The Culture Interview with Laura Larson

Laura Larson

­Laura Larson is the head of Marketing Operations at Glacier Media. ­Laura has worked as a retail buyer for Virgin, in sales and marketing for all kinds of industries before settling in to drive Postmedia’s marketing and advertising business in Vancouver. Laura is actively involved in her community through sports and family. Find her this summer at the baseball diamond, or making soap and delivering by bike as @eastvansoaplab.

How do you define culture at the highest level?

Culture is a community mindset and behaviours which form around the way we interact with one another. Culture is the collective ideas, shared knowledge, and dynamics that shape our overall experience.

Would that definition change when we are talking about an organization? If so, how?

It is the same but at a more granular level. It is the employee experience, the language we use, the team structure, training, decision making, performance review styles, and more. Culture touches everything.

If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like cost or time what are the first three things that come to mind for you?

I do not think cost has much to do with it.

Editor’s Note: Only one interview subject to date has mentioned anything that was cost-related, and, in that case, it was about a bigger space for their teams to work from.

  1. Develop culture mindfully: Mindfully develop culture and know what you want it to be. Culture directly affects productivity, so I think of staff happiness as the KPI for the best ROI.
  2. Inspire and engage: aim to inspire and engage people because people want to grow. We should create environments that foster connection and natural collaboration.
  3. Keep it flowing: it is a continuous process, and it needs to happen all the time. Every day, every interaction you have is a chance to reinforce and improve culture.

When you think of poor organizational culture what are the first three things that come to mind?

  • Fear-based command structure
  • Poor communication
  • Undervaluing people

If there is something wrong in the organizational culture it hangs like a backdrop and filters through all that we do. Even though it’s intangible it can be felt and seen in some way.

In your experience how does culture come together in a uniquely individual workplace such as journalism?

The gig economy comes to mind as do other agency environments with a strongly distributed workforce. What we’ve seen in COVID is that [almost] all of us are now remote and it means communication is more important than ever to ensure connection. It requires more time. People need to know how they connect to the end goal and how their contribution helps to drive the overall objective.

What are the best things you do to translate the organizational vision for the team?

Do it often and clearly. Having regular one-on-ones where there is open two-way communication. Knowing how people are feeling about their work and that they know how it contributes is vital as is giving and asking for feedback. Honesty and transparency are foundational in building culture, and they are so key to that buy-in piece.

Sometimes organizational culture isn’t a good fit between employees and organizations. What advice would you give others to help them figure that out for themselves?

When it’s a good fit your values are aligned. Ask questions in the interview process. You are interviewing them to see if it’s the right fit for you as much as they are interviewing you for the same reason. Be sure to research:

  • The organization
  • Their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives
  • Employee engagement programs
  • Employee and customer reviews

As much as employee reviews are helpful so are customer reviews, take them with a grain of salt and know that for every kernel of truth, there’s usually some sour grapes thrown in there.

In your role leading up Marketing operations, what do you do in the hiring process to ensure long-term success for that position? What do you look for in someone that tells you they will last in their role and excel at your company prior to hiring?

This is my secret sauce!

There’s a personality piece I look for. I look for hunger and passion. I look for volunteer experience in the past. What kinds of organizations has the person been a part of? How do they speak to that experience? What are their short and long-term goals? All of that is to uncover their passion.

Passion can sometimes be a great thing and something a less great thing. What are the markers of passion that you are looking for?

That’s a good question because with passion you have to be careful not to attract someone with an unhealthy passion like a workaholic. You want people who are dedicated and driven by their own initiative. A joie de vivre (joy of life) is a great marker as it denotes a curiosity and passion for life. I think that is indicative of the approach to life and the curious nature that makes for a great team member: someone that brings curiosity to their work and discussions.

In your career, you’ve moved from making large individual contributions to leading teams. Tell us about that transition and some of your key learnings along the way.

As an individual contributor, you have a strong sense of individual ownership over projects. The bigger the team gets the less connected you are to that and the more you’ll work with those who are taking over ownership. The importance of open two-way communications and trust becomes even more important.

