001 : The Challenge of Creative Firms with Steve Chaparro


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Company culture. It’s not just an indicator of how they handle client relationships and business practices, it also provides insight on how they treat their own people. A good company is able to deliver the best results and are able to satisfy client demands but a great one is able to build lasting relationships with its members just as well as it handles client relationships. The key? Leadership.

Tune in as Steve Chaparro, Founder of Culture Design Studio, sits down with John Corcoran of Rise25 Media to talk about the importance of having a great company culture. Learn more about the role leadership plays in the creation of an awesome company culture, the different approaches of different generations to leadership, and why it’s important to put value on employee feedback just as much as you would with client feedback.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • How a charismatic and passionate Founder or CEO of a firm can drive success in emerging companies
  • How to harmoniously address the tension created by the need to serve clients and the need to espouse a great culture within the company
  • What a balanced and harmonious company culture can do for a creative firm
  • How leaders can become facilitators of great company culture and the common challenges that they face in the process
  • How the generational change in leadership is impacting leadership methods and company culture

Resources Mentioned in this episode:

About the Guest:

Steve Chaparro is the Founder of Culture Design Studio. He is a keynote speaker and a cultural design artist with an extensive career and hands-on experience driving operations and service design consulting, along with a rich history guiding visionary leaders to implement culture design, communication strategy, and customer experience design. He has worked with multiple firms and created successful programs that generate solutions that meet client needs and exceed stakeholder expectations.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by the Culture Design Studio, a consulting firm that helps people and cultural leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their employees to become champions for their people through a series of facilitated workshops. They provide a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization.

Culture Design Studio has worked with organizations like Duarte Design, Design Thinkers Group, Red Bull, USAID, Bacardi, and the Office of Civic Innovation

If you’re looking for more than just a consultant and want someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture, Culture Design Studio is the one for you.

Contact them today to learn more about what they can do for you and your company.

Full Transcript: Powered by Otter.ai

Announcer:  Welcome to The Culture Design Show where we feature conversations with leaders and thinkers who are passionate about culture and design. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Steve Chaparro:  Steve Chaparro here. I am the host of The Culture Design Show, a podcast where I feature leaders and thinkers at some of the top creative firms in the world, including architecture, design, technology, and marketing. What’s the one thing they have in common? They all believe in the power of culture and design.

I have John Corcoran here who has done thousands of interviews with successful entrepreneurs, investors and CEOs. And we have flipped the script and he will be interviewing me today.

John Corcoran:  All right, Steve. Thanks for having me. I’m honored to be here and, in this episode, we’re going to be talking about a major change that’s happening today, which is really affecting creative firms and affecting the future of design leadership. So, it’s going to be really important topic. So, you definitely want to listen into that. But first, before we get started…

This podcast is brought to you by Culture Design Studio, where Culture Design Studio helps people and cultural leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their employees to become champions for their people. Through a series of facilitated workshops, Culture Design Studio provides a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization. Culture Design Studio has worked with organizations like Duarte Design, DesignThinkers Group, Red Bull, USAID, Bacardi and the Office of Civic Innovation. If you’re looking for more than just a consultant, but one who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture reach out. You can learn more at CultureDesignStudio.com.

All right, so Steve, let’s dive into this topic. So, you worked at multiple creative firms throughout your career and you said that there is a common problem that often happens when there is a charismatic, founder of the firm who’s kind of the champion for the firm. And they feel like everyone else must have the same drive passion, and really the ability to vocalize things in the same way that they do. But oftentimes, that’s not the case. And it really affects the culture. So, tell us a little bit about this change that you have identified?

Steve Chaparro:  Yeah, I think it, I mean, it’s very common. I don’t think it’s something that is just something that I experienced only. I’ve had conversations with folks as well as looking back on my own experience. And many times, if there is a founder of a company, or even a CEO of a company that is growing many times the early success of that firm is due to the charisma through the hard driving personality of that particular creative. And I think there’s a lot to be said that we owe a lot of our success. And credit goes to those people.

And I think early on in some of those, the lifecycle of those companies, that founder, or that founding creative, in fact, sometimes needs to be, in fact, I would say, has to be the architect of that firm’s culture. They have a vision for what that looks like. They have the language they want to have spread throughout the company. And they’re saying these are the values that we have, this is how we’re going to do things. And so, they very much act as that sole voice as to what that firm is going to look like.

