Catcher in the ROI: Bringing Back Workplace Mojo

Have you ever watched a friend or former colleague lose their mojo in their work? Their fire and brimstone replaced with dull malaise. Their struggle to summon the energy just to talk about their company. It’s like a deflated clown balloon – there’s still a smile, but it’s sad and misshapen.

After witnessing this condition a lot lately, and having fallen victim to malaise in my own life, I started thinking about how to protect against it. Whatever I do next I want to create a culture of meaning, where people can stay challenged, alive and on their game – avoiding the death march of working with people they don’t trust or like, on a problem they can’t stand.

prison yard - Version 2

And I think you can do it without burning people out. I’m no longer in my selfish 20’s with nothing but time on my hands, so the challenge is to create a place where people are on fire, but can still maintain close relationships with friends and families and achieve equal or better financial success (except for any employees in their 20’s – they should be pulling all-nighters).

While many people will dismiss this thinking as the ramblings of a sun-burned ex-CEO too long out of the chair, I’m convinced there is a path that is both authentic and practical for achieving the proverbial “marathon, not a sprint.” Something between naive, feel-good HR sound bites and salty business advice with no magic.

The underlying question: Is great work culture solely a by-product of unbridled success, or does success come from great culture? Is it possible to see a return on investment (ROI) from investing in collective meaning that pays dividends throughout the life of the organization?

In pursuit of this work culture nirvana, I came up with the following personal tenets for my next gig. Taken individually, most of these points are about as original as an NBC sitcom plot, but together, they serve an important role in defining my next organization.

  1. Start with Purpose. Even if you’re not curing cancer, find a way to connect day-to-day activities to improving lives and helping people. Ensure colleagues understand the larger, human story behind what they’re doing. Great companies not only help the world, but provide a context in which the employees can become great in the process.

  2. Win. Pizza Fridays and foosball tables are useless if you’re not beating goals and winning. Too many companies are busy looking inwardly to understand their “culture” instead of focusing on the biggest contributor to that culture: success.

  3. Money Follows, Never Leads. Stay away from people driven primarily by money. I don’t want colleagues looking for “a job,” nor does anyone want to be part of a company run by bloated egomaniacs looking to buy their third Ferrari.

  4. Openness. As you can probably tell from this blog, I don’t just “open the kimono.” I burn it and run naked and screaming through town. While there is a small percentage of information you just can’t share, being open and honest about the rest of it builds trust and forms a tight culture.

  5. Teamyness. Ensure people feel connected and fired up, and that they’re supporting each other. Monitor. Hire diverse people, but ensure their values match up with the company’s, and be quick to kick out those who don’t further these goals (something like Willy Wonka’s golden egg machine for employees).

  6. Make ‘em Feel Wanted. At their core, people want to be accepted and valued for who they are. Celebrate the uniqueness of each person, even if that uniqueness includes stuffing their office with Charles in Charge posters.

  7. Celebrate Success: Some of my best memories are from victory celebrations. It’s rare in life to have those home-run moments after high school. Find ways to give people the chills because of what they’ve pulled off.

  8. Give Back. Connect work life back to the community as a whole (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on this one).

This pledge is easier to pull off in the early days when you still have a small, collaborative team. It gets much harder as a company is successful and scales. All the more reason it needs to be part of the fabric (values, mission, goals, tools, conversations) of the business from day one.

Ironically, in thinking through this problem, it dawned on me that helping those superstars who have lost their mojo is a source of meaning for me. Like Holden Caulfield’s eponymous metaphor where he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” to save children from the pain of adulthood, I find myself wanting to help people avoid a meaningless existence in the workplace and create the context for them to come alive again. I guess that’s the air in my clown balloon.