Ed Wise is The Talent Collector

How Ed Wise has earned this self-proclaimed title by taking a startup and turning it into the world’s largest, fully integrated, global health-care communications company

According to Ed Wise, only one thing dictates an organization’s success: talent. He would know. After joining an early-stage, six-person startup as a copywriter, he helped grow it to 1,200 employees and eventually took the lead as chief executive officer. Under his guidance, CDM Group has become a global powerhouse in health-care communications sector and a mecca for the industry’s best talent.

Without the right talent, Wise insists, he wouldn’t get to where he needs to go—personally or as a company. He came to this conviction five years into his career during a visit to see his brother at Microsoft. What captured his attention at Microsoft wasn’t the latest innovative technology, but the sheer number of exceptional individuals on campus. Up until that point, he’d always thought of Microsoft as Bill Gates’s company. While there, he learned that everyone was a Bill Gates; everyone was brilliant, exceptional, and passionate. Wise came to understand that, as he says, “Growth is dependent on your ability to hire other equally or more talented people to get you to the next level.”

But as CDM Group enjoyed tremendous growth, it also faced the threat of losing its strong and organic culture. With this in mind, upon taking his role as president, the 2007 Med Ad News “Advertising Person of the Year” went to work on quantifying what exactly that culture is. Wise’s team set out to define the organization, asking questions like: “When are we at our best?” “If you were going to convince someone to come to the company, what would you say?” “For what reasons would you stay at or leave the company?”

“We try to create a culture of openness from the leadership down.”

Wise and an eight-member leadership team ventured off-site with the questions, determined to define the company’s inherent values and mission statement. The resulting four key values—substance, style, conviction, and grace—have become the touchstone for all company decisions, particularly the hiring process.

With values in place, CDM Group then concentrated on hiring talent that aligned with the company rather than simply on qualifications. This has made all of the difference, Wise says. Now the company uses the Lominger Interview Process, suggested by chief human resources officer Carolyn Bartholdson. This methodology of behavioral interviewing offers an understanding regarding an individual’s core competencies, what drives those, and how you get at those with a discussion. Rather than talking about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, interview questions aim to glean information of past experiences and behaviors that match up with the company’s core values.

Those with the requisite talent, but lacking even one value aren’t even considered. Compromise in this area isn’t an option. The reverence of the four values, according to Wise, is the bedrock of CDM Group’s palpable culture—clearly not just words on a wall. “I’d much rather hire for behaviors and personality and desire, and then train for skill,” Wise says.

In 1997, Wise’s view about personal growth changed. Up until that point, he had learned how to manage in the school of hard knocks. “We called it being raised by wolves,” he says about the sink-or-swim mentality of the early agency years. But after CDM group was acquired by Omnicom, Wise was exposed to the Omnicom University, an internal learning platform comprised of Harvard Business School professors and other noteworthy speakers and educational tools. This new approach “blew his mind” and reinforced his hard-earned convictions.

Since taking over the leadership, Wise has been a big proponent of the power of more organized education and development—not to discount personal experience. “We do a lot of formal training and development, but there has to be learning and development in every thing [employees] do: every assignment and every conversation needs to be oriented around helping someone grow.”

In addition to the annual assessments that include constructive peer reviews, CDM Group created a comprehensive professional growth and development program, similar to Omnicom’s, to spur advancement. SSCGU—named for the four company values—combines internal and external classes, Dale Carnegie management seminars, lectures from Harvard Business School professors, and an e-learning portal.

As employees progress, they are welcome to reconsider areas of interest and move laterally within the company. Individuals who start out behind the reception desk may set their sights on upper management positions—a trajectory not all too uncommon. “Growth is a major success factor for people at this agency,” Wise says. “People who have succeeded the most within the agency and have been the biggest part of our ability to move forward are people
interested in per
sonal growth.”

Though striving for improvement proves a critical characteristic in CDM Group
employees, Wise just as quickly celebrates imperfection, to the degree that he willingly discusses his weaknesses and goals. “We try to create a culture of openness from the leadership down,” he says. “We want people to be saying, ‘I am working on myself.’” Wise frequently discusses with his staff how he’s trying to be better as a leader, manager, and mentor. “We’re taught as children that less than perfect is bad and exposing yourself and weaknesses is a bad thing. But we need to change that attitude.”

Wise encourages his managers to follow suit and be more vulnerable with their
employees. “You can’t expect people to believe you’re trying to grow as a leader if you act like you’re perfect all the time,” he says, while recognizing that this takes some bravery, because when in leadership positions, one’s first instinct is to not make a mistake. For Wise, at the end of the day, that hard shell doesn’t offer much to cling to. “When you are a person with flaws that you’re working on, those are things [people] can fall in love with,” he says. “People can see the humanity in the person, and I think we have to share that humanity with each other.”

One employee who embodies this concept is CDM Group’s new chief digital officer, Jo Ann Saitta. With the company for a year, she is a major player in helping the company accomplish its goal of becoming a leader in the area of technology and health-care convergence. Offering an understanding of information systems, health care and business, and how big data can drive organizations, Saitta is leading her department away from being an internal service to a commercial offering. Saitta is a natural fit with the company, and Wise says, “She understands technology and humanity and knows how to bring them together.” This quality will prove critical with CDM Group’s forthcoming technology initiatives and partnerships.

With such a compelling culture, Business Insider named CDM Group number four among the “Most Popular Places to Work in New York City” in 2011. This might explain the fact that over a five-year period, the company has experienced a 25-percent rate in rebound employees. More often than not, it is these returnees who champion the company culture most ardently, often sharing their horror stories of the outside world. “I find it really rewarding to help people get more excitement and engagement out of their careers and their lives,” Wise says. “I think that providing a place that has meaning and has a set of beliefs that people feel good about is one of the things that has provided me the greatest reward.”