Who says marketing is only for your products and services? In this episode, we go beyond the surface and take a closer look into marketing cultures with world-class marketing professional, Dena Lee. Dena takes us through the process of marketing internally and, later on, externally to clients, suppliers, fabricators, and the like. Working with Bill Higgs at Mustang, she also talks about what it is like to be working with the company, letting us in on her role of facilitating culture change and growth along with the teams. Join in on this insightful conversation with Bill and Dena and learn more about marketing cultures.
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Marketing Cultures with Dena Lee
We’re going to be talking with Dena Lee, a world-class marketing professional. I claim the Dena was the only person I ever hired at Mustang even when we went to 6,000 people. I needed somebody to land all these crazy thoughts that were in my brain about how to market our brand and our culture. What I wanted was somebody who worked marketing internally within the company to sell that culture and build it, but then also go externally to our clients, our suppliers and our fabricators and get them to understand and be part of our culture so that as a team we could deliver projects in the industry. Dena was fantastic at writing all my ideas down. She got a little stressed at times early on thinking, “He wants me to do all this stuff?” Finally, she got comfortable and she’ll talk about that. She could pick the ones that she wanted to implement. I was happy to get it out of my head and put it on her desk. Dena in her job in marketing touched on all seven steps to scale and succeed in building your culture with Culture Code Champions. She lived it. It was her mantra to take that everywhere with her around the world. Dena, welcome.
Thank you, Bill. I always look forward to talking about Mustang.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you were recruited and how your first 90 days went?
I remember it like it happened last week because it was so unique and so unusual. I’m a marketing grad from Texas A&M, so marketing was my background. Honestly, I always thought I would go into marketing for Macy’s, Dillard’s or some department store selling clothes. I didn’t expect to end up in the engineering industry, but that’s the path that I ended up with. I had been working at Brown and Root for several years and was very comfortable there. One day I got a call from a friend of mine who was a hometown friend of mine named Mike Farley and Mike and I knew each other from our home town. We’d gone to school together and he also worked at Brown and Root. He had left Brown and Root to go to work for this company called Mustang Engineering. He’s been gone about a year and a half I’d say.
He called me up one day and said, “I don’t know what’s your situation is there. We’re looking to hire a marketing person, and I’m wondering if you might be interested in talking to Bill Higgs. He’s one of the founders of the company and he heads up all the sales and marketing.” Honestly, at the time I was not looking to change jobs. At the time, I felt the security of working for a large, big company, which was wrong thinking. I went out to the interview and my thinking was “I’ve got nothing to lose. Why not go out? I’ll get to see Mike. I’ll get to meet him. I know how much Mike loved working at Mustang.” I went out and I remember the first time I went out there and interviewed with Bill. The minute I walked in the door, it had this different vibe in the office that felt very energetic. People were scurrying around and this big tall man comes in to meet me. I was in a nice office waiting for Bill. Bill comes in and slides down the door and ended up sitting on the floor because he was running from meeting to meeting and this was the man I was here to interview with.Passion can move the needle on culture. Click To Tweet
I’m sitting on the floor and my back was against the door talking to you.
That was like, “This is a little different. I don’t see this happening at Brown and Root or anywhere else.” After that first interview, I knew there was something very different and very unique about this company. Bill wanted me to come back and meet some other people, and I wanted to do that. The end of the story is I ended up leaving Brown and Root and I did not think that I was ready for a job change, but there was something so compelling. First of all, in all of the people that I would meet, I came out a couple of more time, talked to different people. Bill told me, “Walk the hall. Ask them what they think about Mustang because you don’t need to hear it from me.” That was different right there in a job interview.
Brown and Root is this large world-class engineering construction company. What we did with Mike Farley is was what we called Operation Horse Thief. When we would have good people that came in and they had our DNA and they were part of the culture in Mustang, we would ask them, “If you know other good people, let us know about them.” That’s how Mike Farley when he knew that I was looking for a marketing professional to start the marketing group. I was doing some interviews, I was down pretty close to hiring someone and Mike said, “I think you got to this lady, Dena Lee. She’s not looking now, but I know she would love this place.” That’s how it all got started. Operation Horse Thief, identify the horses and other companies and then go work to move them out.
I remember I wanted to take a little bit of time off before starting my new job at Mustang. Bill was very gracious and agreeable. I took about a month off before I started and I remember Bill saying, “You need the rest up good because once you start it’s going to be full speed ahead.” I had no idea how much truth was in that. I think back of how I had no idea what I was about to embark on. It was truly a work experience. We call Mustang much more than a place to work. It’s a place that gets into so many aspects of your life and it’s not just a job. It was a diamond in the rough of a company and I had no idea what I was about to have the honor and privilege to get to do.