But, what I’ve also seen is that as those firms begin to grow, if you think of it as a bell curve, and they’re on that steep growth curve up, many times they are changing things by necessity in terms of how to address the growing needs of their clients. But what many times does not get taken care of is the growing and changing needs of the employees in the firms.

I worked at a couple of firms where that very thing happened. We would have as we were growing into this, we were expanding in many different ways. Our clients, we’re starting to have certain things that we would do, and we would basically bend over backwards, as many creative firms do to meet the demands of our clients. And many times, we can we’re bending over backwards to deliver what I call a frothy experience client experience for our clients. Many times, we do that to the detriment or at the cost of the employee experience. And so the very things that we are preaching to our clients that they do, such as collaboration, innovation, being inclusive and all the things that we do even Human-Centered Design all of these things that we’re professing to our clients, if we were to take a real honest look at the insides of our organizations, we would probably see that we are not necessarily practicing what we’re preaching. And so that led me to have such a passion and desire to be able to help firms do for themselves what they do for others. And and I found that that is actually a mirror image of of what I’d like to do, as well.

There was a story that I had with a friend of mine, a conversation rather, and he was asking me, “Steve, what is it that you desire most for others?” And my response to that was actually very quick. I didn’t have to think about it. I said, “I desire to see others experienced transformation.” And he asked me, “Steve, have you found that for yourself?” John, I don’t know what it was about that particular second question that hit me so hard. But I realized in that moment, this foundational principle for me, and that is that which I desire most for others is also that which I desire most for myself. And so part of me embarking on this new path of Culture Design Studio is basically helping leaders, teams and organizations undergo transformation, because that is what I desire most for myself.

John Corcoran:  That’s a great point. So, I imagine a common question you get from these creative firms that are, as you mentioned, hard driving, they’re growing, you know, they are trying to do a great job for their clients, how do they balance that, you know, doing a great job for their clients, and at the same time, being consistent, being collaborative, being inclusive and, you know, doing from themselves what they are espousing, that their clients should do as well. How do they balance? How do you balance those two tensions? And how is it possible to to, you know, to make sure that you’re consistent, you’re doing both?

Steve Chaparro: You use two words that I love. And I want to bring those out, you use the word balance, and use the word tension. I believe that for me, it’s not so much about balance, to address tension, but it’s about harmony, harmony, to address tension, because balanced for me is that all things are equal. Everything is on par with each other. And I actually think not only within an organization, but also within the sort of the inner life of anybody, all of us. That balance is not something that I particularly think that we should strive for harmony.

On the other hand, my son is a musician. So, when we think about music, we think at any given moment in a music piece, there are going to be some instruments or some sections of instruments that are going to take a more dominant voice in that particular section. And they might trade off in on. In one case, a trumpet section might take sort of the dominant voice and another case, it might be the trombones. So, I think that’s the way we should look at it, not just within our own personal and family lives, but also within our teams and our organizations. So, I say that all to say that that tension is actually necessary. If there is tension that isn’t addressed and isn’t allowed to be voiced. What happens it’s like a pressure cooker, that tension will manifest itself in internal pressure. And at some point, that pressure is going to be released and many times it will be done in a toxic way because they weren’t allowed to sort of exercise or to relieve that tension. So, how do we believe that tension?

I think part of it is leaders need to invest. And I think when we talk about investing means invest time to be able to address these things. And pick as many times if you’re going to have, say, you’re going to dedicate a half day or a full day to either one learns new skills, or to work as a team. And, you know, with a workshop to bring ideas together, that is time that is not billable. And so many times people don’t want to take that time within firms to invest in in addressing some of these issues because they don’t have time. Sometimes they can’t dedicate money, but I think probably the one thing that they don’t want to invest in is energy because I tell you what, addressing some of these tension issues and addressing culture within an organization, it can be very draining. And since people don’t have a blueprint or framework to be able to address these things, they don’t have the skills of facilitation or for coaching. They would rather not do it at all. And so I think part of it is just a major thing of investing time, investing money, investing energy to be able to learn new skills, new ways of doing things, because if they don’t do it now, it’s going to reap a whirlwind down the road in the future.

