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Why staff are too important to leave to some department

Why staff are too important to leave to some department

When Larry Summerville describes the team at More FM when he was general manager, it’s like he’s talking about family.

Summerville was in on the ground floor when the pioneering radio station entered the competitive Auckland market in 1993. He stayed with the station through mergers with radically different stations such as Radio Pacific, and an acquisition by CanWest in 1997. In 2005 he left, but only after More FM was voted the best place to work in the country.

The award acknowledged More FM’s leadership in four areas: values, a sense of community, development strategies and a high performance culture. None of these had been deliberate goals for Summerville and his peers, but in hindsight, Summerville says, “they actually tied in with what we’d been doing for a very long time”.

Which is where the family analogy comes in. Summerville reckons all the aspects that make a healthy family also lead to a healthy business. Clear values offer a clear vision of the future, while a sense of community gives people a sense of belonging and optimism. Development strategies help people grow professionally and personally, and a high performance culture naturally attracts the best people. Here’s how.

1. Hire the best

“You’ve got to hire adults and set them free to do great work,” Summerville says. Hiring the best has a run-on effect. “Like attracts like, and it doesn’t take that long to build up an amazing team.”

2. Delegate

A challenge facing any team is balancing clear aims, goals and values, with the need to let people do things their own way. Summerville says micromanagement is the worst thing to do to a team. “A lot of young managers suffer from trying to manage every detail of the job,” he says. “They need to learn how to delegate and let people make mistakes. Because not making mistakes means not going forward.”

So how does a manager let talented people be themselves, while still meeting clear guidelines and values? “Rather than commandments, it’s worth brainstorming and having them come up with ideas,” says Summerville. “Then you’ve got real buy-in.”

3. Create a space

“It’s really important to have an area where people can sit in a social environment,” says Summerville. “They can have breakfast or lunch together; those areas are the staff’s alone to do what they like.”

A room can say a lot about a company. More FM’s offices featured a pinball machine, which didn’t serve much of a functional purpose, but did send a message. “It meant we could have fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Summerville. It also reflected the healthy competitive spirit encouraged at More FM. “Mediocrity is not an option. I still believe in having winners,” he says.

4. Involve family

Like many organisations, More FM had an internal staff newsletter, but theirs was a real-world printed newsletter, mailed to the home addresses of staff members. It meant that not only did staff get an overview of what was happening in the company, but so did their families. In effect, says Summerville, “you don’t just have the staff working with you, you have their partners as well.”

Life after Larry

When a leader leaves, the culture inevitably changes. According to Brent Impey, the chief executive of More FM’s parent company MediaWorks, More FM has a new culture under Auckland RadioWorks manager Wendy Palmer.

“It encourages people to be aspirational, to lift the bar,” says Impey. “In fact, ‘aspirational’ is a word you’ll hear a lot of around More FM.”

Although More FM is now part of a larger corporate, it hasn’t lost that pioneering feel. That’s because MediaWorks encourages independent thinking from each of its brands. “We encourage there to be deliberately different cultures,” says Impey.

“It’s driven by leaders of various units, and we also encourage individuality.”

One thing that’s missing is an HR department. “I don’t believe in them,” says Impey. “I believe managers are paid—and paid well—to manage people. If they can’t manage people, particularly in the media industry which is all about people, then they’re not a manager.”

In fact, including Impey, there are only four ‘corporate’ positions in MediaWorks, with the rest of the resources belonging to the separate TV, radio and online businesses.

Just because there’s no HR department doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of HR activities. Programmes include mentoring, staff induction programmes, training, breakfast radio ‘boot camps’, creative workshops, exit interviews and, just beginning, a series of work/life balance programmes.

Impey admits work/life balance is particularly hard in an industry as fast-moving and demanding as media. But the impetus came from the company’s desire to remain employer of choice. “It’s a competitive game and we wanted to ensure we had the very best people work for us who fit that culture,” says Impey.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the days of Larry Summerville is the approach to trying new things. “We’re not working in heart surgery, we’re working in entertainment and information,” says Impey. “We encourage people to make mistakes. You want people to push the boundaries and be creative.”

Still good?

Is life after Larry still good for More FM, and its parent company MediaWorks? Impey proudly cites the company’s staff turnover rate—12 percent.

“Most of it is technical staff in television, where there is movement at the younger end,” explains Impey. “That would also apply in editing and presentation. There’s also turnover in radio sales, which can be highly lucrative if a person’s successful. Some make it, some don’t.”

At the management level, where turnover can cost a company dearly, there’s very little turnover. “Five of our general sales managers have been here more than five years, and many people from TV3 have been here almost since it started,” says Impey.

As for Summerville, he’s now working on building a strong sales team at the station he co-owns in Whakatane, 1XX. He sums up his philosophy with some familiar words: “The biggest thing to keep in mind is to treat people as you wish to be treated yourself.” 

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