Culture As A Profession: What Does It Mean?

Culture As A Profession: What Does It Mean?

We spoke with three "culture" professionals to see what they do, what's most important when it comes to culture at a company or brand, and how their roles differ. What we found was that culture is very subjective. It can come in the form of human resources and internal communications, marketing and branding, and identifying brands with communities. Each are equally important roles that seem to be growing within organizations.


Shoshana Balistierri

Director People & Culture at Indagare Travel

Define "culture" in your industry. 

The travel space is nuanced. Coming from fashion/retail, I did a lot of research when I started with the company. From my perspective, there's a divide between up-and-coming travel startups and traditional agencies. I say this all the time, but Indagare is truly unique. We're not simply a content brand or simply an agency, and we don't symptomatically do one or the other. Our content drives our planning behavior and vice versa. Because our company was founded by journalists and editors, we've taken a very different approach to the travel planning process and our business model. In turn, this creative focus has impacted the way we engage, communicate and educate our team. Unlike other travel firms, we don't operate with independent contractors (IC's), instead, our model is team focused, and we concentrate on nurturing a collective intelligence with long-term employees. Collaboration is very much at the core of what we do. It’s very much a hive mind culture. Early on, our founders realized that there was a lack of knowledge sharing in the industry, so we decided to combat this by creating a culture that was more of a community than just a group of independent agents. I can't speak to other cultures in other travel firms, but I can say that we are a unique hospitality brand comprised of a community of passionate travel advisors. 


What does your position entail? 

One of the reasons I joined Indagare was because I was ready to really make an impact. To me, being an HR Business Partner involves so much more than compliance, policies, procedures and administrative duties. I believe that traditional HR practice has moved farther away from being, well, human. In HR, we're trained to be simultaneously connected and disconnected from the clients we support. I became an HR leader because I wanted to work with people. Since we spend most of our time at work, it was important to me that I play a role in creating a positive and kind work environment. I was very much drawn to the role of being an advisor, coach, developmental lighthouse, and business partner. So, my position here has many different components, and I have the autonomy to be creative with my people strategy. I spend a lot of my time focused on developmental work: teaching and coaching others, participating in business strategy sessions, leading learning and development courses and conducting interviews. We're experiencing a major growth phase right now, so my team and I are focused on talent acquisition and thinking about the holistic employee life cycle. As the People & Culture leader, I'm constantly challenged to find a balance between bigger picture thinking and tactical day-to-day people operations. Which is great for me because my background is in entrepreneurship, so I like to stay busy and involved in our company’s progress. 


Note to the editor* HR/HR Business Partner/People Operations are all inclusive of the same scope of focus: Human Resources. They are interchangeable terms. Most organizations are making the shift and referring to HR as People Operations.


How do you determine what the "culture" for a brand should be? Where do you start? 

Your company culture is your brand. Now, more than ever, it's important for companies to live their truth. At Indagare, we believe the employee experience is just as important as the customers. So, we focus on creating platforms for them to share and engage with one another; to experience the world through travel and give back to their local community. Travel has a way of impacting various elements of our lives. It changes our perspective, our ability to understand ourselves and one another. At Indagare, we spend our time creating journeys and memories for others, so at work we try to identify ways that we can impact the lives of our employees just as they impact the lives of our members. One of the ways we do that is by facilitating a learning and development curriculum that empowers our team members to develop core life skills like understanding their 401k, how to budget their finances or effectively engage with difficult personalities. Right now, we're in the process of hosting a Work/Life Balance series that is based on encouraging employees to understand their personal values, find their balance and learn how to manage their time in and out of the office. Travel is a 24/7 business, so we are working with our teams on how they integrate personal life and work life. It isn’t easy, and there isn’t just one formula for success, but we keep the conversation going. At the end of the day it's all cyclical; if your team participates in a culture and environment of investment, of balance and connectivity, they, in turn, are going to give those things back to their clients and to others in their life. 


We have a community centric culture; one that is focused on making the workplace human. I'm an advocate for people leaders considering the whole individual, not just professionally but personally. I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from some of my peers in HR about this, and it’s a grey area, but I truly do believe it’s the future of people management. We have to understand who people are if we are going to play a role in their personal evolution. What are their values? What do they stand for? What inspires them? What brings them joy? All of this helps us play a better role in igniting their personal development and connection to the brand. We know that when people feel connected to what they are doing, and who they are doing it for, they are more productive and fulfilled. Ultimately, as people and culture leaders that’s what we’re aiming for.

