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Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre on How to Put Creativity at the Center of Your Strategy

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Daniel Lamarre is the executive vice chairman of Cirque du Soleil, a position he took after serving for nearly two decades as the circus and entertainment company’s president and CEO. He is the author of, Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work, which describes how others can unleash Cirque’s creative management techniques, even if they’re not in the business of clowns and acrobats.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Lamarre in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • Reviving the company after a disastrous Covid-inflicted shutdown of Cirque’s operations and painful layoffs.
  • His decision to leave a comfortable position as TV network CEO to “run away” and join the circus, and what it taught him about being true to his own values and ambitions.
  • The surprisingly analytical side of Cirque, which relentlessly tweaks and perfects its show formulas based on continuous audience feedback.

The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.


ADI IGNATIUS: Daniel, welcome to the show.

DANIEL LAMARRE: I’m so happy and honored to meet you today. And it’s a great, great time to talk about creativity and how we’re going to innovate. So I’m blessed to have the opportunity to talk with you today.

ADI IGNATIUS: Well, thank you. We feel the same way. Just to set context, could you talk a little bit about Cirque du Soleil’s mission and maybe how you came to the company?

DANIEL LAMARRE: This company started with a bunch of street performers begging at the corner of the street and, move forward 10 years later, I had the opportunity to join the company when I thought the brand was ready to explode globally. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two decades.

ADI IGNATIUS: You come to Cirque du Soleil, it has a mission, it has some initial success, but as you said, you’re trying to develop it, to scale it, to blow it up globally. Talk about that, the challenge of taking something that people love, because it is unique and maybe they love because it’s small, taking that brand and making it big.

DANIEL LAMARRE: And two famous teachers from your school, from Harvard, have described it in their Blue Ocean Strategy as we have developed a new category of show and I truly believe that’s what happened and that’s how we’ve been successful. Because if you try to describe a Cirque show, it’s very difficult. You will probably start by saying, it’s not a circus show. It’s not dense, it’s not theatrical. And I would say that it’s a blend of all of that and at the end of the day became a very unique global brand called Cirque du Soleil.

ADI IGNATIUS: We were talking before the show, and I said that my family fell in love with Cirque du Soleil, we were living in Hong Kong and we saw a couple of shows, and couldn’t believe them. This would’ve been in the 1990s. It was, as you say, such a departure. You mentioned that the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne had highlighted Cirque du Soleil as an example of an innovative company. And their whole idea is that you find a blue ocean, an undeveloped market that’s brand new, you create a whole new category. So do you have any advice for people who aren’t in the circus business, how to find an open space that’s not being addressed already by business?

DANIEL LAMARRE: And really, the motivation for me to write a book was that I was motivated to promote creativity because that’s what I’ve learned. I had the opportunity through all those years to observe amazing creators, such as our founder, Guy Laliberté, but also international people like James Cameron and the Beatles, and watching them work has changed my personal and my professional life and really made creativity the forefront of everything I do. And today that’s what I want to do. I want to promote creativity because I take a very radical stand, which is that without creativity, there’s no company, there’s no organization. And I truly believe that.

ADI IGNATIUS: How do you manage creativity?

DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost I think it’s very important that you create an environment that nurtures creativity. You have to have your core business central in everything you do, and in your environment. In our case, the founder hired me a clown called Madame Zazou, and Madam Zazou became a symbol of what we are. And internally every day I used her to remind our employees what our core business is. I’m not suggesting that everybody is hiring a clown. I’m suggesting that everybody find the right symbol to bring out the core of what they do, a reminder of the purpose they have in life as an organization.

ADI IGNATIUS: So Ed Catmull, who was the very successful creative leader at Pixar for years, he was similar to you trying to unleash extraordinary innovation and creativity with each movie. But at the end of it, he almost wanted to kind of wipe everybody’s brains clear so that with the next project, they didn’t fall back into, “Well, this is how this company does things.” That there was a freshness with every project. Is that something that you think about as you’re creating new shows?

DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost, I don’t think of Cirque du Soleil as a hierarchy organization, and that’s why every time we produce a new show, I will create a cell with all of our creators and artists. I will say to all the administrative staff to stay away from them. I don’t want them to think about some HR policy or some financial issues. I want them to really breathe and sleep and eat, just thinking about making our next show very innovative, very entertaining. And that is very, very important that every show create an entertainment breakthrough. And that’s the challenge I give to the team every time we start a new show

ADI IGNATIUS: And you’ve had an amazing record of success. There are probably some shows that were not a success. Are there one or two examples you could talk about that didn’t work and maybe what you learned from that?

DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s very, very important that you understand that you take risk and sometimes you fail. And in our case, I remember we wanted to reinvent Vaudeville as we did with circus. And unfortunately using the brand of Cirque du Soleil was a big mistake because people were expecting to see an acrobatic show. And there was some learnings from that. And we took the time to do the postmortem and to evaluate why it didn’t work. To make my long story short, the reasons why it didn’t work is that we couldn’t bring the brand of Cirque du Soleil on a Vaudeville show. That was counterproductive. And that’s something that we’ve learned and we will always remember, you cannot put your brand on any type of shelves or in some situation or any type of product or services. So be very, very respectful of your brand.

ADI IGNATIUS: You can stretch your brand, but you don’t want to stretch it so far that it’s not who you are.

So you’re talking about creativity, encouraging creativity, sustaining it. I’m sure there are people watching this who say, “Yeah, okay, fine. This is a circus company. I work for nothing that exciting.” How is your message relevant to the large number of viewers we have who don’t happen to be in the circus business?

DANIEL LAMARRE: We are blessed because Cirque du Soleil is a creative powerhouse. But my point is more fundamental than that. My point is, it doesn’t matter for what company or what organization you are working. You cannot use an excuse that you’re not creative enough. If you’re not creative enough, it’s because you are not putting that priority in the forefront.

I can challenge anybody in any type of organization. You can be creative in your employees’ communication. You can be creative in your marketing. Most importantly, you can be creative in redesigning and innovating the way you are shaping your new products or your new services.

There is no excuse. Creativity has to be at the forefront, because if you don’t do that, then one day you will wake up and you will discover that your competitors have an edge on you and then you’re in trouble. So don’t wait for that. Just make sure that you are nurturing your creativity within the organization to keep your edge, to keep your leadership in whatever sector you are.

ADI IGNATIUS: You’re drumming up all that creativity within and trying to bring it out and celebrate it. How do you bring in the voice of the customer, of the consumer, as you’re in this creative mindset?

DANIEL LAMARRE: People will be surprised to see how an organization like us is so analytical. Every night, every show, we are asking the customer to react. And if for whatever reason we see that there is an act that is not liked as much as the others, we’re just going to take it out and we’re just going to replace it by a better act.

So it’s very, very important that you are listening all the time. Listening to your customer in priority, but also listening to your employees. You have to send a clear signal to your employees that you are on the lookout all the time for new ideas, new suggestions. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at Cirque, is listen to our customer, but also listen to our employees and mobilize them behind the mission, mobilize them behind our new shows that we also share the credit when we have a big success.

ADI IGNATIUS: There’s a passage in your book where you talk about when Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque, brought you into the company and you were already very successful in the PR and events business. And I think it was your parents who thought, “What? Run away and joined the circus?” Talk about how do we make these big life-changing decisions? How did you make that decision and what can we learn from that?

DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously my parents, even my wife at the time, were not really excited about me leaving my job. I was the CEO of a TV network, and they were very proud of that. And the one thing that triggers the change is when Guy Laliberté said, “Daniel, I read that you wanted to be international, and it won’t happen to you with this Canadian TV network. If you want to be international, you have to join a circus.” And that was the trigger for me.

