Why are Some of the Best Places to Work “All-That”?

Before Vince Thompson was a consultant committed to improving American managers, he worked at a place that had “on-the-couch time” every Friday at 4 p.m.

“We cracked out a couple cases of beer and chips, everybody talked about the week, their department, what they feel thankful for,” Thompson says. “It was a ritual that marked the end of the workweek and beginning of the weekend.”

It helped make Thompson and his peers feel like they were more than just pieces of a machine. Thompson’s big on doing what it takes to make your company the place to be. In his book, Ignited: Managers, Light up Your Career for More Power, More Purpose and More Success (Financial Times Prentice Hall, March 2007, $25.99), Thompson tells the story of Elias Pushner, vice president of online media at Universal McCann Advertising Agency in Los Angeles when he was just 29 years old.

Pushner instituted what he called the “Tipping Point” awards, named for Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name. Pushner’s awards recognized his team members for all the small things they did that made a big impact. Recognition, celebration, telling everyone about someone’s great move – those actions make a great manager who creates a great place to work, Thompson says.

“Management’s a really hideous job, and it’s easy to fall off-kilter,” he says. “But managers are the most important people in the workplace” because they are the connection between customers, vendors and execs. “I’m a big advocate for creating environments that are successful and fun and happy. It all starts with having trust … by being authentic, being who you are and not trying to sell to your people.”

As CEO of Optimus Solutions, a 420-person IT solutions provider in Atlanta, Ga., Mark Metz does just that. He doesn’t call meetings at 6 p.m., when people want to be home for family dinner. He doesn’t demand that his employees work on weekends or late into the night. And every October, Metz invites his workers to bring their children to the office for trick-or-treating, “which is obviously much safer and more productive for the kids,” he says. “They fill up a whole bag of candy in 20 minutes. It’s also just a way to have the parents show us their kids.”

People like working for Metz because he recognizes that they’re more than just workers helping his bottom line. A job is a job, he says, and there are hundreds of companies that do what his does. What keeps them at Optimus Solutions, he says, is that it’s a better place to work.

Want to transform your workplace from just-so to all-that? Here are some tried-and-true tips.

  • Start a suggestion box. Metz has one online, and he personally responds to every comment within 24 hours.
  • Walk the walk. Transform a physical space that’s heavy on closed-in work stations into an open space with a community atmosphere – even if it means bulldozing the interior of a big building to achieve the right atmosphere.
  • Do company parties the right way. For the fifth anniversary of Metz’s company, he threw a 1970s party and everybody, from execs to secretaries, wore polyester, bell-bottoms and shirts open-to-there. “It puts everybody at the same level,” Metz says. “There’s no bureaucracy or layers of management when you do events like that.”
  • Hire for personality, not credentials or degrees. Look at the resume, then ignore it. Take notes on the back. Choose people who are motivated, caring and nice; you can always teach someone new skills.
  • Institute regular anonymous peer review, and take the results seriously.
  • Ask your employees what they think. Are they happy with their boss? Pay OK? Focus more on atmosphere and environment questions than sales, moneymaking or other bottom-line issues.
  • Make employees accountable for results – not hours on the clock. Francie Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances, Inc., in Columbia, Md., makes it clear what her employees need to achieve, “but as to where the work is done or what time of day, that’s left up to the individual,” she says.
  • If you notice turnover in a particular position, cut it. Dalton did that when she had a hard time retaining someone to do a solitary job that required a lot of phone-calling and data entry. She eliminated the position, and divided that necessary work among the rest of the team.\
  • Contribute to commuting costs.
  • Promote from within whenever possible.
  • Offer career guidance for your employees, discussing what they want to do, not where you see them going.
  • Listen, listen, listen. “Make sure you have consistent communication time with people individually,” Thompson says. “You’re listening to them on an individual basis.”

Although assuming anything can be a risky proposition in business, there’s one assumption that Thompson believes is vital.

“Ninety-eight percent of the problems that I have faced are people-problems – people not communicating with each other or being challenged by each other,” he says. “Good managers and good leaders listen and communicate.

“You assume best intent.”

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a frequent contributor to StartupNation.

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