcome him and get started in this conversation. All right. With that, let’s get into this. Tristan, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Tristan White:

Drew, you’re welcome. It’s wonderful to be here with you.

Drew McLellan:

Let’s first start by level-setting the definition of culture because I think sometimes it’s such a broadly used term, and I think for some people, it means, party planning, and for other people, it’s about values. So when you talk about culture and when you write about culture, define it for us.

Tristan White:

Drew, you’re right. There are many, many different definitions of what culture could be, and for me, Drew, I think it’s so very important that culture is the values and the behaviors that are alive in an organization, and what I mean by that is that it’s the stuff that gets done around here when we’re really, really, really just getting the day-to-day happening. And Drew, that might sound simple, but in all seriousness, people have got a culture by default, which is when organizations simply just turn up and do stuff, or a culture by design, where you actually put time effort into the purpose and the values of an organization and the behaviors. And I’m big on culture by design, because with culture by default, I reckon that’s when we spend our lives firefighting, responding and being reactive to everything that happens in our businesses. So it’s what gets done around here, and it can be by default or by design.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, as you’re saying that I’m thinking about conversations that we have with clients a lot about brand, and that every organization has a brand that either the marketplace decides and defines for you, or you can decide and define for yourself, and then live it so that the marketplace adopts it and assigns it to you, and I think culture is exactly the same sort of thing.

Tristan White:

Ah, entirely. Entirely. Drew, as I sit here at my desk and reach for a coin, I really think that brand and culture are two sides to the same coin in that we either define it for ourselves and we live it from a brand external perspective and culture from an internal perspective, they’re really a very similar type of concept, and we can allow it to happen or we can take complete responsibility for it.

Drew McLellan:

And I think your coin analogy is a great one because it also reminds us that you can’t be one thing inside and another thing outside, and maintain that consistently over a long period of time.

Tristan White:

Drew, you are so true. I don’t want to misquote this, but I think it was Tony Hsieh from Zappos, who said that culture is a lagging indicator of brand in the marketplace, and when you’ve got culture, when it really… Maybe I’ve got that back to front. Maybe if the culture is thriving, then that’s a leading indicator of what will happen in the marketplace in the coming months and years because the culture really does drive the output of an organization.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. So as I said in the introduction, you’ve written a book about this, you have a lot of expertise around this, but it didn’t start out that you were just a culture expert. So give the listeners a little bit of the background of how you came to have these beliefs and have them strongly enough that you wanted to capture them in a book and teach people about this.

Tristan White:

Yeah, Drew, important part of my backstory is that I’m a physical therapist, or a physio therapist as we call them here in Australia, and I started in 2004. Way back almost 15 years ago, I started a business called The Physio Co, which is a physical therapy business that helps seniors stay mobile, safe and happy. It’s for older people, and we go on site to age care homes, retirement villages and people’s own homes. And for a start, it was just me and I built this small team, but then a few years in, Drew, I was really stuck. I had these 20 odd team members that were all reporting to me. I hadn’t set up a core purpose of the organization, a set of defined values. I hadn’t made the culture clear. To be honest with you, I didn’t even know what culture was at that time, and I sort of had allowed a culture by default. And I was stuck, I was stressed, I was firefighting all day and night, and I decided I had to find a better way.

I went for a short sabbatical from here in Australia to North America. I visited some senior healthcare businesses, and I discovered this idea of a values-based business, and I came back to our business and I decided of setting the culture and setting the future where we’re going to head was what was necessary. And that period of being completely stuck and completely stressed to taking a break, finding a solution, and then realizing what’s possible if we really do design the culture is my background. And Drew, since then, in the last 10 years, we’ve grown that business from 20 team members to now 150 team members, we deliver services to about 300,000 older people every single year, and that business has been ranked as one of Australia’s 50 best places to work for 10 consecutive years based upon this system or this rhythm of culture practices we’ve got in our business.

And it was that experience that set me up to say, “Look, this is all well and good to do it in your business, Tristan, but imagine if the world could learn and other people could build great cultures from what you’ve learned here,” and that’s where I decided to publish the book to both document our business story, Drew, but also to help other people who might be stuck, might be Tristans of 10 years ago, who are completely stuck, and he might be a tool for them. So that’s the background.

Drew McLellan:

Let’s talk about this idea of stuck, because I know that one of the things you talked about in the book is that having a company that is culture or values-based allows an owner to get unstuck, so describe to us… When you say you’re stuck, what does that mean?

Tristan White:

Stuck, to me, Drew, means that I’ve got an idea as to the direction, the vision, the future of what our team could look like, and I think most business owners have got an idea as to what that could be, whether they’ve documented, whether they’ve really written it down and been clear what the future could look like, and share it with their team is often secondary, often they haven’t done that just yet. But for me, I had this idea of what the future could look like, and I just couldn’t make any progress towards it. I was forever two steps forward, two steps back reactively. My email inbox was completely full, and I felt like I had team members who were reliant on me to do their jobs. I didn’t have the time or the space to focus on the future and building what I thought was possible with our business. I felt completely stuck in the now. I couldn’t focus on bringing the future to life, and that’s what it meant to me.