So you have to be true to your value and through your ambition. And even if it was a tough decision for me to join the circus, it was an easy decision when I learned and I realized that to become international, that was the right platform. And then after that, everything became clearer for me, and obviously I never regret that because I had the opportunity with Guy to travel the world and promote this most important global brand.

And I strongly suggest that when you are in front of a new opportunity, you should think about what’s your ambition. Where do you want to be five years from now? And I guess the answer will become clearer and your decision process will be much easier.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great advice. Let’s fast forward. You have this period of sensational growth, expansion, and then COVID hits and live performances are not possible. Obviously the company is hit hard. You end up with a new investor structure. So can you talk about how you survived that period and where the company is now?

DANIEL LAMARRE: That was a nightmare. That was the toughest period in my life, and I know it was for a lot of people in different sectors. But in my case, within 48 hours, I came from 44 shows to zero shows, went from a billion dollars of revenues to zero revenue. And my purpose in life, I took great pride in creating jobs for artists, and then I end up in a situation where I had to let go, not only 2,000 artists, but all of our 5,000 employees. That was a disaster, and for 15 months, I was struggling to make sure that the company can remain alive.

So imagine the meeting. You’re meeting with the bankers, you have to tell them, “I have no revenues. I have no shows. And by the way, I need $375 million more to sustain the relaunch of our company.”

The only reasons why I got their support and why I’m here now so happy about the outcome is the strength of the brand. It’s the brand that saved the company, because the bankers were convinced that the brand will make this company successful after the crisis, and that’s exactly what happened.

ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to go to some audience questions. And George, who is watching on YouTube, asks how creativity can be implemented in our own lives, in our personal lives? What personal strategies can we follow to unlock that kind of creativity that you talked about?

DANIEL LAMARRE: I think it’s important that we’re beasts of habit, and that’s what you have to fight first. You have to do things differently all the time and you have to find ways to be inspired by reading more, by visiting events, by talking to inspiring people.

People that I had the opportunity to meet, like the Beatles and James Cameron and others, have changed my life because they brought me some fresh air. They brought me some new ways of seeing lives. And kill your habits, think differently and make your life much more fun by meeting people that are inspiring, by reading more. And at the end, which is also very, very important, spend the time to reflect. We don’t spend enough time reflecting and I strongly suggest that you do. And that’s what I’ve learned and that’s why my life now is fulfilled by more creativity. But at the end of it, much more fun.

ADI IGNATIUS: We take for granted now that there is a Cirque Beatles show in Las Vegas and that it’s amazing and so many of us have seen it. Talk a little bit about the process of getting the Beatles and their representatives to agree, which was pretty difficult.

DANIEL LAMARRE: For many, many years, all the live entertainment companies were chasing the Beatles to do a show with their catalog, their music catalog, and nobody succeeded. And it took me two years of my life negotiating with them because it was not about money. It was about making sure that we will respect their brand. And after spending quite a bit of time with the four of them, including Yoko at the time, we showed them respect by working the creative process side by side with them and not positioning ourselves as the salesman of their intellectual property, but we position ourself as true creative partners. And that’s why at the end of ethe day, it ended up being an amazing adventure. Not only did we loved it, but so did they, because they understood that we were two creative power forces that could work together and make something fantastic. And that’s why I’m so proud of that achievement.

ADI IGNATIUS: In the book there’s more detail, more granular detail about that process. Two people have asked pretty much the same question. How do you filter ideas? What is the creative process to pick a show idea, to decide the theme of the next show or shows that you’re considering?

DANIEL LAMARRE: We have a very specific creative process. It starts with three people. It starts with the director of the show, the creative director and the production director. And we give them a general mandate about what we are looking for in term of the new show. The three of them come to us and present to us a first synopsis of what the show should be. And then when we agree to the general concept of the new show, then we will add to that three person team probably 17 more, like costume designer, music designer, set designer, 20 people all together, working together to define the exact content of the show.

