Fun at Work? Abso-freakin’-lutely!

 

Fun at Work imageImagine this. You’re on your way to work and you’re actually, honestly excited about it.

Wait…what? Really?

Abso-freakin’-lutely! Know why?

  • You’re working with people you trust and who trust you.
  • You’re busting your butt, and you know everyone else is, too.
  • Your boss has given you a crystal clear vision for where you’re headed.
  • She has coached you when you needed redirecting and
  • Encouraged you when you fell short.
  • You have what you need to do your job.
  • You feel safe enough to make mistakes and
  • Your company takes the time to acknowledge accomplishments all along the way.

It’s fun. Really.

Google is famous for operating a fun workplace. Sure, they spend big on employee perks, but these perks are not the source of the fun. What the perks do, whether it’s free meals, childcare, or concierge services, is free up employees to do the things that Google values most: imagine, collaborate, innovate, create and produce.

Google demonstrates its respect for its employees every day by allowing them to customize their workplace experiences so they can be at the very top of their games.

Fun at work has gotten a lot of attention, and it’s often easy for business leaders to think that fun is something you buy (an espresso machine!) or add on (lap pool?). It’s not. Fun is the outcome of policies and behavior that honor the people we employ, and unties the binds that keep them from being the rock stars they want to be!

Although it would be totally cool, you don’t need to add a water slide and margarita machines to promote fun at your company. There are small steps you can take right now to foster an environment where people aspire to great things and have the fearlessness to try.waterslide

If you make an honest, good faith effort, you can make work more fun for yourself and for your employees. And more fun means higher productivity, better retention, easier recruiting. Do I really need to sell you on this?

The best kind of fun is found in activities that take us out of ourselves and away from our fears and preoccupations. When you’re having fun, you’re in the moment. Focused. Even faced with tight deadlines, high productivity requirements and relentless resource constraints, it’s possible to have fun. In fact, it’s imperative.

Once, while working at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Bigfork, Montana, a few of my friends (actors and technicians from the Playhouse) and I walked up the old dirt road along the Swan River just outside of town. It was a blisteringly hot day in late summer and, because we worked at night and had nothing to do except play (those were the days), we were looking for an adventure that might also cool us off.

Now, of course we could have just walked the short ten minutes to Flathead Lake, but where’s the thrill in that? One of the more daring nut jobs from the group remembered a series of pools in the river that were deep enough to jump into, even from the cliffs (CLIFFS!) that towered well above the river. You just had to be sure you jumped far enough.

Well, it turned out that was pretty damn far.

I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down at the glacier-fed water rushing into a series of four or five pools that looked pretty deep. Probably deep enough, but to get from where I stood to where the first pool was required not only a considerable vertical drop, but a horizontal span that looked to me at the time to be about the length of a football field.

Probably further.Football field

Definitely further.

I couldn’t help but get a little shaky about it. OK, really shaky.

I’m not gonna lie – that first jump was terrifying. It was also thrilling. It was an amazing, fun day. I have had similarly exhilarating, fun experiences at work and I can tell you that I (and the people around me) were all better off for it. So was our employer.

I’m fascinated by the neuroscience of fun. Our brains work better when we are having fun. We’re more creative and energetic, even harder working.

It’s puzzling to me that companies don’t try harder to tap the potential in a happier workforce, but if more fun sounds like it’s worth a shot, then consider the following…

Fun is not the object. People and relationships are.

When I jumped like a madman into the Swan River, I was with people I trusted. The sense of competition between us was healthy and constructive because it nudged us all to push the borders of our comfort zones. Most importantly, we all knew that if we failed, although we may have experienced extreme bodily harm, we were still loved. Coincidentally, the same dynamic applied to our work together at the Playhouse.

  • We knew our objective (overcoming the distance between the cliff and the swimming hole),
  • We had the resources we needed to achieve it (knew where to go and had the physical ability to make the leap), and
  • We allowed every one to approach the challenge in his or her own way (with a little good-natured ribbing).
  • We were in it together. The day was better, more fun, more memorable and more stimulating because it was shared.

It’s not about buying ice cream between floggings.

Creating an environment that promotes fun doesn’t mean you have to break the bank throwing parties or providing perks. And it sure as hell doesn’t (in fact, shouldn’t) have to wait for the annual Christmas party.

Leadership can promote fun at any time by having a little fun themselves. Herb Kelleher, the legendary founder and one time CEO of Southwest Airlines, was known to greet passengers in an Elvis costume.

Herb created a culture that celebrated individuality, even eccentricity, while building the most successful airline in the history of the industry. It’s important to note that Herb was genuinely interested in, and respectful of, his employees and his fun was never at someone else’s expense. They felt safe to have fun and be crazy while they were working hard and recreating the experience of flying.