I remember coming in and talking to you about maybe 90 days after you had started. I was like, “Dena, how were your first 90 days been?” What was your comment back?
I said, “I felt like I got off a super typhoon to a speedboat.”
That cracked me up because we moved at such a fast pace but our industry was changing. We were going from shallow water to deep water. When Dena started, we were in the middle of doing deep water, 5,000 foot of water, so they were space-age type projects. Everything in the company was changing to match that changing technology and what Dena needed to do in marketing was to help work that culture so that culture could change and grow as we had to grow teams. What are some of the most effective things you felt you did from the marketing side?
I remember some of the earliest things that I felt like helped me to learn about Mustang and not only Mustang but the engineering world and our industry, in general. Mustang had done all of these projects, offshore projects, refining project, pipeline projects, and automation. We wanted to get case studies of these projects. I would go off and I would talk to the project managers and get to know them. We would produce these faxes that had a photo of the project and a bit about the challenges and what we did. First of all, it’s forming those relationships with these project managers. They are there to focus and to deliver work. I remember Bill. One of my first interviews was with Dick Westbrook. Dick was talking to me about some offshore work. I didn’t know the lingo yet in the offshore world. He probably was looking at me like, “Run outside and play now.”
These relationships that formed, not only that when you get them to talk about their project, they wouldn’t stop talking because there was so much pride in what they had accomplished. There was pride in being part of Mustang. People started calling marketing saying, “I’ve got some information about this project. You might want to do some case study on this particular one.” Bill had planted that seed. When Bill talks about all these ideas on my desk, that’s the truth. I’d come in and there would be pieces of paper sometimes with his very distinctive handwriting on it or he’s helping me on tons of email. Almost every email, I’d get copied on. Sometimes I’d be going, “I don’t know why he’s helping me on this because I don’t understand what this is about.” I always knew there was an underlying reason why he wanted me to be aware of certain things. It would turn into not only education but there would be something very special, whether it was a relationship with a client or a way of working that Mustang would be known for including our clients and a lot of our internal activity.
What you’re describing is what we call step number one, opening up the communication. You are going out, you are cross-fertilizing across departments, finding out what was important to them, but then also being able to take that information and help the sales team and hooking the next client to bring them into the culture in the way that we did the work. You were learning why you were doing that. Step two in the Culture Code Champions is to create bonding and a sense of team. That’s a little bit what you’re doing. You’re getting them to call you when they had things, so you didn’t have to go out and search for it.
It always amazed me when we would learn about things that had been accomplished on a project. It was the first time it ever had been done or we had a creative solution. We laugh about engineers being introverts. They might be doing all these unbelievable engineering feats and I’d be so impressed by it. They would shrug their shoulders like, “It’s what I do every day.” They come into Mustang and put their head down and figure out what do we need to do next? A lot of that teamwork, certainly it was never about an “I” mentality. It was always the team with the project managers being the ones that would always push that focus on their team members. The lead designers on these projects that were cranking out the 3D, they’d became my go-to people to get all of the images. It was truly a walk-through and you’d never know who was a lead person. Where in most companies, it’s very hierarchical and you know who the top person is. In Mustang, you never knew. That came from the top with Bill, Paul and Felix. They built a company that cared for people and no one was treated any differently than anywhere else.Culture is a reflection of a leader and culture is also how you get things done. Click To Tweet
It was a very homogenous team. There were times where I would be a project manager and on a next project, I’d be a project engineer working for the project manager. People would say, “You’re the founder of this company and you’re working as the project engineer.” It allowed us to break down all those barriers that are existing in a lot of companies. Everyone realized, “This is one big team of teams.” One of the things you mentioned was the energy in the hallways. We did a lot of activities and things, and I think what would surprise people is we’re dealing with engineers and I always say, “Engineers have a personality that’s a scotch above a CPA.”
We were able to get engineers to get out of their shells and open up. In our Chili Cook-Offs, our shrimp boils, and a lot of our activities, they were dressing up, they were carrying on. If you can do it with engineers as we did at Mustang, people need to say, “I can do that in my company.” That’s going to help the culture because you’re breaking down barriers. You’re getting that communication and that sense of team. Could you also talk a little bit about how you were instrumental in using hard copy communication and goodies to help push that culture to people and their families at the house?
I wouldn’t call it a secret weapon at all because it wasn’t a secret, but it was a great tool and a great method of communicating with the Newsy Newsletter, which Bill was the original author of that.