 John Corcoran:  That’s great. And you I love that word harmony. paint a picture for us what that looks like you’ve been on the inside of these firms where you experienced this lack of balance, lack of harmony, but what is it like when a creative firm has achieved that harmony? What is it like for the team? What is it like for the employees? What is it like for the clients?

Steve Chaparro:  Now, I don’t know if I’ve ever used this word. But, you know, if we’re talking about harmony, and we’re talking about tension or in music, it might be cold contrast. I think I almost think of the leader in it. With a new word, and that is the word of a conductor, a conductor who is basically inviting people into this session of making music together, or doing great work together, and you’re calling certain people to dominate this, you know, the part of the piece at any given moment.

So, I think a conductor very much is like a facilitator. And that’s the reason why I think that leaders need to become facilitators. And so I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier, but I think early on in a, the life of a firm, that leader does need to act as the architect where he’s basically determining everything but then more or less he or she, we need to become in the future, this facilitator that says, hey, I am no longer the smartest person in the room. I no longer have the best ideas of what we should do, and how things are going to look, and I actually don’t even think that third party consultant will be the best person to give us those ideas. But rather, I now believe that you, as different members of the team are different instruments within the orchestra. You all are the best subject matter experts in our culture. So, I need to allow you to give your thoughts about how things are going.

What are some insights that we can all gather together about our current state? What are some strategies that we can all develop together? What are some ideas that might rise to the top as priorities? And then how can we test those things? So for me, you know, I love the methodology of design and design thinking and that is a reason why I chose to take my background in design and rather than designing buildings as I did before at the architectural firms, I have now basically made it my life mission to use those same mindsets, those same methodologies, those same tools that I learned in design in architecture, and to bring them to the leadership and employee teams of creative companies to basically collaborate to determine what their culture will look like moving forward.

John Corcoran:  What are some of the barriers that you hear from these leaders? When they are broaching the idea of, as you mentioned, taking non billable time taking energy? What are some of the hesitations? What are some of the objections that you hear that they need to really overcome in order to fully embrace the idea of taking on this challenge?

Steve Chaparro:  I mentioned a couple of them before but I think I think the first thing is when they think about culture, and let’s say they don’t see in their normal course of work throughout their day, that they’re coding is suffering until something blows up in their face, they may have some people that end up leaving the company, or some big fight breaks out or some big tension and maybe it affects certain client. Sometimes, leaders don’t understand that there’s a problem until something big and catastrophic happens and I’m trying to help, you know, firms not get to that point and start to see some of the stress signals or the cracks in sort of the body of the firm, so that they can address these beforehand because if they either one, don’t see the signs or two, they ignore the signs. And then they think about it.

Okay, what if they do realize we do have a problem on our hands, but you know what? Culture…man, number one, it’s hard to define. Number two, it’s hard to grasp. And number three, it’s hard to actually lead a process of addressing the hard truths about our culture, and what are some of the things that we can do to move them forward.

So, I think sometimes it’s a lack of awareness, a lack of a methodology to solve them. But then from here on out, it becomes, I don’t have the time to do this, you know, what culture is one of those things that I’m just going to relegate to our HR person, I’m just going to have here or her do this, him or her take care of this. Because basically, what they’re doing is they’re outsourcing cultural problems in their organizations, either one to an HR person or to an HR consultant. And I think that’s wrong.

That really needs to be something that the leader needs to be involved in. The leader needs to be a part of this because they if they what happens many times if they outsource it to either one, an HR person internally, they in the HR person feels like they got dumped on. Like, “Oh, great! I’m the HR person, now I get tasked with this, the leader gets to create this problem. Now they’re asking me to solve it.” When in reality, guess who’s really at fault here, it’s the leader. And so, the leader, if they’re trying to outsource is outsource it again to the HR person or HR consultant. They defraud themselves and the company from the birthing process, or I would say, the rebirthing process, let’s say an HR consultant does comes in, has a lot of interviews with people starts to have these focus groups.

And a lot of times determined that here are the things that’s wrong. Here are some strategies that we can develop. In fact, here are some very concrete ideas that we can pursue. And then by the way, here’s a recommendation and then I’m going to drop on your desk a very thick strategy book. Well, that leader if they didn’t go through the process of trying to understand all the all of those things and possibly even facilitating those conversations themselves. They will not understand truly what is the problem? What are the things that need to be done? Because at the end of the day, here’s, here’s the main thing, John, if there are cultural problems within a firm, creative or not, generally it all starts at the top. And so, if there’s anything that’s going to change in that particular firm, it usually needs to start inside the person of the leader.

