Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio was opining on a pornography censorship case and famously wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” A company’s culture can be one of those things that are hard to define, but we all “know it when we see it.” Improving a company’s performance by aligning corporate culture became popular in the 1980’s, and during that period, behavioral scientists validated the importance of organizational culture. Edgar Schein, one of the early pioneers in this area, stated, “I will argue that the term ‘culture’ should be reserved for the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organization’s view of itself and its environment.” Schein’s definition points to the inner core of an organization’s culture. Stated differently, culture is about the shared values and personality of an organization.
I recently visited with Chris Ray, CEO of The Ramey Agency, about his thoughts on the importance of corporate culture and the factors that have contributed to the success of his organization. Founded in 1985, and led by Tommy Ramey until his untimely death in 1999, the agency has built a strong niche in working with premium brands and high performance companies with clients including Viking, Entergy, BankPlus, and Stephens. A native of McComb, Ray went to work with Ramey as an intern while he was at Rhodes College in Memphis. Upon graduation, Ray went to work at the agency where he spent the next 10 years before leaving to run Archer/Malmo advertising. However, he came back to Ramey after Tommy’s death when Ray, along with Bob Potesky, Jim Garrison, and Jack Garner, purchased the agency from Tommy’s estate. Ray acknowledged, “Those were difficult times as we had to rebuild the agency after Tommy’s death.”
Ray recognizes the importance of promoting the company’s culture and the responsibility he has as a leader to be intentional about developing and promoting it. Ray shared, “We believe strongly in the importance of community involvement, and we give each of our employees 40 hours of paid time off each year to do community service.” Employees also can participate in the rooftop organic co-op garden and Friday afternoon bluegrass-themed social time. Ray shared, “We were excited to recently donate $1 million from the Tommy Ramey Foundation to endow scholarships in marketing and culinary studies for students at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and Jackson State University.” We discussed how Ramey’s culture has allowed the agency to attract top talent to Mississippi, and how they have been able to retain key employees. McKinsey & Company found in a famous study of top executives that, “58 percent of the respondents cited values and culture as being absolutely essential.”
In our modern economy, recruiting and unleashing the talent of key employees is critically important. Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class”, noted, “Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking.” Ray has kept a keen eye on the culture at his firm, and knows its importance. Similarly, Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, noted, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.” Ray knows that he has to lead by example to instill the core values of the organization. Ray encourages young leaders to “love what you do, and do what you love.” He also teaches people to listen more than they talk. His personal philosophy is to “understand people, be fair to them, and to ask for their best.”
Ray and The Ramey Agency are also actively involved in the movement to grow Mississippi’s creative economy. They recently participated in the Mississippi Creative Economy conference organized by the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Arts Commission. This sold out event will hopefully be a catalyst to promote the significant opportunities here in Mississippi to grow our creative economy. Ray and his team’s passion for growing a great culture will continue to have a positive impact on our state, and I am sure they will be actively involved in helping companies reach their full potential.