The same is true for a company; I believe you start by aligning your culture with your values. At Indagare, we’re constantly asking one another ‘are we staying true to our core values?' and 'what can we do to connect our team to our mission?" Culture has everything to do with what a brand values, and what they stand for (their mission.) Everything stems from that. One of the first things I did when I joined the company was ask my leadership team, 'what's one thing you'd like to see change in the culture?' Their response was multifaceted but overall, they were looking to foster a culture of high performance, accountability, and leadership. There was a big gap in leadership skill set (something that for us is a constant work in progress). So, I challenged them to define what leadership looked like to them. What do leaders at Indadgare stand for? What do we want leaders to value and embody? From there we defined our Core Leadership Values and incorporated them into the performance management/feedback process. What we found was that when people knew the leadership expectations, they were motivated to perform and align with those values. At our company, you don’t just get promoted because of your time in role, it’s all about your personal progress and leadership consistency. I’ve learned that you can't evolve a culture until you understand and communicate what that brand values. 

Monica Glass

Experiential and Culture Marketing Consultant at Clear as Day 

Define "culture" in your industry. 

Culture in the context of what I do for brands essentially means connecting brands to consumers in a credible way through their interests or passion points, whether it be fashion, film, music, art and more recently the growing world of eSports (gaming). Now more than ever, brands assume a position as patrons of the arts, and consumers especially early adopters, are keen to support the brands that align with their own personal and cultural interests. It's no longer enough to simply market your product. Smart brands go beyond simply building brand awareness through your typical ad campaigns.  They align their product with specific scenes and communities to build a deeper relationship that delivers real brand affinity and evangelism. 


What does your position entail?

I've been privileged to work with some of the top culture and lifestyle brands in the last year including Red Bull, Jagermeister, adidas, and Spotify. With these brands, they already understand the relevance of culture marketing so luckily for me I don't have to sell the ideas too hard. My role varies from brand to brand based on their current needs. My services range from building a strategy based on real insights to engage a specific demographic or cultural scene, to creating a clear action plan on how to engage their target consumer through partnerships, 3rd party events, owned event activations, and in some cases content. Lastly, as an experienced producer, in many cases I also directly ideate the activation concept and then produce the experience to ensure it feels authentic to that scene while still upholding the brand's values and messaging. 


What is one thing you find most important when it comes to culture and the brand you work with? 

In culture marketing the most important thing that some agencies tend to overlook is to let the community you are trying to engage be part of the creative process.  Every scene has so much nuance, and they are very skeptical of brands trying to play in their sandbox.  It's very easy for brand to make a misstep... just look at the recent Pepsi campaign flop.  Engaging actual leaders from that community, whether it be deep house, social activism, gaming, fixed gear or vegan communities and having them help shape your program or activation will ensure you are not coming off as "trying too hard to be cool" and help build a campaign that represents the current voice of that community and one that respects the nuances in it.  It's no secret that the millennial mindset demands for brands to take a position on more than just the actual product. More and more, brands will need to approach communities and scenes with the thoughtfulness and integrity consumers have always deserved. 


Rebecca McQuigg Rigal

Consumer Insights/Foresights & Cultural Analyst/Strategist + Community, Content, Programming and Partnership Curator

Rebecca is an independent consultant, who has worked for/with a number of trends & insights companies including The Intelligence Group (presently known as Cassandra), The Future Laboratory/LS:N Global & Trendera.


Define "culture" in your industry. 

I work across a number of consumer and creative industries and spaces- from tech to entertainment to media to non-profit - but in all cases, culture is driven by relationships between the people, places, things, and histories orbiting or relevant to a particular industry/space (or cross-section of industries/spaces), how they connect and engage, and what is created and projected internally and externally as a result. I don’t think that industries should be examined in silos though. More and more they are interconnected. 


What does your position entail?

I’ve held a variety of dynamic positions over the years, and one of the common denominators - appropriately - has been a focus on culture. I have researched, investigated, analyzed, reported on and written in depth about culture. I’ve advised brands and organizations on how to extract insights from and strategically leverage cultural trends and cues. I’ve been an ambassador for arts & culture initiatives and a curator of community and programming, with a focus on tapping into and influencing culture. I continue to draw from all of these disciplines and experiences with the services that I provide as an independent consultant, but mostly like to think of myself as a connector and contextualizer of dots - of information, insights, stories and people.


How do you determine what the culture for a brand should be? Where do you start?

Always start with the story.  Whether it’s the story/experience of the brand’s creators, or the story behind the ideation or creation of the brand. The authentic story (or stories) of the brand and the people behind it should help shape the culture.