So, it’s like something my father-in-law told me when I started having kids. He said, “Steve, when or if, if I want my kids to change, I needed to change first.” The same thing with a leader if the leaders want things to change in their first place. As it relates to culture, that leader needs to change first. And I imagine that that’s a hard pill to swallow for some leaders. And so that’s, you know, the beginning of the process though for them.

John Corcoran:  Final question before we wrap things up. We were talking before and you said that part of this is really it’s a really a generational change the rise of the millennial generation, having a stronger voice in business. And really, the older generations really kind of need to recognize that So talk a little bit about that. 

Steve Chaparro:  Alright, so I may ruffle some feathers here. I’m, I’m 46 years old, so I’m right smack in the middle of a generation. So, I, the way I see it is that many times those I’m oversimplifying, and in a very maybe bad way. I’ll say it in this way. I would say in many cases, the boomer generation, they came into this workforce and saying, Hey, I’m going to work hard. I’m going to be at a company for 30-40 years. And I’m going to adopt the best practices that we have learned throughout the years. And you know what, this is the way we’re going to do things. And I started the firm, where, you know, maybe our firms have this hierarchical command and control, top down way of doing things because guess what, that’s the way we were taught. And that’s the way we achieve success. So that’s how we’re going to do things from here on out.

Well, my generation, I would say that many times, and maybe this is just my own experience. Many times, we got a little bit frustrated with the generation that came before us. And there was a lot of angst that started to arise in us and that we didn’t agree with the way things were being done, but many times. We didn’t say anything. In a sense, I would say that maybe the Gen X generation is a little bit of a silent generation that is filled with angst. And maybe we just don’t know what the story it’s gonna be either one, we just embrace it or two, because we don’t know anything else. We do exactly as we were modeled by our predecessors.

And so, when you have the millennial generation come up, which is definitely much more purpose driven. They want to find places that are in alignment with what they believe at a personal level, they have personal values, they have personal goals, and they are looking for a place where they can find alignment with those things. They will say, you know what the purpose of this organization is an alignment with me, or I have some things that I believe I can share. And so I want to be part of a place that allows me to voice what I think and if I am not given that voice, if I am not allowed to be at the table and to speak up and to give what I believe is something that we should think about. That’s going to create a certain degree of, of, I don’t know what the word would be, just a frustration within the generation, and they will speak up. And many times, whether or not they speak up with their voice or not many times they will speak with their feet and they will leave, they will leave the firm turnover or turnover.

And you know, there’s a stat that says that Gallup put out that said that 51% of all US employees are actually actively looking for another job. There is no generational breakdown of that stat, but one out of every two people are actively looking for another job. So, if we as leaders in our firms don’t understand that possibly statistic, statistically speaking, half of our employees are looking to leave. And if people leave, what does that mean to our bottom line in terms of what it costs to hire, train someone to replace that person, there’s a high degree of productivity that is lost when we lose employees.

So, this idea or this issue of culture, and the employee experience is so important. It actually does affect our bottom line. And so I believe that if we don’t change the way we address these things, and allow people, especially the millennial generation, and then the Generation Z after them, have been able to say, hey, you have something that you can contribute, I will set the direction, but you will help me determine how we get there.

John Corcoran:  That’s great. That’s great. And that really does, you know, put it into perspective. When you consider you know, the relatively minor cost of setting aside an afternoon, our setting aside a day or two or however long it’s going to take to prove or have been great. Steve, we’ve been talking with Steve Chaparro is the founder of Culture Design Studio. Steve, just tell all the listeners where he can learn more about you.

Steve Chaparro:  So, I love reaching out to people in connecting with people on LinkedIn. So look for me at Steve Chaparro. You can also find me at SteveChaparro.co and Culture Design Studio is found at CultureDesignStudio.com. Very simple, not creative.

John Corcoran:  Very good, Steve. Thanks so much. And we’ll be back again soon with more culture design strategies, advice and interviews, of course leaders and thinkers that some of the top creative firms in the world Alright, thanks, everyone.

Announcer:  Thank you for listening to The Culture Design Show. We’ll see you again next time. Be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes. And while you’re at it, feel free to leave a review of the podcast.