Aug 28, 2009

Perfect Storm – Part 2

Posted by: gstockman In: thought leadership

Porter Novelli CEO Gary Stockman Joins President, Global Business Operations and CFO Anthony Viceroy to Reflect on the Pitfalls and Possibilities of Turbulent Times

From the global financial crisis to the meteoric rise of social media, the past eight months have been a season of unprecedented change. As there are some signs that the crisis may be easing, it seems a good time to assess what happened. Over the course of a comprehensive and wide-ranging conversation, Porter Novelli’s CEO Gary Stockman and President, Global Business Operations and CFO Anthony Viceroy offer insights and analysis on how the agency managed to not only weather the turbulent times, but also find the inherent possibilities in the crisis and emerge stronger than ever.

In part two of this four-part series (read part one here), Stockman and Viceroy reflect on the rise and power of social media—what Stockman refers to as “a profound shift in the communications landscape”—and how it is changing the content and context of external communications, empowering a creative meritocracy and changing the traditional internal learning model.

You talked about the rise of social media and the unprecedented shift in the communications landscape. Part of what makes Porter Novelli such an exciting agency—and so successful in the realm of social media—is the strong contributions of younger staffers. Are there specific challenges to managing younger workers who have never lived through a down economy?

GS: I think one of the most important things you can do is share perspective. The benefit of being as old as I am [laughs] is having lived through a number of downturns. Some of the Millennials haven’t ever seen anything but a go-go economy. So it’s valuable to let them know that yes, we will emerge from this, yes, we have been there before and yes, we know what actions to take. All those things I think are quite useful in helping younger people understand what’s going on. But I do think these times are particularly shocking for this generation because they really have not been exposed to an economy that was anything but robust.

Recently I asked one of our younger people, “Do things feel differently now? What is the response that your peers are having to the economic downturn?” And she said the thing that affected her most was seeing her friends in other companies being laid off. Her natural reaction was to retrench, put her head down, focus on her immediate clients and not take risks. That was eye opening. But we are determined to keep innovating through this downturn. One of the things we have done this year is to put in place a quarterly award program that recognizes an individual or team who has done the most innovative work—even if the ideas failed. You want to encourage people to do new things, not pull up the drawbridge.

AV: Everyone says their success is all about their people, and it’s true. In the service industry, talent is a great competitive advantage. But what you do with your talent, in my mind, is what sets you apart from the competition. And what we wanted to do in this environment with so much economic uncertainty, when I felt most people would be operating in fear and wondering whether they were going to be downsized, is show that we can be innovative in how we think and really give everyone in the organization an opportunity to come up with big ideas and insights that make a real difference and demonstrate our ability to think strategically.

Millennials are probably brighter than any generation ahead of them. I’m so impressed that the question I get asked the most by our younger generation is, “How can I add value to this company. Our younger colleagues at Porter Novelli understand that their contributions make a measurable and lasting difference in our organization. And a lot of the innovation, and the use of social media, is coming from this group—people who embrace reasonable risk, who understand you can’t do things the same way and expect different outcomes, who are willing to think outside the box. So I think one of the great opportunities we have is to continually think about and challenge the Millennial generation in a way that creates a vibrant organization.

As Gary mentioned, one way to help foster greater contribution at Porter Novelli is through our quarterly incentive program. This program rewards teams or individuals whose work has one of two characteristics: It has added extreme value for a client, or it has offered something extremely innovative that has helped differentiate the agency. We want to encourage a mindset that it is OK to take reasonable risks to create an innovative outcome.

Our clients realize a big idea can come from any person anywhere in our global organization. And when you talk to clients, they are trying to figure out how to grow their brands and they are looking for great insight. And they are happy to take that insight from anywhere in the organization. And I think our younger generation has clearly embraced thinking differently and challenging the norm. And that is the kind of thinking that is going to produce results for our clients.

GS: Absolutely. The trick to managing multigenerational teams, and a multigenerational agency for that matter, is creating an environment where people can learn from one another, from all levels. The typical service organization is built on an apprentice model, where junior people learn from senior people. These days in particular, it is not a one-way street. And we practice what I have been calling a dual-apprentice model, where younger people are comfortable with teaching older more experienced employees the things they know uniquely well, especially in the social media and digital area, and vice versa. Pursuing a strict, top-down learning model doesn’t work anymore. Instead you wind up practicing a model as a learning organization that sounds vaguely socialist: “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.” A big focus for me personally is cultivating a learning organization where people can learn and teach and influence at every level by employing a dual-apprentice model. You have to do that in order to stay competitive.

AV: One of the great things we are doing is creating Porter Novelli University. If you look at most in-house educational training programs, they tend to cater to senior management. What we are doing is to say there’s great learning that junior people can get from senior people, but also that senior people can get from junior people. It’s a cross-pollination of knowledge sharing. So rather than a senior management training program, we are training the whole organization on a global basis at all levels, and we’re surrounding the training with relevant real-life case studies that are conducive to learning regardless of your level, so that you have an opportunity to share your opinion, your voice, your point of view, and help individuals really start seeing things in a different light.

Do you think the economic climate accelerates a meritocracy, where good ideas rise to the top more quickly out of sheer necessity?

GS: It can. The challenge is to get people to actually put those ideas out where they can be evaluated without being afraid. Dr. Linus Pauling said that the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. That’s especially true in a challenging economy.

Check back with next week for part three of this four-part series, in which Gary Stockman and Anthony Viceroy focus on the needs of clients—how some needs have changed and others have intensified—and how some brands’ ability to connect with consumers during the crisis created tremendous opportunities.

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