One thing that is very, very important in that process is we have regular checkpoints to make sure that the mandate we give them at the beginning of the process is respected all along, and they’re not losing themselves with other directions than the one we’re hoping for. It’s an organic process. It takes between 18 to 24 months to come to fruition from the day you start to the day of the opening. And we’re very respectful of time because it takes time to produce a good show, as it takes time to develop a new product, a new service. And that’s our process.

ADI IGNATIUS: When Cirque du Soleil was first out there, it was so different from anything we’d seen and it was amazing. Is it harder now to impress people since you’ve already stretched the envelope so much? Do they want more, more, more? Is it harder to impress them now?

DANIEL LAMARRE: It is. It is because the expectations are much higher. That’s why we have a huge challenge to remain relevant. And the way to do that is by investing a lot in research and development. And that’s what we do. We work in collaboration with a lot of universities around the world. We work with big companies, such as Samsung and Microsoft and others. We are in the lookout all the time, not only for new ideas, but for new technologies.

Human performance will remain the core of what we do, but we will expand in new digital platforms. We will expand on new technologies that are going to enhance the human performance. But it’s an ongoing challenge and you cannot be complacent and think that the formula you have right now will last forever because it won’t. You have to reinvent yourself all the time and that’s our biggest challenge, yes.

ADI IGNATIUS: Richard in Italy has a question that really asks about what you just said about new digital platforms. Do you have any plans to perform in the metaverse?

DANIEL LAMARRE: It’s a world obviously, it’s a universe, that we are definitely exploring as we’re going through right now. One thing I want to be clear, we will remain a live entertainment organization because that’s what we are great at doing. But on the other hand, through the crisis, we have developed a platform called Cirque Connect that has allowed us to keep our brand alive by showing different content on Cirque Connect. So now we’re going to go through metaverse and other technologies, other types of platforms that are available to us, and then we will have to define what kind of artistic content we’re going to bring there to remain very, very relevant to that new universe of technology. And yes, that’s something we are definitely going to explore.

ADI IGNATIUS: All right, we will watch this space. By the way, I love the fact that we’re getting questions from quite literally all over the world. And here’s one from Finland, from Jerry. Ultimately, how do you measure success?

DANIEL LAMARRE: First and foremost, we have the NPS, which is the net promoter scores. Say simply what we measure is, “Are you going to recommend our show to your friends and family?” And that satisfaction level is very, very important. And that’s something that we measure. So the first criteria, the most important one is the satisfaction of our customer. Then is how it impacts on the brand. Is your brand declining, or is your brand growing? And that’s something we measure on a regular basis. And obviously the financial impact is also important because you need to be profitable if you want to remain alive, but if you want to have the right financial resources to make sure that you can continue to invest in new shows. Those are the three criteria that we look the most.

ADI IGNATIUS: Jacqueline, who was watching on YouTube, notes that you said you share the credit when there’s a success. So her question is, what happens when there’s a failure or things don’t go as well? How do you process that with your teams?

DANIEL LAMARRE: At the end of the day, if you’re the CEO of the company, you are responsible for the failures. You have to tell to the group that that’s first and foremost your failure, that you accept it, but more importantly, that you’re going to learn from it. Then you invite them to learn from it as well. And that’s why it’s important you have to go to a postmortem, a good evaluation to define what we are going to learn from that failure. And you have to understand that you have to take risk all the time. You have to mitigate risk. You have to measure risk. But you cannot be afraid of taking risk because you had one failure. Yes, you have to have more success than failures if you want to remain alive, but you should take the time it takes to learn from your failure.

ADI IGNATIUS: Other than your book, are there any other good books you can suggest on this topic of creativity?

DANIEL LAMARRE: Yeah. There is a book obviously of Catmull that you talk about. I think it’s a great one, the guy from Pixar. I would also recommend to read the book from Bob Iger, from Disney. I think it’s a great book as well. Those two books put a lot of pressure on me because they were really, really great with two amazing organizations.

