MEC’s Marla Kaplowitz on People Management and Employee Happiness

The-Makegood.com_MEC_Marla_KaplowitzMarla Kaplowitz is CEO of MEC North America, a top media buying and planning firm. The Makegood recently spoke with Marla about keeping employees happy, managing distributed teams, and empowering leaders.The Makegood: Marla, you are known for a modern leadership style at MEC. Can you elaborate on your happiness concept, how MEC launched the program, and why it was so successful?

One thing that I always valued and noticed in the mentors and great leaders that I’ve worked with over the years, was their commitment to creating a positive work environment, one where people are happy, inspired and motivated.  Work is stressful enough, and in a client-facing business such as ours, it’s hard not to get caught up in the demands of it.  With this in mind, when I became CEO at MEC, I was passionate about shifting the focus to our people. Let’s face it, people are a company’s most important asset, so understanding what drives each to personal fulfillment is key to keeping them happy.When I decided that we needed to take more specific action to foster this type of environment, it happened rather organically.  One of our senior leaders shared his experience working with executive coach, Helen Mumford Sole, leading him to both personal and professional development.  Having spent the last ten years exploring and studying various facets of Happiness, Helen’s message is simple – happiness is not something we are born with, but rather something that we can learn, manage and cultivate like any other skill.  Inspired by her thinking, last year we invited Helen to speak on the subject of happiness at an MEC all-staff meeting.After an outpouring of positive reception from our talent after the meeting, we decided to take the concept of “happiness” a step further and launched a six-week pilot course, which we dubbed “Inspiring Happiness.” Twenty employees in our New York office were selected to participate in the pilot program that focused on teaching tools and techniques to help discover happiness in both their personal and professional lives.  Not only did our before and after surveys show that 100 percent of participants found the course useful or very useful, but 100 percent enjoyed it very much, and 100 percent would recommend it to their friends.  We also saw an overall shift in how employees approached their work, with one taking it upon herself to launch a media tools training initiative aimed at junior-level staff. We’re currently in the midst of our second round of the class, and have plans to roll it out to other MEC offices around the network as well.

The Makegood: MEC employs almost 5,000 people in more than 150 offices across 84 countries. How does the agency manage distributed teams and can you provide tips for global companies?

First and foremost, it’s about empowerment. I believe it’s important for the leaders inside global companies to feel empowered to make decisions and decide what is best for their teams and regions. That said, connectivity and communication is also extremely integral to creating one voice, one culture across borders.

At MEC, we are highly effective at using digital channels to stay connected. Our intranet, PlanetMEC, is a place where we share updates on employee achievements, personal stories, and client work, keeping us connected to our colleagues overseas. We also have a program called “Global Ideas,” an internal awards competition across the entire network where teams enter their best client case studies. Not only does this strike up healthy competition among the offices, but it’s a way for us to share learnings and best practices, and provide employees an outlook of innovative strategies from across the globe.

Talent-wise, we’ve put an emphasis on hiring people in North America with not only diverse skill sets, but diverse global backgrounds. In New York, our executive committee not only represents a good mix of men and women, but also different countries and global experiences. We have people from the UK, and Samoa, and many of us have worked on different continents. We also invest in sending our people to other offices around the global network, as well as conferences in different parts of the world. It’s no surprise to anyone that mobility is helping us all stay connected more than ever these days, but I think it goes beyond that.  When people get outside of the office, meet new people, see different things and places, their natural sense of curiosity is piqued. That’s a good thing for the type of work we’re doing, and keeps us on the cutting edge.

The Makegood: What is important when measuring and ensuring happiness, goals and performance of employees?

People tend to equate happiness with achievement of key milestones or accomplishments such as getting a promotion to VP or winning a new piece of business. But day-to-day work happiness goes beyond that immediate satisfaction. It’s the ability to approach things with a positive outlook, to deliver inspired work, to enjoy the people you work with and what you do.  While we haven’t yet quantified the overall long-term impact of this initiative, happiness is a fairly basic practice.  It’s a domino effect – without happy people, we won’t have happy clients.

At MEC, it starts with the overall sentiment pervading all our offices. You ultimately know you got it right when people are happy to come to work, and feel motivated and connected to a larger vision of delivering inspired work for our clients.  Those who have completed the course credit it with helping them manage stressful situations, some found joy and passion in new areas of business, while others have shared that they are now equipped with tools to help tackle those personal issues that had been restricting their development.  The end result – more inspired, motivated and positive talent delivering for our clients.  We still have areas where we haven’t cracked the code, but the most important thing is letting your people know that you’re working on it, and it’s a priority.

The Makegood: Comparing the generations in today’s workforce, what are differences in keeping employees happy?

It’s easy to make blanket stereotypes on how each generation defines happiness. But for me, it goes beyond generational differences to effectively help our talent find happiness.  The key is to address and understand what fulfillment means to each person.  While you may well find similarities across the generations, there are certainly vast differences. For example, many of us seek a balanced life, meaning an equal focus on career and family/friends, but to a young mother or father fulfillment may mean ending the work day early to have more time to spend with family. To someone else of the same generation, fulfillment may mean the opportunity to participate on a special project or to be challenged with a new experience at work.  By placing people in predefined buckets, you risk oversimplifying the solution. Ultimately, it’s about cultivating a culture that allows for each person to discover and pursue what makes them happy.

The Makegood: Thanks, Marla.