We ultimately went to call it the Mustang Motion because that described the company, it’s always in motion. These newsletters would always be mailed to the homes of every Mustangers. It was important at Mustang for the families of all the Mustangers to feel that sense of belonging as much as the actual person working at the company. A lot of times the spouses or the kids of the Mustangers would learn what was going on because we always we talk about the best part about the engineers. They don’t go home and talk about a lot of the things that are going on at works but their spouses and family would learn about it by reading the newsletter. We always had a little fun give away. We didn’t even have to have a special occasion. We would create activities and reasons to have a little giveaway. Sometimes it would be a surprise. The marketing team, we would recruit lots of volunteers. It was always easy to get volunteers at Mustang to help do things like walk through the buildings after hours and we put a little bitty on everybody’s desk so the next morning when they come to work there would be some little fun something.
It was always a vehicle to be able to communicate one of our values or something about making heroes. That was always fun to do. Another thing that I was thinking about is on birthdays, how a Mustanger literally would get a birthday card in the mail. Originally the spouse would get one too. When we grew so fast and so large, that became a little more challenging. We did revert to electronic birthday cards at that point. The people on that Mustang Facebook group, it is unreal that that group even exists and how many people feed into that and people post pictures of, “Look at all this Mustang stuff I have at my house.” There’s all manner of goodies and little toys that we would have with the logo on it.
What they’re doing on that Mustang Facebook page is it’s bringing back the memories of those times when they received that at a Chili Cook-Off or one morning they’d come in and sitting there on their desks. What you are doing and I love it is you’re putting a smile on their face and you’re creating a memory. You’re giving people something positive to talk about when they’re walking down the hall. All of that positive energy tends to spiral people up. I’ll never forget different Christmas parties and things when a spouse would come to me and say that their husband or wife had changed since they’d come to Mustang. They’re happier to get up in the morning and go to work. They would come home with more energy. They didn’t engage with the kids more. They’re talking about going to church on Sunday. When we got to the point where we were giving back to the community, it seemed like there was a total outpouring of energy because people were positive about what they were doing and they wanted to take that energy to the community. Could you touch on some of the things that you helped sponsor on the giveback, the seven steps for Culture Code Champions?
This one covers so much territory. All were memorable, but I remember every year at Christmas we would participate in the Toys for Tots. We would have Christmas trees in the lobby of our building and people would bring in the toys and put them under the tree. I remember one year we had a team from Chevron that brought in twenty little bikes. Our clients would participate in this as well. We would always invite members of the Marines to come and pick up the toy. We would have this mass of people in the lobby. We’d have a special presentation of all the toys to the Marines. That was one that I believe was always a favorite of Mustangers. We ultimately created what we call Heart of Mustang, which was the umbrella that all of our giving back to the community are under that.
There were many ways. Habitat for Humanity was one where we would help with the houses. There were always so many Mustangers doing things that many knew nothing about. For instance, we would have this big family event like a Thanksgiving lunch where the families would come. It was always the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. At lunch, we’d have a big event. We used to have an equestrian club, which we quickly outgrew. We had to move it somewhere else. We would run up to 2,000 people total with this event.
We never serve turkey. We figure people would get plenty of that, so we’d have a barbecue or Mexican food. We would have food leftover because we would plan for a lot of people. We had folks, Henry Gomez is one of them that would taste the food that was leftover and take it and deliver it to a shelter and places were kids with their moms would be living. They would take this leftover food and go through the trouble to do this. A lot of people never even knew that this happened. Another one that was my favorite was the veteran’s home in downtown Houston. There was an old hotel they converted into a home for veterans. Every Christmas there’d be a certain group.
At Mustang, there was something for everybody. Everybody found what we’re seeing that gave them the pleasure, the satisfaction, and that passion. There was a group that always would come to the veteran’s home and have a Christmas party and exchange gifts. Those were some of the ones that immediately come to mind but there were so many. We had a fire station down the street from our offices. We’d take food, we would sometimes take them if we had a big team-building on campus and then we had leftover food or goodies, we drop them off at the fire station.People respond positively to an environment that they feel cared for. Click To Tweet
What’s very interesting to me, Dena, there were hundreds of things that we did. Some of it were ones and twos people, others were 50 and 100 people doing it. What was happening in the culture is the leadership was very giving and building up of people. It created that culture where people then wanted to give to others. One of the things I remember is when we were going to start opening offices internationally. There is a real concern that this gung-ho Texas eggy American culture might not translate into another part of the world. Could you address a little bit on how we were able to take that culture into those offices when we opened them internationally?
