Telum Talks To… Naeema Ismail, Senior Partner and General Manager, Ying Communications
Telum caught up with Naeema Ismail, Senior Partner and General Manager at Ying Communications. Naeema shares with us the importance of culture within an agency, how it can drive new business and profitability and the shifts she has witnessed over the years.
Can you take us through your role at Ying Communications?
I run the PR business at Ying Communications. I joined the agency as its 12th staff member more than 12 years ago. For someone working in the industry for a quarter of a century, people are often surprised that Ying is only the fourth company I’ve ever worked for. The Ying Communications I joined in 2007 was a small, marketing communications and content services agency. I was initially contracted for a three-month, part-time role, providing maternity cover for Yin Ching, our Managing Partner who founded the agency with her husband Allan. I was ultimately offered a permanent role to help kickstart the budding PR business - and here we are today.
What does culture mean to you and why do you think having a culture is important to agencies?
Culture is like the play book for the team - it sets the tone and defines the rules of engagement for how we’re treated and how we treat others. A good culture is an acknowledgement of the humanity in all of us - a reminder that our work life, while significant, is but a facet of something larger.
Ying Communications was acquired in 2017 by global, independent agency Finn Partners, based out of New York. Our CEO Peter Finn truly puts values at the heart of his acquisitions - we are all expected to walk the talk where culture is concerned. One of Peter’s favourite culture mantras is ‘Work Hard, Play Nice’. It’s simple yet deep and true to how Peter has lived his life and career. Be it agencies or any other type of business, a good culture allows us to focus on doing the job well, with no dramas, in a supportive and conducive work environment. At the end of the day, we should all get to live the life we’ve worked hard for. An environment that makes no excuses for bad behaviour is a big part of that.
Do you find that agency culture also plays a vital role in driving new business and profitability?
Yes, one hundred per cent. The bedrocks of a workplace with good culture will be trust and respect. Surely the place where you feel you have a voice and are valued as an individual and team member, will be where you’re motivated to bring your A-game? When every success is shared while any failure is seen as a learning and shouldered collectively, we all rise to the task at hand. We can bounce back from challenges stronger. Sure, business success may not materialise overnight just because you have a positive culture - but from what I’ve seen, there’s a direct linear relationship. When people are secure enough to be bold and take the risks to achieve their best work, financial rewards follow.
What has been the biggest change that you have seen within the agency landscape, regarding people and culture over the years?
Broadly speaking, in this age where practically every experience, learning, insight and emotion is shared in real time, we are receiving feedback constantly. Whether or not you welcome it, your woke-ness, or otherwise, is under scrutiny. I’m frequently humbled and inspired by the younger generation around me, especially my colleagues at Ying. So many of them are driven by a sense of purpose - fully invested in being an active champion or advocate of their various communities or causes. I often look at them and wish I’d been as socially conscious and savvy when I was their age. That said, maybe I’d have had less fun bumbling my way through life!
What is the most crucial step when building the culture of an agency?
Good and bad culture starts at the leadership bench. Leaders determine the tone and discourse - what is and isn’t acceptable. I strongly feel that culture and values are inextricably intertwined. Company values shouldn’t just be motherhood statements that collect dust on your pantry wall. You need to define and demonstrate authentic company values that will drive a desired culture - and you need leaders that work hard to embody them in a natural, human manner. Those are the basics. To turn culture into a movement? That only happens if there is a great enough force behind it. Ultimately, culture and success live and grow - or diminish - through the actions of every person in the agency. And when the process really works, it’s palpable.
If you had one piece of advice for companies who wanted to improve their culture what would that be?
Start with safety. I strongly feel one of the most under-rated and unwritten responsibilities of a leader is to foster an emotionally and intellectually safe environment. One that’s built on trust and respect so that everyone is able to just focus on being themselves, embracing differences, speaking and sharing freely to deliver their best every day. And not just in theory - I’m always a little wary of a team that’s too quiet all the time. Sure, be respectful, but if people aren’t free to be their true selves, then you may not be getting their best work selves.
Safety has far-reaching repercussions - it impacts hiring policies and the type of people you seek and retain. It means that even among high-achievers, you have to stamp out culturally detrimental behaviours and practices across the organisation, starting at the top. It means welcoming feedback that stings, if it’s fair and well-meant.
Most of all for a leader, it means finding the time because it takes a lot of time, and lots of what I might call ‘listening without intent’. Day to day, for me, it means often looking inward and facing up to my own personal truths and discomforts in order to help uphold our culture. We are making leaders of our people, so they feel empowered to make where we work even better.