ADI IGNATIUS: In a similar vein, here’s a question from Julia from Boston: who inspires you?

DANIEL LAMARRE: A lot of people inspire me, obviously our founder Guy Laliberte, but also a guy like James Cameron. I was so, so rewarded to work with him on the live show that we did about Avatar. I was impressed by his intellectual curiosity. When he came to visit our creative center here in Montreal, I thought he will stay for an hour, he stayed for four hours because he wanted to know everything about our creative process. When Elon Musk went to visit our show, Kurios, in Los Angeles, he stayed three hours after the show, same attitude. He wanted to know everything about the technology we use, everything else. So the kind of people that are very, very impactful in our world, I’ve learned in watching them that the intellectual curiosity is probably something that had really inspired me to be now more focused and more curious when I have the opportunity to meet with people like that.

ADI IGNATIUS: Omar in Egypt asked how do you envision the future of entertainment, not just Cirque du Soleil, but more generally the future of entertainment in the next 10, 15, 20 years?

DANIEL LAMARRE: There are two schools of thought. One is saying, the future is only going to be through technology, new platforms and live entertainment is going to be absolute. The other school of thought is after the crisis, people understand now that it’s also important that you are going to see shows with real human beings. I personally believe that the two schools of thought are good. There will be more and more artistic content on new platforms, but I think live shows will remain a very, very popular form of entertainment, and that’s why we’re pursuing both at the same time in order to benefit from the new platforms, but remain a creative force for live artistic content.

ADI IGNATIUS: Not everyone on your team is a creative, and there’s a question from Shahid on LinkedIn, how do you balance? You’ve got the creative people and you’re always talking about them, but some of your stars are operational people working quietly to make sure things happen. How do you balance that?

DANIEL LAMARRE: Obviously, it’s a challenge today because creativity is at the forefront of who we are and we are perceived as a creative force, but the reality is we’re also logistically amazing because we tour with 150 people for each show around the world with 50 trucks of equipment, and in each city, you have to be local because we are a retail outlet in a city for two to three months. So those people are very, very important, and you are right in saying that we have to spend also the time to recognize their contribution to the success of the show, because they are integral in the success of the show. It’s more like an internal challenge than an external challenge, but we’re doing that. We’re doing that because they deserve our credit. I always say, today is the employees’ night in Montreal where we’re going to show our new show to our employees, and that’s the kind of event that we use to, again, thank our employees for their contribution to the success of the show wherever they are in our organization.

ADI IGNATIUS: We talk a lot about what the proper role of a CEO is, with a complex company, and we have a question from Sri Lanka about when you were CEO, how did you spend your time? How did you spend your day? What were your priorities?

DANIEL LAMARRE: The good news is I had a great team and because I had a great team, it allowed me to be able to focus on mobilizing our employees. I think that’s the number one responsibility of the CEO, because if the employees don’t believe in what you do, you’re bound to fail. So that was my number one priority is I love to go and walk in the building and go to the studio and meet with people, and more importantly, listen to them, because you learn a lot by listening to your employees. You go in a city where we’re presenting a show, our employees have been there for a month. They know more about what’s happening in that city than I do from my office in Montreal.

That’s something I spend a great deal of time of doing. Then after that, obviously reviewing the business model and spending a lot of time in the new business and new shows development, because this is very, very important. But again, nothing more important than mobilizing your employees behind your new priorities, behind your new objectives.

ADI IGNATIUS: Can you give us a hint about your next show?

DANIEL LAMARRE: First of all, I have to tell you that I’m very, very proud of our new show at Disney in Orlando, because we played with the intellectual property of Disney, that was a tribute to the animation of Disney, and this is a great show. We’re also working right now on two new shows. One is going to be about music. That’s going to be an arena show that is very impressive, and our new big top shows, we are going to shake up the entire environment within the tent that I hope is going to bring the customer experience to a new level.