Fun should be part of fulfilling your company’s mission.

Achievement is fun. Remember how jazzed you felt when you aced that Chemistry test or finished your first 10-K? How about the time when your team at work successfully launched a new product or website? Setting goals and then achieving them is exhilarating. This is especially true when the experience is shared with others. This is where you get the real whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its parts mojo going!

Companies that are clear about their goals and excited about empowering people to get creative about accomplishing them can experience surprisingly great things. By encouraging people to contribute, regardless of their tenure or position, celebrating achievement all along the way, and taking the time to relax and appreciate the precious resource your people are, any place can be a fun place to work.

Do you have fun at work? Which companies impress you as offering a fun experience for their employees and customers? What can you do to make work more fun for yourself and the people around you?

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We Do These Things Not Because They Are Easy But Because They Are Hard

Moon image

In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962, President John F Kennedy roused support for America’s mission to the moon with a stirring speech that celebrated the determination of American innovators and adventurers to “Climb the Highest Mountain”. The speech cited a litany of accomplishments made possible by a shining vision and unrelenting hard work. I encourage you to read it, but have excerpted a small portion here.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things (accomplishments and aspirations), not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

I don’t recall ever having heard this speech or the quote before, then recently I heard it twice: Once, while visiting the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon and again in the introduction to a new Brad Paisley song, “American Flag on the Moon”.

The sentiment “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard” resonates with me.

It acknowledges that real growth is the outcome of vision and struggle.

This means choosing a path that others don’t

Figuring out how to do things you have never done

Committing to doing them as well as they can possibly be done.

The quote also recognizes that high achievement is a challenge compelled by a desire to win.

It’s the same in business. How often are conversations about marketing and business strategy dominated by “What does (competitor’s name here) do?” or “That’s the way we have always done it.”

I agree that these are legitimate observations and material to the discussion, but they are easy to ask, easy to answer and they don’t go far enough.

Questions should challenge leadership to envision a product, service and/or client experience that changes everything, a vision that makes us better than we have ever been and superior to our competition. This kind of vision inspires employees. And, properly executed, it delights and attracts customers.

Here’s the thing…executing a new vision, even if it’s not radical, is hard. Really hard.

It means that old ways of doing things may have to go. It takes commitment, resources and determination. People need to be trained and leadership needs to evangelize.

This ain’t business as usual. But the pursuit of this vision is powerful because, as President Kennedy’s speech assures us, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

What companies do you believe consistently raise the bar for themselves and their competition? How have you or your company raised the bar for yourselves?

 

The Will To Be Great

As a marketer and communicator, I have long been a student and admirer of great companies. What these companies do to innovate, create great new products, redefine their categories or consistently rank as top performers fascinates me.

Of course, there are companies in all industries that have established their own disciplines for excellence. The management strategies employed by Ritz Carlton, for example, are different from those at Apple, but one characteristic stands out among all companies that achieve (or aspire to achieve) greatness: The will to be great.

Girls can do anything!

Willfulness. I hadn’t thought much about this apparently obvious attribute until some colleagues from D.A. Davidson and I visited the headquarters of Robert W Baird & Co. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin a few years ago. Baird and Davidson have similar business models and we were interested in learning more about some of their best practices and processes. Mostly, we were eager to understand their ongoing success earning a spot on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

Baird’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Leslie Dixon, led the discussion. Beginning with documented research detailing the measurable economic benefits of being a great employer, Ms. Dixon went on to say that attracting and retaining great people was, ultimately, a function of will. “Great companies”, she said, “must have the will to adopt and execute policies and practices that make them great. It’s hard work that demands resolve and determination.”

Most leaders think of their companies as good, if not great, places to work. But knowing you operate a great place to work takes the discussion to an entirely different level. It requires a determined, ongoing effort to engage and support people. It is deliberate. It is constant. And at Baird, it’s still working. In 2014, they ranked no. 9 on the list for the eleventh consecutive year. You can read more about it here.

You may be asking what Baird’s will to be a great place to work has to do with marketing. I would argue that, regardless of the company, a great place to work has a huge advantage from a marketing perspective. An engaged, happy workforce delivers better customer service. It acts as an army of brand ambassadors. Employees given appropriate resources and support are good neighbors and citizens, earning good will in their communities.

The importance of will applies to marketing strategies as well. Steve Jobs’ will to bring Apple’s revolutionary technology and design to market is legendary. Ritz Carlton’s will to engage with its associates and guests is prevalent in every aspect of the enterprise.