That trust is very important as the bigger the team gets the less close you are to the work, but as a leader, you must ensure that everything is going smoothly. It becomes more about people, processes, and tools. You need to make sure you are hiring the right people the right way. I like to look at the processes and tools because as we grow and change, we have to ensure that we have the right solutions in place to operate at a greater scale.

Recently two companies (Coinbase and Basecamp) made public announcements regarding their desire and initiative to not weigh in on political and sensitive topics. This is being seen from two extremes as either a smart move or a cowardly move. How do you think organizations can navigate the increasingly challenging world where taking a side on an issue may alienate the opposing group? How do you see these moves by these organizations?

Companies are made up of people. Particularly, south of the border [in the US] things seem to be increasingly polarizing. You can’t necessarily remove those discussions from the water cooler conversations. It’s going to happen organically. I think it’s a little cowardly to go that route. Having open dialog is important. People are entitled to have a viewpoint on issues.

I would look at social media policy and having policy around how those discussions are held and how transparent people are with their viewpoints when they’re representatives of the company.

Tell us a story about being a more junior team member where you had an experience with bad culture?

I had a boss with deep experience but who also had anger management issues. Anger-related bad behaviour was a regular part of the workday. Staff was walking on eggshells and the tension was thick. I should have trusted my gut as I felt it in the interview process. After leaving that job, it took me a while to shake it off.

Tell us a story about being a more junior team member where you had an experience with good culture?

At another job, I felt like I won the lottery for a long time. I was so happy. The leader was very authentic, and she always spoke honestly. She trusted the team and the team trusted her. She would take chances on people who had a passion or a particular talent. She would challenge people to develop that talent. She would nudge people and then support them to rise to the occasion. Her belief in people was a springboard for a lot of careers. That’s the mark of a great leader.

Tell us a story about being a more senior team member where you had an experience with bad culture?

I think that bad culture moments can happen when someone hasn’t bought into the organizational culture even if that culture is good. I’ve seen this manifest through insecurity, frustration, gossip, and being checked out. It creates static in the harmony of the team, hampers productivity, and affects people’s sense of well-being. It’s important to have a sense of the organizational culture and if it’s a fit for you and, for the hiring manager, that you are a team fit.

Tell us a story about being a more senior team member where you had an experience with good culture?

This story relates to the time that I’ve spent over the last few years in sports and what I’ve taken away from that and into the work environment. The past few years have been heavily influenced by being connected to hockey and baseball teams as a parent, as a board member, as a billet mom, as a fan, and as a supporter.

Through one of those volunteer experiences, I had the opportunity to interview Roberto Clemente, Jr. He told me that sport is about goodwill and helping to open doors to a world of knowledge and connection to achievement. In sports, you can see the direct impact that coaching has on morale and on performance. A good coach can change the whole game and you handle how you handle the wins.

How you handle the wins and losses says everything about you, that the wins don’t go to your head and the losses don’t go to your soul. You stay strong and be ready for the next day. The resilience that it takes to be successful in sport has had a knock-on effect on the way that I view work and work-life:

  • Have a system
  • Work as a unit
  • Celebrate wins
  • Keep getting better

Tell us about a time when you were able to create and build culture successfully? What was the hardest part of it?

Creating the space for people to feel safe enough to share allowed us to start talking about wins, losses, learnings, and failures. That open dialog became the momentum that shaped our culture.

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn as a leader? What sticks with you the most.

There are times that you must temper your natural responses due to how they may be perceived by others. You need to lead knowing that people may have responses based on the way you respond. It’s important to be mindful of what you are putting out there. Your words help to shape organizational culture. Your thoughts and actions as a leader are very meaningful to your team and may have unexpected impacts.

Thank you to Laura Larson for sharing her insights and experience as a leader in the media and marketing space. Find her this summer at the baseball diamond, or making soap and delivering by bike as @eastvansoaplab.

Kemp Edmonds

Kemp Edmonds

Canadian Workplace Culture Lead

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