Maxine Winer: Role of Culture in Achieving Success

Maxine Winer
Maxine Winer

At FleishmanHillard, the secret to success has always been the firm’s culture. With its global headquarters based in St. Louis versus Chicago or New York like most other global PR firms, Fleishman has always prided itself on its Midwestern roots and a culture rooted in respect for the individual. That was incredibly compelling for Maxine Winer, General Manager of the agency’s Chicago office, as she considered taking on the role six years ago.

“One of the main reasons I decided to accept the position was because I knew it meant I was going to be able to have a direct hand in determining the culture of the office,” she said. “I joined FH from another large agency, which had more than 500 people in its Chicago office; I didn’t know everyone on my floor, let alone everyone in the office. So coming to a much smaller office – we have about 80 people in Chicago — in the GM role was really exciting to me because I knew I would be able to get to know everyone personally and that really appealed to me from a culture stand point.”

In Winer’s view, her people – or FHamily, as they often refer to each other — are the reason for FH Chicago’s success, which is why creating a dynamic, inspiring, supportive culture is so important to her. “It influences everything and makes the difference between having an engaged, motivated team that brings the smartest, most creative thinking to our clients every day versus a team that just goes through the motions; that’s not us.  We bring our best every day.”

“Bringing their best” is what Winer credits with their new business success. The Chicago office added several big-name clients to their roster in 2016, including being named Agency of Record for Quaker Oats and being part of the Omnicom “We Are Unlimited” agency of the future that was built to service McDonald’s exclusively. They also began a partnership with The Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public-private partnership that prepares children for success in school and in life. 

Winer says the key to winning new business is putting together the right team. “No matter what the company or industry, no matter what they are trying to sell or what issue they are trying to solve for, winning the business really comes down to chemistry. That’s what clients are buying.  They are interested in learning how we think, how we will work with them, whether we have not just the experience to help them, but the passion and desire. They are buying the team; that’s why the easiest way to lose the business after you’ve won it is by playing bait and switch with the team they met during the pitch.  We don’t do that; we bring in the people who are going to work the business. And then they really do work the business.”

That focus on team means recruitment and retention are Winer’s top priorities, which brings her right back to culture. She works hard to encourage and support a Chicago-centric culture and has found it is one of the “benefits” candidates really respond to when interviewing.

In addition to a weekly office newsletter updating the team on each other’s personal and professional achievements and the “Treat Cart,” a Thursday afternoon ritual that provides staff with a selection of beer, wine and assorted snacks and, more importantly, time to take a break from whatever they’re doing and get together with their colleagues, another major aspect to office culture is the idea of giving back.

The office provides pro bono support to many local organizations including Junior Achievement, the Juvenile Protective Association, and Foundations of Music. There is also a “Get Involved Committee,” which was formed last year to provide ongoing ways for team members to get involved in charitable endeavors throughout the city, in both big ways and small. At the end of last year, the team got together on a Saturday to join their White Sox client as part of their Volunteer Corps; another day, the office brought in lunch for a group who spent the noon hour cutting up plastic bags to be recycled into “yarn” that is then spun into soft sleeping mats and distributed to the homeless.

“What I love most about this is that the idea was conceived by two of the more junior members of our team in response to a desire expressed by others in the office.  So  many of our people want to get involved and help our community, so the idea here is that the committee comes up with many different ways for people to do that — as part of a group or on their own — based upon their passions and how much time they can donate. There’s a monthly newsletter, a logo, even t-shirts and water bottles!”

Winer’s commitment to culture comes clearly into focus when she is interviewing new talent to join the team. “I meet everyone, at all levels, before we extend an offer, which I hear from candidates is kind of unusual,” she said. “But it’s incredibly important to me because, beyond the skill set required to do the job, which I assume they have if they have made it all the way to me, I want to be as sure as I can be that they will also be a good culture fit. I look for signs that they are really good collaborators, enjoy working as part of a team and know how to have fun while they work. The stress can get to you; we can’t take ourselves too seriously.  Laughter is important. When I don’t hear enough laughter in the office, I get worried.”

Another thing Winer looks for when hiring is diversity, which is a cornerstone of FleishmanHillard’s recruitment process. Earlier this year, the agency was named to the National Association for Female Executive’s list of the “Top Companies for Female Executives” for the seventh consecutive year, with women making up nearly 70 percent of the agency’s global workforce and holding over 50 percent of the agency’s office and corporate management positions. The Chicago office also participates in the agency’s Alfred E Fleishman Diversity Fellowship program, which is a full-year program that offers ethnically diverse candidates the opportunity to work in various positions within different practice group in the agency.

“We are in the business of engaging with diverse audiences on behalf of our clients; we can’t do that well if we ourselves aren’t reflective of the world we live in,” she says. “Diversity is something that our industry struggles with, so we make a concerted effort to make opportunities available to diverse candidates. Obviously being in Chicago helps us in that regard, as there are so many talented candidates either already in this market or wanting to relocate here.”

As she considers 2017, Winer is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead, particularly in social and digital. She says she’s thrilled that Rob Boles, one of the architects of the agency’s award-winning social work for General Motors and other clients, recently joined from Dallas to lead the Chicago social and digital team.

“We are fortunate that we have in Chicago a really strong full-service offering in terms of both practice groups, such as brand marketing, reputation management, public affairs, crisis and issues, employee engagement, as well as industry sectors, like CPG, food and nutrition, health and wellness, manufacturing, etc. The one area I have always wanted to strengthen is our social and digital offering, which is incredibly strong elsewhere in the network. Now, with Rob on board, I truly feel all the pieces are in place to make our Chicago team unstoppable.”

Dan Gilson interviewed Maxine Winer as part of the Agency Management course in DePaul University’s graduate public relations and advertising program. This is the ninth in a series of interviews with agency leaders. 




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