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The Sterling Rice Group: Company culture influences everything, including hiring

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Boulder's Sterling Rice Group was recently named by Outside magazine as one of the top companies to work for in the nation and followed that up by being named one of the top small agencies in the nation by AdAge magazine. You can read Outside's article about Sterling Rice by clicking here and the article by AdAge by clicking here.

The Sterling Rice Group is known throughout the country for its work with such global brands as Starbucks, Walmart, Pepsico, General Mills, Starbucks, Kellogg Co., Wendy's, Energizer Holdings (Schick) among others. But they have also helped many local organizations such Children's Hospital, CoBank and CollegeInvest.

I first got to know the branding pros at the Sterling Rice Group when I was heading up the marketing, advertising and branding efforts of Frontier Airlines. The Sterling Rice Group was brought in to help re-position Frontier's brand during its robust period of growth. It was a tall order to help a small-but-growing airline differentiate itself from many of its larger competitors at DIA.

In addition to their success in helping us build Frontier Airlines as one of the most dynamic, relevant and well-known brands in Colorado, one of their most important assignments was the internal culture branding project that helped us to align our external brand with the internal culture at Frontier. The results of their work helped us train our employees to deliver our brand promise of being "A whole different animal" to every customer touch point.

Buddy Ketchner started with Sterling Rice as an intern 25 years ago and rose to his current role as president of the agency. I recently asked him some questions about Sterling Rice's hiring process, how they connect their internal culture to their external brand and what it means to be named one of the top employers in the nation.

How do you incorporate your culture into your hiring process?

Culture is essential to everything we do.

We have a very disciplined hiring process in which we meet a bunch of people. It’s good for us, but it also helps job candidates determine if this is somewhere where they believe THEY will fit. So it is a longer process but we want people who work here to WANT to be here. We want SRG to be their first choice. Our process also allows us to really engage with candidates.

Of course we look for the base level of skills, intelligence and the experience but then there is a whole level of intangibles we look for. Do they have the aptitude – the innate energy and passion to thrive and be successful? Are they self-motivated? Do they really care about what they are doing? Do they have the ability to work with people and respect people bring out the best in others? Do they have curiosity? Are they curious about the world and to explore things? There are some people who walk to work the same way every day and not see anything different and there are others who walk to work and see something different every day.

There are a lot of really qualified people out there – and yes, you have to be really, really smart and have the right skill set - but the ones that succeed at Sterling Rice are those that also match the intangible qualities that we look for.

How do you measure someone who applies to work at SRG as a cultural fit?

One of the things about being in the strategy, innovation and creative side of business, is that our world is in a constant and profound state of change. Our life blood is innovative thinking and we encourage that. With all of the profound changes in our industry in terms of technology shifts, demographic shifts and globalization, I can’t begin to tell you what job descriptions we’ll have in three years.

As part of this changing environment, we want people to come help us build it and we ask people for new thinking and new ideas.The people who will do well in this environment are the ones that are constantly curious, constantly challenged, internally motivated and are interested in fresh thinking and willing to get in there and carve new paths.

Is there a philosophy or a model that the corporate leadership and management teams play in maintaining corporate culture?

The company was built on a sense of eight values – these values were written before we even had our first client. In many ways, we believe that these values are the single most important reason we've grown and been successful for 27 years. We evaluate and measure ourselves against these values every year, including an employee survey. We rate ourselves and act on those measurements and set strategy based on this basic tool. If we’re not doing what we think we need to do based on how we measure up to our values, we re-align and build our strategy to address it.

I believe in the philosophy that culture trumps strategy. In the best cases, culture IS strategy. You can be in a board room and write great plans, but if it is misaligned with the fundamental culture, it will fail. So what we try to achieve internally is an absolute manifestation of what we do externally.

Our culture is at the heart of what we do. Culture is a way of doing things that sustains our values and I really believe that this is the ‘secret sauce’ of Sterling Rice’s success.

How is your internal culture tied to your external brand? How important is your internal culture in terms of creating loyalty with your clients and managing attrition with your employees?

The way I look at it is that employee satisfaction and client satisfaction are really two sides of the same coin and when we look at our internal goals and our external goals, they are very linked.

At the core of what we are is an intellectual capital business of people, so if we hire passionate, engaged, motivated people our clients benefit from this and get the exact same thing. One manifestation of this is our 90% rehire rate. Our clients get the benefit of our expertise and our motivated and committed employees and then hire us again and again to work with them on various projects.

But from a culture aspect, we try to hire people who really believe in and want to build something extraordinary. A lot of people come into companies not really interested in building something, they simply want to participate. We want people who want to build something; something they can put their signature on.

In addition, we practice our profession at the highest level but also want to do it in a way that matters – that makes a difference. And when I say makes a difference I mean for our employees, our clients and for our community.

Many studies have been done to confirm that, more than financial rewards, employees feel greater satisfaction and motivation when they feel genuinely respected, are given opportunities to use their skills in creative ways, feel empowered to make decisions, are acknowledged for their accomplishments and have opportunities to progress their careers. Does this ring true for SRG?

Absolutely.

Financial compensation is important and folks need to feel that they are being compensated fairly. But people need to feel respected – it is one of our core values.

As I said, we practice our craft and profession at the highest level possible. There is great sense of satisfaction and motivation when as a group and as individuals we do very, very well.

We have a company of achievers and one of the things that motivates them is that they want to do what they do very well. At the end of the day, people have to want to be here because the working is satisfying and meaningful. Above the compensation and traditional benefits, you gotta love what you are doing and fell rewarded at a personal level.

It’s why we’ve committed to growing as a company. As long as we are growing, we should constantly be in a position where we can provide challenged opportunities to our people. And growing at a healthy rate, it challenges us to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate our core and constantly provides creative opportunities for our employees.

People are not afraid to work hard. One of the biggest misnomers when I read the popular press is this idea that people don’t want to work hard anymore. I think it's the opposite; I don’t think people are afraid of hard work at all. I think they want to work really hard at things that matter and I think that’s the key at Sterling Rice. Everyone here works unbelievably hard, and there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction when you do what you do well. It is more motivating that anything else.

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