THE BLOG
04/28/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

How to Lead Big Change in a 100-Year-Old Organization

When Beth Ann Kaminkow was named CEO of TracyLocke, a 100-year-old creative agency that is a subsidiary of Omnicom, she found herself at the helm of a company with plenty of experience. The challenge was figuring out how to guide the company into its second century. Kaminkow created a new vision of the organization that would enable it to be more innovative and diversify into different industries. It wouldn't be easy: Kaminkow was faced with turning a "command and control" culture, where people were told what to do, and shape it into a more collaborative and innovative culture that could compete in the new advertising world. I recently sat down with Kaminkow to find out what it takes to stage such a turnaround.

You were promoted as the 11th CEO to run a century-old organization. What were the biggest challenges you faced in shifting the structure from a traditional model to a more innovative one?

One of them was understanding the unspoken rules. There was also a codified way of being. You can't have someone describe it to you -- you had to experience it and feel it yourself. That was the first big challenge. I had to be an observer of the culture to understand the barriers to progress.

The second challenge was on the business front. The company was too heavily reliant on a few clients. That is unhealthy for a business in the professional service industry, not only due to the economics, but also because the employees started to mirror their clients rather than having a clear sense of their own culture. That was the next thing I needed to change.

Finally, the third challenge was the culture and getting people open to change. There was no urgency to change. There was a sense that "we can keep doing what we have been doing." People seemed worried about messing up things. I needed to clarify the real reason for the company's existence and why clients were going got work with us. How could we leverage our 100-year legacy, which was a strength, and not be seen as a dinosaur?


What do you think is your top talent and passion? And how have they helped you lead this organization?

Some of my strengths come from years of learning. I always knew that I had a talent for talent. It sounds funny, because it sounds like an expression from Broadway or the movie industry. But it's prevalent in the creative, design, and marketing spaces. There are people that need to be focused on putting people in positions where they start to discover their own creativity and strengths; where they stop getting in the way of themselves and get truly empowered; and where they start to develop a belief in themselves. The process is reciprocal: I get jazzed and fulfilled when I can help other people find their true talents. When I am in that position, those people make me better. Also selfishly, there is something intoxicating about learning and getting better.

In the process, you created a slogan to inspire your team -- "Lean in, own it, and press on." How did you come up with these directives?

It came from the moment and from my own philosophy of working. Instead of thinking in terms of values, which many organizations do, I wanted people to be clear on how I wanted them to behave. I always struggled with values. If your values aren't 100 percent aligned, what does that mean? Sometimes "values" just felt like a cliché. The typical story, where there are words on the wall and no one lives up to them, is frustrating for me. I have always been about action being in line with behavior. So I wanted to give people a true sense of what was expected of their behavior. The directives also came from a place of frustration around why people were passive or not contributing in a pro-active way. I was constantly playing around with what I could do or get managers to do to create an environment that eliminated passivity. These three directives captured the best of the times of the past and what got us to 100 but also what was needed for us to excel in the environment of today and the future.

You came up with your "Lean in" directive before the popular book by Sheryl Sandberg by the same name. How do you define it?

"Lean in" means being really directed. I want to encourage people to physically have a lean-forward stance at work, to physically put themselves in position to succeed. I want them to literally stand up and lean into conversations.

How did you get your employees to actually start taking action -- leaning in, owning it, and pressing on?

The response was immediate. They started expressing it. Everyone felt something happen, which was amazing. People started painting it on the walls and expressing what it meant for them. People started to come forward with ideas. It felt like a tangible, relatable rally cry that everyone could get behind. Then I got each manager to send in a big audacious goal related to these directives.

I also took the time to learn more about why some people weren't behaving this way. We know our own biases and how we operate and we start to judge others. I realized really important things about people's wiring that would prevent them from showing up in certain ways. When great people are not performing well, it's important to figure out why.

You talk about unlocking potential as a key cornerstone to your leadership style. How do you unlock the potential of your employees?

You need people to believe in people. We have a mentality of waiting for people to fail, putting people in positions without support and feedback. We have people that believe in people who are here.

You have to embrace pressure situations, too. It's like the metaphor of a diamond under intense pressure -- it becomes bright, shiny, and beautiful. Potential shows up in challenging moments. When we're in a new situation with a client and we doubt ourselves, we grow. I'm also a big believer in having a lack of rigidity around roles. The more fluidity around roles there is, the more you get to see how people need to perform. With rigidity, people get stale. When you limit fluidity, you prevent growth.