The Peaceable Kingdom

— Building a company without factionalism, fiefdoms, fear, and other staples of modern business — 

Stan Richards tells it like it is — right from the get-go. “My company is an advertising agency…, but that doesn’t mean this is a book about the advertising business. It’s about the culture and company organization that my colleagues and I have built….” Richards’ culture embraces a “nontribal ethic” he feels can be “instituted in any other industry, in any size company — if the people in charge are serious about doing away with internal politics and equity-focused management.” There you have it: the big “if” for the people in charge. Meaningful change requires the top dogs walk the talk.

Richards is founder of The Richards Group, the 600-person Dallas-based agency with clients like The Home Depot, Fruit of the Loom, Chick-fil-A, and Nokia. In the war of ad agency buyouts, collapses, and mergers, The Richards Group remains the largest — and only — independent agency in the United States. If you’ve heard Tom Bodett offer to “leave the light on” at the local Motel 6 or if you’ve watched the sun set over the ocean view between two Corona beer-bottle ‘goalposts’ while radio play-by-play spins in the background, you’ve been captured by the work of Richards and his people. It’s fun, it’s classy, it fits the client — and generates revenue for them. It’s hard work, it’s creative, it challenges everyone involved — and generates solid profits for The Richards Group. Sounds like your kind of place, right? Just what every business ought to do. Duh.

While Richards doesn’t pretend his “Groupers” are perfect, apolitical, or without conflict, he’s made a conscious effort to flatten corporate hierarchy and eliminate the destructive competitive behavior of office politics he calls tribalism. “We’ve made it our mission,” says the 12-page ‘culture’ brochure you’ll find on reception-area coffee tables, “to tear down walls….” While they may not be immune to “sneaky little maneuverings for personal advantage,” Richards says such activities are the exception — and their culture lets issues settle quickly.

Acknowledging a “somewhat odd” approach, Richards is convinced his guiding principles of “valuing work, highlighting performance, and conducting relationships within the organization and with our clients…apply to any enterprise that involves getting two or more people to try to work together in a productive way.” Work, as Richards sees it, is all about relationships, which means it’s all about communication. Backing his idea with action, Richards demonstrates through everything from a business model that abolishes departmental divisions to the physical layout of office space (mixing people from different disciplines into random clusters) and building architecture — including a four-floor central stairwell used as a total-company meeting place — that people are paramount, that relationships matter, and that communication is key.

That means people get both the information they must have to do their work and the information they didn’t think they needed but which can be critical to attitude and creativity. With it, they may stumble upon new possibilities (like atomic scientists in WWII who found a new kind of metal mesh from looking at the latest developments in housewares), and they’re more likely to see each other as fully human beings, who realize the company owner has an errand-and-to-do list from home just like theirs. Richards maintains: “A tribalized company has too much control of information.” Only individual compensation and client information are strictly confidential at The Richards Group. “There’s a lot more that’s sensitive, of course,” says Richards. “But we’ve chosen to trust each other with it. You’d be amazed at how few times we’ve been burned.”

The Peaceable Kingdom is an entertaining and practical prescription for changing corporate culture from fear and factionalism to openness and collaboration. It may not be easy, but, as Richards reminds in his ‘Turning the Barge’ final chapter, “as long as you’re not expecting an instant turnaround, you might actually enjoy it.”

Authors: Stan Richards with David Culp
Published: New York: John Wiley & Sons / An Adweek Book ©2001

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos