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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck

President and Chief Operating Officer, The Freeman Company Chief Executive Officer, Freeman

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Early lessons in leadership - #5.

Freeman is noted for its strong culture — 90 years in the making, and a source of pride for all of us. But in recent years, as we’ve acquired new companies and brought in new leaders, I’m reminded that it can take a while to feel like you fit in. It’s especially hard when everyone else seems to share a coded language and ritualized behaviors that you don’t quite grasp. I remember the first time I had to learn how to fit in, and how hard it was to be patient with that process of acceptance.

My eye-opening career experience happened when, as a young man, I went to work for Seybold Seminars & Publications. The company worked out of an old mansion, right on the beach in Malibu, next door to Johnny Carson’s old house. Reception was in the foyer, shipping and receiving was in the dining room, marketing was in the living room, customer service was just off the kitchen, and our offices were in the bedrooms. For a kid from Indiana, it all seemed pretty exotic — even the people. Especially the people. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t know what to make of me, either. We were similar in age and education – but came from different worlds.

Early on, I was initiated into one of my first trials as “the new guy.” One of the rituals that my new team engaged in was running down to the beach and seeing how far they could fling an old beach chair. To me, it seemed like childish chest thumping, but I played along. It was only later that I realized what it was all about. I thought they were sizing up my physical prowess as a man. But in fact, the chair-tossing game was something they enjoyed that was uniquely their own. What they were sizing up was who I was as a person – how I handled the situation. It was a personality assessment, calculated to see if I had fun or if I refused to join in – a litmus test for cultural fitness.

It wasn’t until I’d gone through the full cycle of producing my first big show with that team, and passed countless other little tests, that I realized I was no longer and outsider, but an integral part of the team. It took patience. But what a team we made. And I discovered that, once you do find your place in a tight, culture-driven team, it’s a wonderfully supportive, powerfully collaborative place to be. Everything just clicks.

Today, my advice to anyone joining a culturally-driven enterprise as part of an acquisition is to give things at least 18 months before deciding if that culture is right for you. Take time to learn and earn your way in. Exercise patience. There’s no such thing as “instant culture.” You need to give the culture time to work in you favor. It’s like yeast-leavened bread. It’ takes longer to rise, but the results are worth it.

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