EmmisBeat: CEO Explains Why Culture Matters

Integrity, Grit Cited As Most Important Traits To Company and Individual Success

The IBJ originally published this op ed piece by Emmis Communications Chairman, CEO and Founder Jeff Smulyan in October.

In the more than 35 years since we started Emmis Communications, we’ve probably seen just about every condition imaginable for a company.

Recessions, irrational economic bubbles, downturns, asset sales, asset purchases.  We even had our national network in Hungary nationalized!  (If you’ve never been nationalized, you’ve really never seen tough times.)

Through it all, people ask what has allowed us to survive every conceivable situation.  I always answer with a few words: our corporate culture.

Emmis has attracted great people and has kept so many of them because I believe we have a unique bond with our people.  It’s based on mutual respect, openness and a spirit of collaboration.

Make no mistake, anyone in traditional media in the last 10 years has faced a steep uphill climb, but through a culture that attracts and keeps remarkable people, we’ve been able to survive.

I’ve been blessed to have three wonderful children (not to mention a spectacular grandson).  They tease me about my lectures on life’s lessons.

I’ve always said no person or company (or country) ever goes through life without facing adversity.  You learn life’s greatest lessons in adversity.  How you deal with adversity determines the quality of your life far more than how you deal with success.

"If people don’t trust you and believe you, nothing else matters."
“If people don’t trust you and believe you, nothing else matters.”

Perseverance is what allows us to solve whatever problems we face.  My 12-year-old has gotten countless lectures on the value of grit—never quitting, never being knocked down by adverse situations.  It’s not about getting knocked down; it’s about getting up.

Last year, she said, “I have a paper due on the one most important quality a person can have, so I assume that it has to be grit.”  I responded that grit was in second place, that integrity was a runaway winner for first.  We discussed that, in every dealing with other people, the most important quality anyone could have is integrity.  If people don’t trust you and believe you, nothing else matters.

I’d like to think our integrity is what has kept Emmis moving forward all these years.  I truly believe we’ve attracted smart, hardworking people who know their word is their bond.
For any culture to flourish, there has to be mutual respect and a willingness to consider and debate any point of view.  We’ve always believed our collaborative culture has allowed us to reach rational conclusions and follow wise courses of action.  It’s impossible to have collaboration unless all parties have mutual respect and trust in those they work with.

So much of our society these days focuses on “winning” and demonizing those we consider outsiders.  Our first question always has to be: What is the definition of winning?

Any company has to be focused on the bottom line if it wants to remain in business.  That’s a given.

But winning is also about providing value to our listeners, our readers, our advertisers and, as important, to the communities we serve.  Winning means providing a quality work environment for our employees and being certain we understand their need to provide resources and time for their families.

Our values might seem old-fashioned in an increasingly coarse society that seems to care little about many of these things, but we believe they are enduring values that will stand the test of time.

As I write this, we are debating a future course of action for our company.

Regardless of the structure of Emmis, I am hopeful we will continue to stand for ideals that will make a difference for our people and our communities.

I believe that’s what winning really is all about.