Celebrate the Changing Times at Party City

Jim Viola on building Party City’s talent culture and creating unforgettable moments

Jim Viola, Party City

While some may try to avoid change at all costs, Jim Viola relishes it. As Party City’s vice president and head of human resources, Viola has learned to leverage a career seemingly grounded in destabilization. Each stop in his career seems to coincide with a cultural overhaul, and Viola saw the same opportunity when coming to Party City.

After spending only a few minutes with Viola, one quickly realizes that he is a visionary leader who strives to put people first. Even with numerous career highlights, Viola prefers to share stories of people development—his proudest accomplishments. Viola has the unique ability to inspire individuals, empowering them to achieve greater results than they thought were possible, and to lead people through change while coaching, motivating, and mentoring. Turning a workplace into a community is no easy feat for any leader, but Viola excels at it.

In a little less than four years, Viola has worked to create a new direction based on a talent culture, talent development, metrics, and the belief that satisfied associates directly translate to satisfied customers. “I define myself as a change agent,” Viola says.

His first taste of real cultural change came halfway through a sixteen-year career at specialty brand retailer Lord & Taylor. Viola helped develop a strategy to remove the siloes in the organization that had been in place for more than one hundred years. The brand also began promoting to a younger demographic, which presented another set of challenges. “We brought more of the product development in-house, and it helped me think about change in a way that wasn’t just changing our customer demographic,” Viola explains. “It changed the nature of everything that we do.” That extensive overhaul was Viola’s first exposure to how difficult change management is, especially on such a massive scale. But he views it as one of his defining experiences.

Further down the road, Viola would move into a role as senior vice president of organizational effectiveness and human resources at Saks Fifth Avenue. He says the company went through an extensive reconfiguring in customer service satisfaction, as well as clienteling. Viola says the venture included system implementation, role reassignment, aligning employees to work collaboratively, and uniting marketing efforts. A third major culture overhaul occurred during Viola’s tenure as chief learning officer for the mattress retail chain Sleepy’s. Initially, Viola found the regional retailer steeped in a heavy culture based in both aggressive sales and sales techniques. “We sold mattresses and bedding products, and the way we were going to win long-term was to create a culture of service by selling sleep, health, and wellness,” Viola explains.

Over a nearly four-year period, Viola says the company focused on training and building an infrastructure to drive a service culture. “By recognizing and rewarding those right behaviors, we were able to turn that culture into one where it was sales driven by service and not the other way around,” Viola says.

Since coming to Party City in 2014, Viola has worked to engineer change on just as large of a scale across the company. He immediately sought to staff, restructure, and redefine his HR team. Viola says he sought out experts in their field and leaders that he knew would buy-in to the talent-driven culture he was working to promote. Viola grew the department as well as its functions—including learning and development and total rewards.

Viola also focused on talent development while addressing Party City’s massive seasonal staffing that more than doubles a company of 13,000 to more than 30,000 during the Halloween season. Every season, about three hundred of Party City’s most promising, upcoming talent are selected to manage groups of stores under Party City’s Halloween City brand.

For Party City, it serves as a 4–5 month development opportunity in order to identify the company’s future leaders. For talent, it’s an invaluable learning experience and a chance to assume a position they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to take on. “We know now who our next leaders are,” Viola says. “It makes the whole internal promotion process so much more effective.”

Internal promotion is one of the hallmarks of the culture Viola is working to promote. That also includes placing a definable premium on talent. Viola says helping define the ways to succeed was made effective after introducing a competency model.

“We identified a competency model for critical roles that defined what is required to be great in their job and to get promoted to the next level,” Viola explains. “Additionally, we were able to assess all of our talent against a common set of competencies and, in doing that as a company, we were then able to identify the gaps.” That also meant Party City could identify the skills and competencies that would be necessary to help leaders continue to grow and evolve.

Viola hopes that redefining the culture inside Party City will ultimately result in an increasingly focused customer approach. “I can say that we have a culture that is transparent and where associates can show their passion for our products and the work that they do,” Viola says. “That’s where associates want to help each other and serve customers.”

That evolution in the spirit of service and selling, Viola says, is paramount to Party City’s promise, which is to make it easy to create unforgettable moments for customers.

While Viola’s HR and leadership team has a litany of plans both technical and behavioral to continue redefining Party City’s culture, Viola’s own agent of change philosophy seems to frame Party City’s future as a bright one: “It’s about building great teams, creating great experiences, and fostering a culture that engages, inspires, and recognizes great performance,” he says.

Photo: Ian lastorino

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