These are just a few companies among many with the will to do something important and do it brilliantly well. Can you or your company say the same? Ask yourself these three questions…

  1. How does my company distinguish itself, operationally or in the marketplace? (Superior service? Better performance? Lower prices?)
  2. Are the qualities described in these claims supported by policies and practices designed specifically to uphold them?
  3. Do you conduct regular testing or research to measure the validity and value of the qualities you espouse?

If your answers to these questions are yes, then you can safely say that you possess the will to be great. If you answered no to any one of them, can you be sure you are delivering what you say you are?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extracurricular Activities – Burnishing Your Brand

Wrapping up this week’s examination of Back-to-School season and the opportunities for renewal this time of year presents for businesses and their brands, let’s conclude with what for many are the defining experiences of academic life: Extracurricular activities.

Athletics, music, theatre, dance, technology, science…even chess, the passions and relationships we chose outside the classroom all had an enormous impact on our community, our satisfaction as students, our sense of self and on our reputations. The lessons we learned in these environments were often more valuable than anything taught in the classroom. It is in this context that many people finally figure out who they are, or want to be.

Group Hug

For me, it was theatre. Not being a particularly talented athlete, all of my forays into team or individual sports were frustrating if not disastrous. As a little kid, I had seen a few children’s theatre productions, and I still remember how enthralled I was seeing real people be something and someone they were not. It was magical to me then, and to this day a great play or movie still energizes and inspires me.

I was always a big fan of popular music and I knew I could keep a tune because I sang along with the radio constantly. In high school, I took choir but blended in with all the other baritones. I was destined for anonymity until auditions for “Carousel” were held during my junior year. Standing in front of an audience for the first time, I trembled as the choir director, orchestra director, drama teacher and my peers listened as I sang “If I Loved You”, the beautiful Rogers and Hammerstein ballad sung by the lead, Billy Bigelow.

I got the part.

I was told after the fact that my choir teacher said, “who is this guy and where has he been?” It was a good day. That was my first experience in a discipline that continues to inform who I am as a person and businessperson: a storyteller and communicator with a strong sensitivity for audiences, a good listener, a patient leader.

In business, the things we and our companies do outside the everyday also help define us. These activities do not directly reflect our capabilities, products or services – yet our customers and employees care about them. Importantly, they can also be a source of inspiration that energizes and strengthens your organization.

Considering your brand’s extracurricular activities, I want to focus on three areas Advocacy, Activism and Philanthropy, which often overlap.

Advocacy – Every company has at least three key constituencies: its customers (and prospects), its employees and its shareholders or partners. The people who populate these groups are, of course, interested in your business (the products you make and services you offer), but as a group they have other needs, interests and issues. You and your company are in a position to advocate for one or more of these groups by devoting time and resources to helping overcome common challenges faced by these groups.

For example, in the wealth management industry, it’s pretty safe to assume that people are interested in growing and preserving wealth. Advocating for this group can be achieved by supporting programs that promote strategies for reducing expenses or improving financial literacy.

For employees, advocacy may be wellness programs or retirement counseling.

For shareholders and partners, advocacy may come in the form of activism (below). What’s important here is the idea that you and your company care about something not because it has an immediate impact on the top line, but because it is important to the people you care about.

Activism – The interests of our persons, companies, communities and customers are affected (sometimes deeply) by government policies. We’re blessed to do business in a democratic republic. As citizens, we have a responsibility to understand and act upon policies that threaten to harm our ability to operate profitably, and to advocate for our customers (see above) when their interests are threatened. Through direct participation in the legislative process, and your influence among constituents, your positions can make a profound impact on your reputation and solve real world problems.

Philanthropy – Sometimes referred to as simply Corporate Giving, or more broadly Ethical Corporate Social Responsibility, how you give can have a huge impact on the way your firm is perceived. Large companies often have foundations with professional staffs, endowments and missions to guide their operations, but even small companies can be strategic about giving, both to make a difference and to accrue reputational benefits. I recommend having a formal giving policy that reflects your individual or collective values, and exploring methods to engage employees or customers in the effort. This is another very big topic I will address in a future post.

 

Which company’s extracurricular activities are you most aware of? How do you feel about the company as a result? Are there companies who you believe should do more?

 

 

 

 

 

Clubs, Cliques & Community – Companies are known by the company they keep

The concept I am exploring with this week’s unusually ambitious schedule of daily postings is this: Just as the beginning of each new school year gives students the chance to, in effect, reinvent themselves – this annual season of self evaluation and self improvement can also apply to businesses and their brands.

