Liz Valentine on leadership: "My approach to change has always been about transparency"


Liz Valentine’s office desk is big and bold, constructed with thick slabs of tightly grained wood that seem capable of withstanding a direct nuclear strike.

It is a desk befitting the chief executive of the strategic creative agency Swift. But the same desk description applies to her office neighbor’s and that neighbor’s — and that neighbor’s and so on.

Valentine’s desk, in other words, is no larger nor bolder than any of the others for some 100 employees in the agency’s airy, Northwest Portland office building. 

“Accessibility is a key to our success,” Valentine says. “If you become out of touch as a leader, you’re not a very effective leader. If you’re sitting in an office, you’re not exposed to the highs and lows, what’s working and what’s not working.”

The fact that there are no offices in Swift’s 30,000-square-foot building was a design decision that followed “Swiftology.” That set of company principles guides behavior on everything from building design to employee interaction.

Valentine and co-founder and chief creative officer Alicia McVey, veterans of the defunct apparel brand Lucy, established “Swiftology” at the company’s start in 2007. The most important of those maxims, Valentine says, is respect.

“Respect is everything,” she says. “We build it into our company, we work it into performance reviews. If you have a solid foundation of respect, if you have a set of values, it makes for a workplace that is more productive.”

The value of respect crosses intergenerational lines. “It’s not uncommon here to have someone who just got out of school talking to someone in their 50s,” Valentine says. “It’s just inherent in how we operate as an organization.”

Swift, whose client list includes Adidas, Starbucks and Nestle, has a staff of curious and creative people who thrive on new digital tools to do their work better. That’s not always the case with organizational change, Valentine says.

“My approach to change has always been transparency,” she says, “I’m extremely open and honest with our staff about really everything as it relates to the business: headwinds, tailwinds, financial performance whether it’s good or bad, challenges that we’re facing.”

That policy was put to the test three years ago when WPP, one of the world’s largest advertising conglomerates, purchased Swift. 

“With that brought a lot of change,” Valentine says. “If you bring people along and you give them context and a broader understanding of what’s driving change they’re much less resistant to it.”

This article is part of a feature package on leadership and culture change that appears in our May 2018 issue. For more leadership stories, click here.

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