Biolumina’s focus on culture and values drives who they are as an organization, the work they do, and what their future looks like. During May’s STORYcast, CEO Kirsten A. Kantak and EVP, Managing Partner, Strategy Brenda Aske talk about the importance of culture and values with Larry Dobrow, Editor-in-Chief of MM+M.
A culture of curiosity
How culture and values support growth of individuals and the business
Biolumina, the oncology-focused, customer-agnostic, “anti-cancer agency,” is an organization driven by a strong sense of culture and clearly-defined values.
During May’s Storycast, Biolumina’s president and CEO, Kirsten Kantak, and EVP and managing partner of strategy, Brenda Aske, RPh, discussed their deeply ingrained ethos with Steve Madden, GM, Haymarket Business Media Group.
Culture: A source of strength
The topic of culture is an important and oft-noted concern for organizations, but it can mean something different to everyone.
Kantak defined culture as “the social order of the organization. It’s a system that defines how we treat each other, how we treat our clients and how we treat our agency partners.” She elaborated, stating that culture “is incredibly important, since it not only attracts people to the organization, but helps drive their personal growth as well as the growth of the company.”
Aske agreed that “culture is a source of strength and a fuel for talent,” and cited data that support the importance of culture in an organization. “The 2021 PwC global culture survey showed that 85% of respondents said culture in an organization is important, 88% said it enables successful organizational change and 81% said it’s a source of competitive advantage.”
Conversely, she pointed out, “Harvard Business Review says that nearly half of people looking for new jobs cite company culture as the main reason for wanting to leave.” These data support Aske and Kantak’s strong shared perspective that “culture is the bigger umbrella over strategy, and it drives the beliefs, behaviors and the environment that we want to live and learn in — it drives a successful company.”
Kantak noted that Biolumina’s strong culture is correlated with high engagement scores. Tabulated twice annually, Biolumina’s engagement scores have been “off the charts when it comes to standards,” said Kantak. “They also show great retention numbers, which is so important.”
When it comes to how culture affects business strategies and strategic vision, “Biolumina can only be successful if there is a shared understanding of how our individual parts feed into the bigger picture,” Kantak added. Which is why, when she and Aske joined the company in 2015, “we took a step back to ensure that the agency would be guided by curiosity.”
Curiosity, as both Kantak and Aske said, is core to their culture. They emphasized the high correlation between curiosity and intelligence, success and happiness. “Along with innovation, curiosity helps drive great creative,” which includes not only “beautiful campaigns, but organizational solutions as well.”
Values: The principles that guide behavior
Values is another one of those terms, Madden noted, often mentioned; seldom well-defined.
At Biolumina, “Values are the principles by which we guide behavior,” said Kantak. The three main values Biolumina subscribes to are “open mind, brave heart and ready hands.” She went on to explain these as:
“Open mind is about respecting and embracing diverse opinions, perspectives and backgrounds.”
“Brave heart is about being brave enough to defend your opinions, but more importantly brave enough to keep an open mind to different perspectives and be able to build something together.”
“Ready hands is about tapping into the idea of curiosity and taking the time to teach and learn every single day. Most importantly, making sure that you are kind and express gratitude.”
Practice, they say, makes perfect. So part of instilling these values, said Kantak, “is continuously talking about them. There’s an element of, if you talk about it, it becomes real. So Biolumina talks about values. We put a name on it, we measure against it. We use it to guide and evaluate behavior as part of our performance system.”
There are also “structured tools in place like thank-you cards,” said Aske. “We have what we call ‘Happy Conflict cards,’” which, as she explained, “allow us to say, ‘I challenge your thinking on this topic with the best intention, because I want to make the work better.’”
Aske emphasized that as a team leader, “We discuss how gratitude and kindness affects your personal and professional health, and try to model those behaviors every single day in every single meeting.” A great idea, she noted, can come from anywhere, and “you need to be able to cultivate an atmosphere of openness in order to hear a diverse set of opinions, and to be a groundbreaking culture.”
How culture and kindness pay off
In the best of times, it can be challenging to instill shared values and create a consistent culture. In today’s hybrid workplace, in which Biolumina finds itself training, onboarding and scaling remotely and in-person, the agency made some important changes to its approach.
“In September, we implemented a whole new way of onboarding which means that for someone’s first two weeks, their only job is to be completely immersed in our processes, philosophy and culture,” Kantak explained. “New employees don’t touch any client work at all. They spend time getting to know everyone” and “participate in case-based training” constructed around “a real-world past experience at the agency.”
This experiential process serves to “make our values much more real,” said Kantak. “When you put yourself in the shoes of every different player in a scenario, you really understand the behaviors that are consistent with our values and how to be kinder, express gratitude, be more open minded and have a braver heart.”
When all is said and done, is the amount of time and effort spent instilling the fundamentals of culture and values worth it? Madden asked the two leaders.
“Over the last five plus years, we’ve grown exponentially,” said Kantak. “We’ve seen people be promoted multiple times.” Kantak estimated that around 30% of employees were promoted last year. Practically speaking, as Kantak pointed out “that’s equally as important since, at the end of the day, people work at an agency not for the good of the agency per se but for their own career growth and opportunities.”
For Kantak and Aske, the “trials and errors of living and learning in the business” led them to “this very organic place of creating a space that allows everyone’s voice to be heard.”
We asked ourselves, “What if we owned this place? What environment would we want to work in?” recalled Kantak. “There’s certainly an element of the experiences we had at big agencies over the years … feeling sidelined as a junior person and wanting to make sure to pull in all levels who can trust that it’s not, ‘my opinion versus yours,’ but it’s a collaboration.”
“Culture, values, curiosity and psychological safety — that’s what it’s all about,” said Aske in closing. “We believe creating a great culture with strong values is something to focus on, because organizations with strong cultures always come out ahead.”