A lot of the preparation for a new school year is naturally very deliberate. What you’ll wear, for instance, and the supplies you’ll buy. But another very powerful influence on our school experience may be given decidedly less thought. Our connections, the people we gather with, love, emulate, admire, and maybe even fear. As much as anything (probably more) the world (our customers, employers and employees) makes decisions about us based on the people and groups we surround ourselves with and the way we treat – and are treated by – those groups.

Flamingos gifThink about it. In school, were you a jock? A nerd? A stoner? A Goth? Were you popular or excluded? As individuals, of course, where we’re accepted is often subject to circumstances and biases outside our control. Even so, by deliberately changing the groups where we lead, follow or just hang out, we can change the way we’re perceived and treated.

For businesses and their brands, I think this concept of affiliation demands a more conscious conversation about your company’s relationship with each of the following four essential groups:

Your employees – Employee engagement gets a lot of attention these days, and it should. Employees who believe in your company and its mission can do more to promote excellence and innovation if they feel safe and appreciated. Empowered with your firm’s vision, they can act as brand ambassadors, recruiters and salespeople. An engaged workforce is more productive, less susceptible to turnover and generates more revenue and earnings. Of course, really engaging your workforce means a lot more than just memorizing names and sending birthday cards. It calls for a disciplined, multifaceted approach to management and sets high expectations for leaders from the CEO down. An interesting study about this topic was published by the Harvard Business Review this summer and can be read at   http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/07/your-bosss-work-life-balance-matters-as-much-as-your-own/

Your competitors – You probably already monitor your competition for their products and pricing. You check their adverting, social media and media coverage. When you’re honest with yourself, though, you may have to admit that there isn’t much of a difference between you and them. If that’s the case, then I challenge you to think bigger and with more determination. Think about companies outside your industry that are doing exciting things to differentiate and grow their businesses. Make a decision to be different, better in a way that matters to your customers. Then, make the hard choices and do the work so that difference is real, not just hype.

Your existing customers – In school, these were your best friends. People who were with you through thick and thin. They had your back and you had theirs. You cared about what they thought and went out of your way to help them out. In business, existing customers are gold. You owe it to them to make their experience with your company as rewarding and personal as your resources will permit. Today, that means personalization and segmentation, communicating in a way that acknowledges customers’ individuality. It means honoring your best customers with membership on advisory boards and in loyalty programs. A retained customer is your cheapest source of revenue and your best advocate. Engage your entire company in the business of making clients’ experiences a success.

Your desired customers – Earlier, I mentioned that by consciously changing the groups a student chooses, she can change the way she is perceived. In other words, change her “brand”. Your company can do the same. As you conduct your business analysis and strategic planning, ask yourself if there is a segment of the market that you should have a bigger share of. If so, what has prevented you from seizing that share? What changes do you need to make to compete successfully for this business? Whether it’s people, technology or infrastructure (yesterday’s post), are your investments likely to generate an attractive return? If, on the other hand, you are already in your sweet spot customer-wise, this is a great time to review and refine your marketing and sales/ business development function. Technology is making changes to this discipline at a dizzying pace. You can’t afford to fall behind.

By consciously and deliberately addressing the needs and expectations of each of these groups, your company will enjoy the good will of all and the many reputational and financial benefits that come with it.

Have you ever worked for a company that did an exceptionally good job of considering and serving any of the groups mentioned above?  

 

 

Great New Stuff: The Gear You Need for Your Brand’s Back-to-School

Back to school season has always been a time for checking out the newest, coolest stuff. Stuff to take notes, do homework, complete lab work, conduct research, compose presentations and papers, solve problems, communicate and recreate.

supplies

When I was a student (at school anyway. I’d like to think of myself as a lifelong student), the choices were a little less exciting technologically (what I could have accomplished with an iPad!) Nevertheless, the new gear I got for every new school year got me excited about the year ahead and gave me the leg up I needed to keep pace with even the most ambitious class schedule. HP Calculators rock!

Two posts ago, I suggested that the end of summer and the resumption of a more rhythmic, structured existence is a perfect time for companies to go “back to school” themselves. Just as each new school year gives students a fresh start, companies too have an opportunity to reinvent themselves, or parts of themselves, to be more attractive and relevant to their customers and prospects.

When you have taken the time to objectively assess how your company looks and how well you are engaging your customers, as described in my post titled “Looking Good, or the Art of the First Impression”, the next step is to get the gear you’ll need to execute against the changes you have identified.

Depending on your conclusions, your shopping list could be a long one. The range of possibilities includes everything from complete rebranding along with everything that accompanies it (signage, collateral, advertising, digital) to more modest changes like frontline training to enhance the customer experience. But remember, don’t be discouraged if the list is too long. Make priorities and do what you can. Anything. Incremental improvements are better than no improvements at all.

