Changing The Culture at Cumulus


If you’re in Nashville this week, head to one of the magazine bins at the Omni Hotel, and grab the latest issue of Radio Ink. Open the issue up to the special Radio Wayne section and check out our exclusive interview with the new Cumulus CEO about her one-year anniversary and how she’s improving the culture across Cumulus’ hundreds of radio stations.

In that interview you’ll also hear from New York Market Manager Chad Lopez who says, “We are energized by Mary’s forward thinking as well as her investment in our employees and products.” You read about what Dallas/Houston Market Manager Dan Bennett thinks about the new CEO. “Mary has proven to the an outstanding leader, with her focus on ratings and employee retention. Cumulus is on track for great things ahead.” And then there’s SVP Jeff brown who says Mary has done a tremendous job connecting at every level of the company. “May has set the tone, engaged the team and charted the course. That’s great work.”

The New CEO said it was obvious, as soon as she took the job, there needed to be a culture change. “It was loud and clear that Cumulus had a toxic culture with dispirited employees that needed to be addressed.” So what’s the secret to turning around the culture of a company that toxic to one that happily collaborates? Here’s the answer from the new CEO herself.

Radio Ink: So, specifically, how are you turning that culture around?
Mary Berner: To me, having an engaged and motivated employee base is foundational. It’s absolutely foundational to achieving higher performance and then continuing to improve results. We didn’t talk about the tactics, but there is a lot of talk about what culture is, how that affects performance, and it is well documented that there is a direct correlation between strong culture and financial performance.

There is not a CEO on planet earth who doesn’t want a great culture. So why do so few have it? Right? It’s because it’s a strategy like any other strategy that needs a plan. It needs to be executed well. It needs to be reinforced. Again, it’s not some squishy thing. There are well thought-out tactics around it. For example, we’re going to be focused. You can’t be focused if no one is responding to each other, because you’re wasting a lot of time, right? Our 48-hour response-rate rule addressed that.

It started with me committing to responding to everybody in 48 hours. My management team followed suit, and then everybody in the company made the 48-hour commitment. It has singularly probably been one of the biggest changes for this culture that we have instituted, because you think about what that did: We freed up people. Decisions were made faster. We stopped wasting a lot of time. That’s just one of many examples of how we operationalized our culture strategy.

Another example is to solicit and really listen to and respond to feedback — personally respond immediately to the extent possible, but never leave someone hanging for more than 48 hours. Asking for feedback and really listening to it and responding to people is not only respectful of your employees, it’s really good business, because every single strategy came from — again, I will just go back: My first survey. It was just clear.

I knew it already from the Operations Review Committee: ratings, big issue. No one is talking about them. Ratings — we need to focus on that. Our culture is a mess. Our blocking and tackling. We don’t do basic things pretty well. The strategies come from our people, and our people make them better. The ideas we get — I hear a theme enough, I know that that’s an issue. That’s where the benefits of really engaging your employees are.

Radio Ink: Why is it working?
Mary Berner: It is working because we have started to make Cumulus the kind of place where people want to work. Like I just said, that starts with being very clear about the kind of company we aspire to be, and I think our employees believe us. The reason they believe us is because we are walking the talk.

Why is it? Because, I would say, we are clear about what we expect from our employees. We have a framework around which to make decisions. We communicate really rigorously. And we’re honest. I don’t stand up and say that everything is great. I say how hard it is. This turnaround is hard. It’s risky. It takes a lot of work. There are more nos than yeses to our employees.

But what I think they appreciate is that there’s a path and the path is clearly articulated and they understand their role and they understand how important their role is. At the end of the day, most people want to go to work and feel like what they do matters. And it does matter. I think they want to be part of that. We did our follow-up survey about a month ago, and again, we had over 60 percent of our employees respond. I’ve never seen response rates like this. Ninety-four percent think the company is changing for the better, and 92 percent are now proud to work at Cumulus. That is a complete flip, and this isn’t some small sample.

Despite the fact that we are in a turnaround and that turnarounds are, by their very nature, really hard work, our employee engagement is extraordinarily high. And the data to back it up really bodes well for the company, because it shows that what we’re doing is working, and I think the underpinning for this is this concept of HABU, which is “Highest And Best Use.”

What that is, is a principle around decisionmaking that every employee understands, which is that we are in a turnaround. So everything we do, we have to focus on “Is this the highest and best use of my time, my resources, my focus?” And it’s a really simple concept. But if you actually apply it every day to what you’re doing, you would make better decisions, you would make more of them — so you’re not paralyzed, and you make them faster than before.
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  1. Too bad that “culture” is being discussed as a noun – a thing with form and substance. There is no chance that wheelbarrows full of “new culture” can be wheeled in and out of the stations’ offices and shovels full evenly spread around the premises.
    While these are the expected, noble and (probably) applauded endeavours of new management-with-a-mandate, there is another set of dynamics in play which are not likely being identified as paramount. These would be “the sacred cows” of Programming.
    So pervasively embedded in the everyday environments of the stations are they, they are hardly noticed – even as staffs find them crippling and intolerable.
    They can be compared to the “negative hallucinations” we have all experienced when we can’t find the salt shaker – the one that is on the table – right in front of us.
    As is the case with “sacred cows”, they are either ignored or deferences are made. Some are invisible – ghosts. This, while they still bust up the furniture, continuously soil the carpets and foul the air.
    I submit that the almost half of the staff who did not participate in the polling have a pretty good idea of this circumstance – however they might describe it.
    This is not likely a situation in which Ms. Berner can engage effectively. She can’t be expected to notice or recognize radio’s “sacred cows”.
    These “cows” are not nouns, either. They are part of “The Culture”.

  2. We wish Mary much success.

    I have to wonder, if Peter Drucker were alive what he would think of terms favored by millennials such as “toxic culture”.
    Management analysts can come up with something better than that catch-all.


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