Sydney Olympics fire breather, janitor, envelope stuffer, and road tarrer are just a handful of jobs held by Andrea Culligan throughout her life. As she’s gone through these life cycles and jobs, Andrea learned she’s never too good for anything. These lessons have served Andrea Culligan well as the CEO and owner of The Unimail Group (Unimail).
Similar to an individual’s life cycle, Unimail has undergone many cycles of its own. When Andrea joined Unimail in 1999, the company focused on providing emails to university students. Thirteen years later, Unimail has seen its share of highs and lows. Today, the company has pivoted and now helps companies brand themselves to attract the right people at the right time with the right message.
Two years ago in 2010, Andrea Culligan was poised to exit the business due to misaligned values with her business partner – the result was Andrea actually buying out her parnter and like a true divorce, everyone was unhappy. This started a downward trend for Andrea and Unimail. Andrea met with each employee and realized that there was a huge problem with turnover and massive disengagement. The staff was just pissed off!
By the end of 2010, the company culture hit rock bottom. Unimail just concluded a draining lawsuit, and its culture reeked. The company had accumulated two years of baggage and negativity that needed to be purged. Andrea shared the following invaluable tactics and tips for anyone in a similar experience.
*Fire Quickly - Andrea tried to change the mindset of employees from negativity to positivity. Through the process she learned some were mired too deeply in negativity and weren’t able to change, so she had to fire quickly. She started bringing in much needed new faces and attitudes.
*Overlead by Example – Andrea Culligan realized that she had to be very clear on the culture of her company. And as the person at the top of the pyramid, she had to be over-the-top in demonstrating the culture, like jumping on the sales desk after a big win or saying thank you for everything to everyone constantly. She wanted to create a sense of enthusiasm and success, and she knows that it starts with her.
*Brutal Honesty – She was also extremely transparent with the team. Even exclaiming to them, “we all agree this [culture] sucks. What do you guys want to do about it?”
*Small Prizes to Ignite Discussions - During these team meetings to address their culture, Andrea was frustrated because people would be hesitant to speak up. To even get more involvement in the meetings, she would bring small prizes, like a stationary set, to spur interaction and discussion. These seemingly small prizes definitely help ignite a trend of higher engagement during these meetings.
*External Facilitator – It’s not a sign of weakness to bring in outside, professional facilitators. In fact, these outsiders were able to help facilitate the crafting of their new vision and values. It democratized the process, instead of it feeling like Andrea was pushing the process down people’s throats.
*Plain English Values – The vision they originally had was not embraced. It was just there. It took them seven months to get rid of vague words like innovation and happiness — words that didn’t really mean anything. Now they’re close to finalizing their values with phrases like, “Cultivate creativity. Let there be laughter.” These values actually resonate with the team.
*Role Play Values – Not only does the team identify phrases that are meaningful to themselves, they also workshop scenarios to live out their culture. Andrea learned from Tony Hsieh of Zappos that if a company isn’t willing to hire and fire based on these values then they’re not truly values, but just cultural points. So now they base all recruitment and assessment on these key values. And if you’re not fun … sorry, but Unimail will fire you.
*Results of Saving Culture from the Brink – It’s taken 14 hard months to get here, and there’s only two people left from the start of the process. The following is Unimail’s cultural values:
1. Explore the unfamiliar
2. Let there be laughter
3. Cultivate creativity
4. Think community; live green
5. Earn & establish respect
6. Do it with passion; say it with truth
7. Chase knowledge; share brilliance
*Conclusion – Like any organization, Unimail experienced highs and lows. But unlike other organizations that wallowed and ultimately succumbed to a corrosive culture, Andrea Culligan was able to do some soul searching and open an honest dialogue to rescue and redefine Unimail’s culture. Now Andrea can add cultural surgeon and cultural cheerleader next to fire breather, road tarrer, and janitor.
This is Part I of the Unimail cultural series. In Part I, we learned how Unimail’s culture had hit rock bottom and the hard steps Andrea Culligan had to take to rescue a culture that everyone admitted “sucked.” In Part II, we’ll be exploring other cultural best practices that Andrea has implemented to reinforce and turbocharge Unimail’s resurgent culture.
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