Leading Teams by Leading Culture

Every organization has a culture built on its behaviors, habits, values and, most importantly, the collective energy of the people that comprise it. In my experience, strong culture is foundationally rooted in the ability to attract and retain the right people with the right energy, the right sense of adventure, and a willingness to contribute, change and grow. No culture is successful if it stagnates and no culture thrives if the people who define it feel disconnected from actively shaping, improving and embodying it.

Like many large organizations, at TIAA-CREF, we all contribute to our larger corporate culture which I describe as collegial, democratic, safe and proud. After all, we are in the business of delivering safe and secure retirements—financial well-being—to millions of Americans, not the least of whom are teachers, doctors, nurses, government workers and researchers. We take our mission seriously, and our corporate culture is centered on strong values and doing whatever it takes to go the extra mile for our customers. People really do come to and remain at our company because they believe in its mission of serving those who serve others—the same mission set forth by founder Andrew Carnegie nearly 100 years ago.

In Creative Services, which sits under the Marketing umbrella, we have our own culture—a micro-culture that complements and thrives within of our corporate environment. It is uniquely ours, and it’s fed by the collective vision of a highly talented, geographically dispersed team of writers, designers, video producers, proofreaders, content developers, project managers, account managers and brand stewards—all of whom are focused on building the organization’s first ever in-house agency.

tiaa cref creative services

When we began our journey just two years ago, all we had was our vision along with the full support and endorsement of senior-most management. Leadership support cannot be understated. In fact, it is essential to any organization looking to build or substantially transform its creative organization.

In addition, we had permission to build the “ideal” team—to literally start from scratch by drawing a bunch of (well-designed, well-thought-out) boxes on the wall, attaching critical competencies to those boxes based on work produced by our Marketing with external agencies, and then scouring the U.S. from coast to coast to locate the best possible talent. More than 60 hires later, we’ve built a team with both the talent and the cultural mindset to go head to head with any external agency (and win) based on experience, capability and attitude. We started fresh with the right talent and a team that was energized by the idea of building something together that didn’t exist before. The right team was essential to the build, and each person’s unique contribution made the collective effort a success.

Once we felt confident that we had the right mix of talented creative professionals, it was time to focus on inclusion by encouraging everyone to contribute to our ongoing transformation. Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand. Taking the time to share ideas before decisions are made, requesting input and insight, and looking beyond job descriptions across the team to recognize, for example, that project managers can be quite creative and that creatives can actually be process-focused, are how we ensure that everyone on the team has a voice and feels ownership.

Then there’s reward and recognition. That’s the fifth ingredient to leading a strong culture after vision, management support, putting the right team in place and ensuring everyone has a voice. If we have a highly skilled team contributing ideas and practices, then as leaders we need to remember to recognize and reward their contributions. We do that in many ways: as part of formal compensation and promotion cycles, by soliciting third-party endorsements like IHAF’s In-house Agency of the Year, through weekly communication that I send celebrating the positive feedback received from clients, by launching pithy, gift-card-bearing games and contests to foster creativity and thoughtfulness, and by encouraging and allowing my team to showcase the great work they do through a number of channels.

And finally, “together time.” This has been the biggest challenge for the TIAA-CREF Creative Services team because we are spread across the U.S., including many individuals who work from home. Culture isn’t built on individuals alone, particularly a creative team that requires face-to-face collaboration, so we make an extra effort to ensure opportunities for the overall team and key sub teams to come together. We have an annual all-hands offsite, which just concluded in Charlotte three weeks ago (see photo). In addition, each major sub team comes together in person at least twice a year for team building, skill building, and client and business partner interaction and networking. We’ve adopted collaboration tools that help us simulate in-person brainstorming and work sharing, and all laptops are equipped with cameras and video-meeting software to allow “face to face” communication to happen from afar.

While our culture continues to evolve, our foundation is strong. We have an action team that helps me, as the in-house agency leader, keep my finger on the pulse of our culture as we constantly look for ways to improve. From what we’ve seen and heard from organizations like IHAF, our in-house agency experience, while special, is not wholly unique. The more I share with others, the more I realize how alike we are. From creative challenges to client perceptions, we are more alike than we are different regardless of our businesses—a fact that emphasizes how important listening and learning from shared experiences can be. What do you have to share? What do you have to learn? Join us.

The 60-person Creative Services organization at TIAA-CREF was named 2014 In-House Agency of Year. To read their story and/or to learn more about the In-House Agency of the Year Award, click here.

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