How to build star teams, not star individuals in large PR firms

Building a high performance team in a big agency that thrives under high pressure is one of the biggest challenges that I feel companies have to deal with as they make the transition from being a smaller, boutique to a large full service firm.

As any team grows in size and adds different specialisations and capabilities, in theory it should be able to perform better. But in reality managing this growth from small to big can be a tough nut to crack. Because for a team to be successful, the old saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, needs to be true. 

A perfect analogy that I came across for this is from nature—how coal, which is essentially a collection of carbon atoms, when put under tremendous pressure for a long period of time, transforms into a diamond. On their own, carbon atoms are dull, insipid and considered malevolent. 

In an agency, as new service lines are added—digital, content, training, public affairs, crisis and issues—specialists in different practice areas, new geographies get added too, and along with this growth comes the challenge of getting all these great people to row the boat in unison and in the same direction.

The secret sauce that helps make this magic happen has 5 ingredients:

Give them a dream. Why do we exist, what are we trying to achieve, what is unique about us. This often comes in the form of a clear and differentiated positioning or sometimes by pointing at a mountain to conquer. Essentially a hero and a villain need to be added to the plot. If you look at the mission statements of some of the large firms, you’ll find that dream. Nike, for instance, has this: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Show me the money honey. This boils down to organizational structure and reward and recognition mechanisms. Individuals are motivated by the WIIFM or “Whats In It For Me” mentality. We must find the answers for that, so shared P&Ls, teams organized around clients, with clear ownership and authority for a client leader and celebrating the success of great collaboration and team work rather than individual success are examples of what works. 

Never stop learning. Training that is aligned with the needs of the business is another big building block of success, both for skill development as well as to reward high performing teams with unique learning opportunities. In fact, when you have really good learning programmes, the WIIFM is answered as well. 

I care for you. We operate in the service industry. Given the fact that there is a fair amount of staff turnover in the PR agency environment, the ability to create a strong culture that is able to assimilate new team members and help them understand the ethos and then deliver on the service promise is critical. Team members one and all must never forget what it takes to deliver customer satisfaction. A great job done is when the client says so. The softer element of client servicing, demonstrating that you truly care, being available and accessible whenever the client needs you, being proactive and prempting a client need, there are the things that build partnerships that are trusted and valued. 

Make time to have fun. One of the major joys of working in an agency environment, is the energy and fun on the shop floor. And team bonding, of course, is the key outcome, making for better interpersonal relationships and therefore better teamwork. Smaller firms often tend to celebrate more often and definitely more spontaneously. Big firms need to retain the spirit of celebrating the little wins as well as the big ones. 

The talent we have in the communication industry here is world-class. What we need to do is to find the right ways to convert a team of stars into a star team.

Article written by Nikhil Dey, president, Genesis Burson-Marsteller

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