This to me goes back to the very foundation of what Mustang was all about, which was providing a place to care for people. To make every single person feel valued and in every single person to feel that they were part of the family. That comes to a basic human need of that feeling of belonging. First, it was an office outside of London, which seemed not too difficult. We speak the same language. We have a lot of the time cultural similarities, but still there were differences in British-English culture. We would take a group of Mustangers who were exceptional leaders in the company to help grow these offices. What would happen over time was that sense of belonging we talk about a lot at Mustang transcends any culture, that’s a human need and a human aspect. Regardless of whether you’re British, Indian or Middle Eastern, that’s that need that was there that Mustang would find a way. It would look different in every culture, but the people would get the basic premise, which was you’re valued and you’re important. Every single person here makes a difference. I remember Bill always saying, “There are Mustangers all over the world. We need to go find them.”
They don’t know it yet. You did that video. I think it was in 2016. Could you talk about that?
That was a video where people work for film in our office in the Middle East, Saudi, an office in Indiana, office in Bogota, Columbia. I can’t even remember them all because we had so many.
Norway and Kuala Lumpur.
They talked about what it meant to be a Mustanger. That where there was this consistent thread of it’s about taking care of each other. It’s about being a family. There was always the thought of, “This culture won’t work anywhere, but here in Houston, Texas, it was proven wrong because it works.” I can remember one year, it’s Christmas time, and we’d had an office decorating contest. We would think of ways to have something across every office. Let’s have an office decorating party contest, and our office from India won that contest.
It’s not their religion.
They had a tree and I thought that was the coolest thing that an office outside of the US won the office Christmas decorating contest. It comes down to people who were responding to an environment that they feel cared for. There are lots of great companies out there to work for. I’ll say for me even we mentioned Brown and Root where I worked previously. Brown and Root are full of great people, but I can’t say there was a culture. If you think, “What was the culture?” I don’t know. It wasn’t something that I ever thought about. We came to work and we enjoyed each other.
When I went to Mustang, it takes an effort. It doesn’t happen automatically. It has to drive from the top down to instill whatever you want that culture to be. I would say my years at Mustang for me as a marketer were where I learned marketing. I learned so much more. I teach a Bible study class at my church that I attend, and I can’t tell you how many examples I have used from my work life at Mustang when I’m teaching a lesson. Many of them are examples that come from the offices that we have around the world. When I look who are my friends on Facebook, many of them are from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, friends that I made there. These were all my friends.
What you’re describing culture is a reflection that a leader and culture is also how you get things done. The other companies you were at, they had a culture but it wasn’t one that you could feel where people were taking care of people. What the culture you helped creates and propagates at Mustang was winning the hearts and the minds of our people by showing them respect and treating each of our people like a client. What we were trying to do is unlock their passion because passion can move the needle on culture. The last thing you did that messed with me is you talked me into writing the book on Mustang because you felt that we could bottle up and we could take it and use it in other companies and organizations and that we could change lives.
The book Culture Code Champions, that’s where I’m trying to take everything that we did and boil it down into these seven steps to where people can do the same things we did. As long as they’re doing it authentically and from their heart and they’re connecting with people, they’re going to move the needle on the culture where they are. Whether it’s a department or a company, the boy scouts, or at church, they’re going to move that needle. It’s going to change people’s lives positively, which is what you and I were trying to do for so many years and we want to take it to the world. One of the things we’re going to do, Dena, is we’re going to have a Culture Code Champions hall of fame and we’d like to induct you into that because you’re one of the driving forces for me. When you think about being inducted into our hall of fame, what would you want to be known and remembered for?
What I would want to be remembered for is that I was part of a team that understood the difference it made in people’s lives to be appreciated and to be respected in the workplace. This is hard to put into words because we always talked about servant leadership a lot at Mustang because that’s what we were about, how you serve others. There were so many people that we want to help. How can we help make others feel like heroes or make others feel important? What I would like to be remembered for is that I was one of those people that wanted to help do that. Remember we’d have these appreciation days for different departments. I see the appreciation day and our human resource appreciation day. We focus on these different teams. I want to be remembered as one of the people that worked hard to make a difference, to be part of a company that impacted thousands of people. When you work at Mustang, many of us have gone on and worked at many other places, but there’s that special bond we still have, we’re still Mustangers. We still get together for lunch. We still talk about the difference it made in our lives. I want to be remembered for being part of helping to build that.
That’s cool, Dena. I appreciate it. That’s from the heart and you put yourself into your job as one of the top marketers in the industry. Thank you for sharing that knowledge experience with the team that’s reading out there. We’ve covered a number of the steps for Culture Code Champions from opening up the communication to building that bonding and that sense of team. You could see how the communication work top to bottom and side the side within the company. You can do it in yours. Until the next episode, I’d like you to get out there and make heroes of everybody you touch and make your culture count.
About Dena Lee
Senior marketing and communications professional with strong background in key messaging, marketing strategy, planning and implementation, brand strategy, public relations, internal communications, change management and executive communications, employee engagement, community outreach, department and budget management.
Also a certified professional in the Prosci Change Management Process.
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