ADI IGNATIUS: All right. So we’ve gone over time a little bit. There are a lot more questions, but I think we have to wrap this up, but Daniel Lamarre, thank you very, very much for being on the New World of Work.

DANIEL LAMARRE: Thank you to you. That was an honor to be here. Thank you very much.

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Running a Business

Six Office Remodels That Will Help Improve Work Culture

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The physical space of an office plays a significant role in creating a positive or negative work culture. When your team members love coming to the office, it shows in their attitudes and overall job satisfaction. Thankfully, by researching a few key remodels, like floor plans, furniture, and LVT flooring reviews, you can create an inviting and inspiring space for your staff.

1. Open Floor Plans

One of the most popular remodeling trends is to ditch the traditional cubicle layout in favor of an open floor plan.

An open floor plan typically means no physical barriers between employees. This can help to encourage communication and collaboration, as employees can easily talk to one another. It can also make the office feel more relaxed and informal, which many prefer.

The downside to an open floor plan is that it can sometimes be too noisy and chaotic. If you opt for this type of remodel, make sure you have ample sound-dampening materials to help keep the noise level down.

2. Private Offices

If you prefer more privacy in your office space, then private offices might be the way to go.

Private offices are small, enclosed spaces that can be used for individual work or meetings with clients or employees. They offer more privacy than an open floor plan but allow for more collaboration since people can easily meet in a small space.

They can sometimes feel too isolating, so make sure you have plenty of other areas in your office where employees can socialize and collaborate.

3. Breakout Areas

Breakout areas are another popular office remodeling trend. These are usually informal and comfortable areas where employees can take a break from work, relax, and socialize. They can include couches, TVs, games, and other fun activities. They’re a great way to support staff, especially if you work in a stressful industry.

Breakout areas can also be used for collaboration, so if you have the space, you may want to consider creating a few different ones. For example, you could have a quiet area for individual work and a more lively area for group projects.

Ergonomics

4. Ergonomic Furniture

Ergonomic furniture is designed to be comfortable and supportive. It can help to reduce strain on the body and improve posture. This type of furniture is becoming increasingly popular in offices, as it can help to improve employee health and productivity.

If you’re considering an ergonomic office remodel, talk to a professional about the best way to implement it. You’ll want to ensure that all your employees have access to comfortable and supportive furniture.

5. Updated Flooring

Updating your office’s flooring is another excellent way to improve its look and feel. Replacing your current flooring can make a big difference if your existing flooring is dated or damaged.

There are many different types of flooring to choose from, so you’ll want to consider your options carefully by researching multiple carpeting and LVT flooring reviews. You should also consider how easy the flooring will be to clean and maintain.

6. Better Lighting

Poor lighting can cause various problems, including eye strain, headaches, and fatigue. If your office has fluorescent lighting, you may want to consider replacing it.

LED lighting is a great choice for office spaces because it’s natural and inviting. It also provides better light distribution, so everyone in the office can see clearly. LED lighting is also energy-efficient, so it can help save you money in the long run.

Colleagues in an office space
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Final Thoughts

These are just a few of the many office remodeling trends that you may want to consider. Updating your office can create a more enjoyable and productive workplace for your employees.

Research what would work best for your business, and check out all of the furniture, lighting, and LVT flooring reviews you can find before making any final decisions. Your employees will be happy you made the investment and will enjoy spending time in the office.

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Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work

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For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.

In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.

That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.

During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.

People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.

Create mutual learning opportunities.

After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”

Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:

We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.

Tap into the power of nostalgia.

Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.

Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.

Eat or cook together.

In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.

Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.

Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.

Plug into your local community.

Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”

Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”

On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.

In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.

Create virtual shared experiences.

Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:

  • If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
  • What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?

He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.

EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”

In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.” 

