Women in Business  March 14, 2022

Time away helped inform SRG exec’s management style

BOULDER — The business world knew Sterling Rice Group of Boulder as a brand consulting and advertising firm of some of the world’s largest consumer brands. But the workforce knew it as a place to have fun. 

SRG probably got as many accolades for its innovative worktime-as-playtime strategies as its success in bringing in more than $10 billion in new revenue for its clients in the past five years. Outside Magazine named it one of the best places to work year after year for paying for staff kickball teams, an all-company powder ski day and on-site massage, as well as a Ragnar relay race. 

“We want people to come to work,” said Cindy Judge, the company’s CEO since 2017. “We want people to bond with each other. That leads to more effective collaboration and a better work product. Employees who work well with each other and find SRG a fun place to work are incredibly important to who we are.” 

But Judge had to find ways to keep that spirited culture thriving during a pandemic that sent workers home and kept them there for more than a year. Some, in fact, are still there, and that was one of the many adjustments Judge learned to make during the pandemic: A company known for being a fun place to be became known as a place that allowed employees more flexibility to stay away if they wanted, or needed, because of COVID-19 concerns. 

“We are very respective of feelings around COVID-19,” she said. “I would say we are very progressive. As I talk to other CEOs, they are amazed at what we’ve managed to do.” 

Judge learned how to be flexible years ago, when she left a huge job at Kraft Foods to move to Italy with her husband and raise a family. Becoming a stay-at-home mom wasn’t her choice: Italy wouldn’t let both of them work. But they lived in a small village with businesses that went home for lunch everyday. She learned how to accept a slower pace of life, and she still allows the 12 years she spent there to influence her management practices. She hesitated, for instance, to say that being a female CEO in a company owned primarily by women helped employees during the pandemic, even with research that showed companies led by women did better during the pandemic than companies led by men, perhaps because of their empathy. Instead, she said, her experience in Italy shaped her in ways that helped her accept the abrupt culture change that the pandemic demanded. 

“I think it really helped me keep things in perspective,” Judge said. 

In fact, the company welcomes employees from all over now. Judge herself lives in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, some of the time. So how did she curate that in-office culture when they were meeting over Zoom and continue to do so? It was a challenge. 

“Spontaneous fun happens in person,” Judge said. “Re-creating that on Zoom isn’t as easy.” 

But workers called the “Thrive” group found ways to make it work, she said. Instead of celebrating anniversaries in-person with sheet-cake, employees created videos honoring the person. The company still hosts online company-wide meetings every two weeks and a weekly “water-cooler report” that mimics what employees might talk about there, including what to watch and what to read. The company was famous for its Thanksgiving meal cooked in its company kitchen and attended by more than 100 employees, but they had it online and served meals to employees at home. 

“What’s really important is we try to continue to evolve,” she said. “It’s really important to us to be inclusive of everyone who works there, both here and online.” 

She is proud to be a woman and work at a company owned by women and run primarily by women, and she thinks men are proud of that as well. She has another important message related to that out of her experience in Italy: She took 12 years off and still became a CEO, even when she missed out on some important events, including some as significant as the invention and incorporation of the Internet.

“I had a lot to catch up on,” she said. “But that’s a great message for anyone who takes an off-ramp for a while and then comes back on.” 

SRG isn’t empty, even if it may never be as full as it once was, and Judge is ready to continue to be as flexible as the world needs while possibly making Outside Magazine yet again as a fun place to work.

“People do love coming to the office,” she said. “We have the best view in Boulder. The sunshine and the mountains are right there.” 

BOULDER — The business world knew Sterling Rice Group of Boulder as a brand consulting and advertising firm of some of the world’s largest consumer brands. But the workforce knew it as a place to have fun. 

SRG probably got as many accolades for its innovative worktime-as-playtime strategies as its success in bringing in more than $10 billion in new revenue for its clients in the past five years. Outside Magazine named it one of the best places to work year after year for paying for staff kickball teams, an all-company powder ski day and on-site massage, as well as…

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