At school, everyone needs the same supplies with some exceptions for certain specialized studies, but even then everyone in a particular specialty has the same tools. To a certain extent this also applies in business. Your best competitors are an excellent reference for the stuff you’ll need.

As you might imagine, it’s difficult to guess what any company’s back-to-school list will include, but there are a few items that I believe every firm needs to think about to remain competitive in today’s rapidly changing business landscape.

P    T    I

chicopee-office-1946

People: In business, some of the “stuff” you’ll need may also be competencies you lack and the strategic hires you need to make to enhance your capabilities or broaden services. Today, that means technologists and leadership that is skilled at inspiring and empowering a customer centered enterprise.

Technology: You don’t need me to tell you that technology touches nearly every industry and consumer. At the very least, you should update your website so you and your people can be proud about what it says about you. It must be optimized for mobile devices and have enough dynamic content to provide a worthwhile user experience and search performance. This is a huge topic I’ll be addressing in much greater depth for future blogs.

Infrastructure: I have talked a lot about making improvements and adjustments to the impressions your company makes on its customers and prospects, but of course it goes much deeper than that. The most engaging web user experience on earth will not compensate for delayed deliveries, dropped calls, shabby offices or poor service. Make sure your systems are all functioning smoothly to help you keep your promises.

What investments has your company made or does it plan to make to be more competitive and customer friendly? Which companies deliver a brand and customer experience you admire?

Looking Good, or The Art of the First Impression

macklemore-dancing-in-the-thrift-shop1Following this week’s Back to School theme, I think we have to start with wardrobe. Now, as the father of two exceptionally talented, smart and accomplished daughters, my personal experience suggests that the intricacies of image at back to school time were much more important to them than I remember them ever being with me or my friends. But, although we guys were not at all interested in our “outfits”, it’s fair to say we were very interested in having a “look” that said something about us.

It’s funny, really. How many new people does any new student see at the beginning of a new school year? Yet, each year students obsess about that all-important first impression. (Note: I am aware that this preoccupation generally lasts through high school only. Post secondary school attire seems to be designed to discourage attraction from any but the most determined.)

I think there is a lesson here and it’s pretty cool. In a very real way, and in direct contradiction to the axiom, we DO get more than one chance to make a first impression.

This applies in business and marketing too. The opportunity for students to reinvent themselves at the beginning of a new school year is there for us too. But, like students, the opportunity must be pursued strategically (what do you want the new look to say about you, and why), and deliberately.

I should elaborate here by saying that when I talk about the way a company or business “looks”, I’m really talking about all of the ways it makes an impression. The principles are the same, whether you have a great new storefront, a refreshed website or all of the many ways a client and prospect experiences your company.

Here are three practices that can help people and their practices, businesses or companies decide whether it’s time for a new look, and if so, how to use the opportunity to the greatest advantage.

bob-landry-dorothy-mcguire-gazing-into-mirror-hands-at-throat-on-staircase-in-scene-from-spiral-staircaseTake a good long look at yourself…

As part of your annual planning and budgeting discipline, ask yourself if you are looking as good as you should. How long has it been since you made a change? How do you compare to your competitors? What do business trends tell you about parts of your company that may no longer be resonating the way they once did. Try to put yourself in your customers’ and clients’ shoes and engage as many stakeholders as you can. You’ll get some great ideas from unexpected places.

Talk to your customers…

If you have the resources, you should also ask your customers what they think. Only be specific. Don’t ask “How was your experience with our Help Desk?” No one is going to give you the kind of critical feedback you really need unless they know precisely what you’re looking for. Instead, try “Our help desk has a mission to resolve client issues completely during the initial call, and within 24-hours if an immediate resolution is not possible. Did we meet these goals during your last call? Is there something more we could do to make your experience better?” You get the picture. Wherever your clients touch your company, figure out a way to ask the customer if it makes them happy. Ask. Don’t assume.

Alright already. Make the changes…

Back to my daughters… both have a very well-defined style, however any resemblance ends there. My older daughter’s self expression in clothing can best be described as thrift-and-hardware store chic. She is the only woman I have ever known who can pull off shorts and (I swear) crab boots.

My younger daughter on the other hand has high fashion sense. Throughout high school she had an uncanny eye for fabric and color that was unique, attention-getting and trend setting.

The point is, they are both true to themselves and unapologetic about expressing it. You and your business should do the same. Ask yourself who you are and what you stand for. Then make sure your identity is authentically expressed by the way you “look”.

As an individual or business leader, have you ever made a big change in the way you looked? What was the result? What lessons would you share?