Make rest and renewal a team effort.

Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.

Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.

To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.

Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.

By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”

. . .

Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?

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How to Handle Office Gossip … When It’s About You

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Gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes. When it’s used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts, it can incite workplace drama. So what should you do if you find out a colleague has been gossiping about you? First, let the messenger of the gossip know you’ll be discussing it with the gossiping colleague. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace. Second, when you confront the person gossiping, focus first on the content of their gossip, rather than their method. If there’s merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback, and you also demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns. Finally, ask them for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself.

Imagine a colleague of yours, “Beth,” approaches you one day and tells you that “Gareth,” a relatively new member of your team, made disparaging comments about you to her — referring to you as a “lightweight who wouldn’t be in the job if not for getting hired before the company could attract those with credentials.”

Beth reports this in hushed tones, then adds, “He can’t know where you heard it, okay?” What should you do next?

As I’ve written about before, gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes:

  1. It can be a source of information for those who mistrust formal channels.
  2. It can serve as an emotional release for anger or frustration.
  3. It can be used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts

It’s this latter form that incites a lot of workplace drama. This kind of gossip is communication minus responsibility. It is a collusive counterfeit to problem solving. In the example above, someone is telling you that you’ve been gossiped about — and they’re using gossip as the vehicle to do so. They’re passing along information on condition of anonymity.

The most crucial moment in addressing gossip like this is not after you hear it, but when you hear it. In an ideal world, Beth would have informed Gareth in the moment that she would need to share the information with you, unless he was willing to do so himself. But given that didn’t happen, you as the subject must decide whether you will continue the gossip or invite responsible communication.

When you tacitly or explicitly agree to engage in gossip so you can get access to gossip about you, you become part of the problem. You also prevent yourself from taking the only kind of action that could lead to resolution: a candid and respectful dialogue that produces mutual understanding. The way you handle this moment — the instant you’re issued an invitation to participate in gossip — becomes crucial. Here are three things to do when someone else is gossiping about you.

Don’t listen if you can’t act.

I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to set a boundary with those who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in the direction of gossip, I politely stop the person and let them know that I’ll likely act on the information I’m given. This helps them understand that speaking implies responsibility and gives them an “out” to decide to keep the information to themselves.

In the situation above, Beth has already shared critical information. At this point, you could say, “Thanks for letting me know Gareth has concerns about me. I’ll be discussing that with him. I don’t feel a need to share your name, but he might guess you shared it.” If that makes her nervous, you should still hold your boundary. You might say, for example, “I’m going to address this with Gareth one way or another. If you want a day or so to let him know you shared it with me, you’re welcome to take that time.” If she chooses not to do so, you’re free to move forward.

Of course, the risk in this approach is that people will think twice before sharing gossip with you. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace.

Address the right issue first.

Next is the conversation with Gareth. A gossip episode like this involves two conversations: one about process and one about content.

Most people’s first instinct is to address the process problem — i.e., the fact that Gareth is talking negatively behind your back. You assume the content of the gossip in meritless and move to immediately confront what bothers you most: the inappropriate way he’s peddling his “fabrications.” A better way to proceed is to focus first on the content issue — Gareth’s apparent concerns about your competence — and not the “talking behind my back” issue.

Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation (even implicitly) as “Shame on you for talking behind my back,” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short, I need that feedback.” This approach helps in a number of ways. First, if there is merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback. Second, you transcend tit-for-tat reactions in a way that might prevent this from escalating into future personal conflict. And third, you demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns.

Don’t be deterred if the person starts by claiming misunderstanding or minimizing their statements. Reiterate your desire for feedback and urge them to be forthcoming about any concerns.

Discuss the process problem.

Only after you’ve explored the other person’s concerns can you productively hold them accountable for the indirect way their feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold them accountable for their bad behavior.

There is no guarantee that approaching gossip in this way will eliminate it. But it does guarantee that you become part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

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