Drew McLellan:

So I think a lot of the listeners think that they have a culture, that they have a way that it feels to be an employee inside their business, but I think the methodology that you sort of map out is more calculated, more prescriptive than that, and that there are certain elements… Like you talk about core purpose and values and things like that, so what are the elements… So I’m going to ask a question that I’m going to preface before you answer with a thought. What are the elements that someone needs to have to actually begin to build a culture? And I think many of the listeners are thinking, “Well, crap. I’ve had my agency for five years, or 10 years, or 20 years, or a year, and I haven’t done this. How do I go back now and start this culture thing all over again?”

So I guess my question is a combo question. A, what are the elements that are required to really build this company that is based on this culture, and B, is it ever too late or do you have to do it differently if you’ve already been around for a long time, and there is some culture, whether it was by design or by default, to use your terms, that already exists that I have to undo? Which I’m guessing was your case when you came back from your sabbatical, right?

Tristan White:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Entirely. Entirely, Drew. Let’s deal with the second part first, and that it’s never too late. It’s never too late to decide that building a strong culture is important, but the longer that you’ve had the existing culture by default in place, it’s likely that you’ve got a number of folks who are very committed, and dare I say, to the existing non-structured approach to culture, and that’s going to be the challenge is to engage with them, decide whether they’ve got what it takes to make the pivot towards the new culture by design, or if not, there’s going to have to be a few people that might find professional homes elsewhere if you are committed to doing this culture by design, and that was the case with my 20 person team.

There were 17 team members who were somewhat relieved when I decided that we needed to document the future and decide what the behaviors were. There were three who fought hard to keep to the existing non-structured approach, and it was hard work for me, but I was committed to the culture by design, and therefore these people did find themselves in other professions and other workplaces, which hopefully served them better, and was certainly better for us they weren’t there. So it’s painful, but it really is… And the outcome is 20 team members all the way to 150 team members and growing from my perspective. So that’s the first part, Drew.

Another part to point out is that people who answered the question tell me about your culture and your business, and they respond with, “Our culture is great,” is a real red flag for me, Drew, because then… Even our business, 10 years, one of Australia’s best places to work, our culture is a work in progress. We’ve got the foundations in place, but we’re continually evolving. And just this morning, I was sending out the 11 week plan for this next quarter that I’m going to do as the CEO to build a little bit more depth into the culture and the communication that we’ve got in our growing team. So it never ends, and thinking you’ve got it right is a real red flag from my perspective.

Drew McLellan:

Before you talk about the core elements, what kinds of things were in your 11 week plan? So you’ve been doing this for 10 years, and you’re still tweaking it and trying to perfect it. After 10 years, what are some of the things that are still on your to-do list to add depth to the culture that you’ve built?

Tristan White:

Yeah, great question, Drew. So one thing that’s important, and I’ll tie the answer to that question into the elements of the culture system, and so the Culture Is Everything book that I’ve written has got a four part system to bringing a culture to life, and the first part is called Document The Future, and I reckon this is about vision, and I reckon a vision needs to be in two parts, it needs to be a peer off into the future, what I call a 10 year obsession, which is a very long time, but it takes a long time to build something great, and it also needs to be broken down into smaller parts, which I call a three year painted picture vision, which is a much more detailed shorter-term vision as to what the business will look like in three years time, and employees can connect with a three year vision a hell of a lot better than they can with the 10 year obsession. And so, that is the first part of the system.

And in our business, The Physio Co, we set a 10 year obsession way back in 2009, and it ended at the end of just 2018. So the time is right, the time is now that we’ve released a new 10 year obsession, what we’re going to achieve over the next 10 years, and tied into that is a tighter three year painted picture vision, that’s what we’re going to look like. And so right now in quarter two of this year from April to June, I’ve got an 11 week plan to have a regular communication rhythm from myself of a fortnightly newsletter, regular SMSes, some videos, and we also have a whole team event, and it’s going to be about bringing that vision to life because we’ve just said it, I need every team member to be very clear on it, so then we can incrementally work towards bringing the vision to life. So that’s the focus for this quarter. Does that answer that question, Drew?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it does. Great.

Tristan White:

Yeah, and so back to the system is document the future is a part of the system’s vision, discover the core is another part of the system, a clear core purpose as to what we’re here for, that everyone can understand, and a clear set of core values, between three and five core values, and I reckon they should be action statements. For example, be memorable is an action statement. Integrity is not a very livable type of value, and no disrespect to anyone who’s got the integrity value, but I think if you’re going to use that one word, you need to give examples as how to live that that concept of integrity. So discover the core, document the future.

The next one is the tricky bit, I reckon. It’s called execute relentlessly, and it’s about the small, teeny tiny things of communicating over and over and over again, and the systems you put in place, because we’ve all been part of a team where there’s been a wonderful new initiative that died a very quick death if it wasn’t kept alive by the leadership team. And the last part, Drew, is called show more love, and quite simply, if you’re go