Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Guest Post: How to inspire your people

August 19, 2009: 1:31 PM ET

by Stephen Allan, Worldwide Chairman and CEO of MediaCom

steve_allan.03As CEO of MediaCom, it's my job to hold onto our best people and keep them happy and motivated. Today, when challenges to morale threaten around every bend, this task is harder than ever. Nonetheless, I do believe there are clear ways to keep people inspired and engaged. At MediaCom, we do this with the help of a program we call Freshness.

Freshness is a series of initiatives designed to motivate, teach new skills and stimulate curiosity. It covers everything from life coaching to creativity training to professional development programs. Our goal is to make our people look forward to coming to work everyday and also develop as people—professionally and personally.

We launched Freshness in 2005 in MediaCom's U.K. operation, which has helped that business consistently place highest in its sector in the prestigious annual Sunday Times "Best Companies to Work For" list. Early this year, we rolled out Freshness across our network of 110 offices in 90 countries.

One of my favourite Freshness initiatives is "If I Ran the Company…" This competition involves every single member of the MediaCom staff worldwide. I like it because it encourages everyone to have a say in how MediaCom is run and also helps us evolve in a rapidly changing media landscape.

It works like this: The entire staff in each office is split up randomly into teams. Then they're given one broad brief to think about. This year, the brief was to come up with an actionable idea that would help us deliver our vision: "MediaCom has the world's best culture for curious, forward-thinking people." Then, each team must pitch its idea to management--in two minutes.

Each year, the winning idea is put into action and, ideally, becomes an integral part of our culture. This year's winning idea came from a team in our Austrian office. They proposed Inspiration Days, where everyone in the company would be entitled to one day every year spent away from the office, learning about or indulging in some non-work-related but inspiring activity. An employee's only obligation is to give a presentation about their day to their colleagues--thus spreading the inspiration through the company.

We liked the idea because it's extremely simple and can be implemented immediately and everywhere. And despite its simplicity, the benefits--in terms of keeping our staff motivated and in bringing new perspectives into MediaCom--are potentially immense. We've seen the payoffs, which are more than coincidental. In the UK, post-Freshness, we've dramatically increased the number of creative awards that we've won. We've become the biggest media agency in the country--the first to top £1 billion in billings.

And in Asia, one year after we introduced Freshness, our number of industry award wins--primarily for creativity and innovation--increased threefold.

Besides those benefits, the very existence of the competition pays off. The random teams mean that people who don't usually work together spend time with each other. And the fact that all 4,000 of our staff are working on the same brief and pitching on the same day strengthens the "network-ness" of MediaCom.

And, of course, we end up with a shortlist drawn from 500 great, transformative ideas to help keep us ahead of our competition. One winning submission in the U.K. devised a 'green initiative' that, after we implemented it, secured MediaCom a place among the 10 greenest companies in the U.K., according to The Sunday Times.

The real evidence of success is our people--remember, my job is to keep them happy and motivated. Well, according to our surveys, 80% of our employees say that Freshness helps them be more creative; 82% feel safe to step out of their comfort zone at work. And 86% think Freshness makes their job more fun.

And in these trying times, couldn't we all use a little more fun?

Stephen Allan is Worldwide Chairman and CEO of MediaCom, a WPP (WPPGY) company and one of the world's largest strategic media planning and buying agency networks. MediaCom's clients include Audi, Dell (DELL), Diageo (DEO), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Hasbro (HAS), Subway, Staples (SPLS), Warner Bros. (TWX), Volkswagen (VLKAY), Shell (RDSA), Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

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