The March Madness of Business

March 20, 2013
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller
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Do you enjoy your work?

Do the people you lead find their work meaningful and rewarding? After all, the average working American spends one-third of his or her time at a job. 

Shouldn’t we spend that precious time doing something rewarding?

Every year when March Madness rolls around, I am taken back to when we at Barry-Wehmiller first discovered the power of a simple game to change the culture of the team and the way the members felt about their work.

It was March 1997 and we had just acquired Hayssen (now BW Flexible Systems) in Greenville, SC. The first meeting on my agenda that day was with the Customer Service team. 

At that point no one recognized me so I was able to hang out by the coffee pot for a few minutes quietly observing the associates before the start of their shift. The NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament was in full swing and the associates were passionately discussing their teams, the office pool, how much money they were going to win, and so on. They were smiling and laughing; their body language showed that they were having fun. As the clock drew closer to the shift’s 8 a.m. start time, however, you could just see the fun draining from their bodies.

It made me think: Why can’t business be fun? Why do people work to make a living just so they can leave to have fun?

During the few short steps into the meeting room, I came up with a plan.

“Listen up, everyone,” I said. “We’re going to play a game and here’s how it’s going to work: the person who sells the most parts wins, and if the team makes its goal, the team wins. We’ll play this game every week.”

They had no idea what I was talking about—and neither did I since, inspired by their March Madness excitement, it just popped into my head. Together we decided to give it a try. The results from this simple game were astounding: the very next week, their orders increased 15 percent and stayed there! Even more dramatic, however, was the change in their feelings about their roles and their daily work that resulted from simply establishing goals to aim for and then celebrating their achievements.

As leaders, our responsibility is to define “winning” at work. When people are inspired to achieve, they almost always do so.  When people feel a sense of “winning” the dynamics of the environment change, and people begin to have fun.  The entire team culture changes.

Since that first simple game inspired by March Madness, we have rolled out motivation programs in 34 companies. We do it even before we close on an acquisition and, in 34 out of 34 times, we’ve seen a significant increase in our revenues.

In one instance, we brought the program to a customer service team of a newly-acquired $200 million company that had $100 million in aftermarket revenue. The team, however, was feeling beaten down, unmotivated and unappreciated  We offered them this: the top seller each week gets $100 and if the team makes its goal, everyone on the team gets $100. Their sales went from $714,000 a week to $763,000 a week immediately!

People have an incredible capacity to respond to leadership. You don’t need to change the people, you need to change your leadership of the people. The problem in America is not the American worker; the problem in America is the absence of true leaders. Through these simple games and motivation programs, we have seen unbelievable results from ordinary people–because they felt inspired rather than managed.

The simple lessons learned from these games are the foundation of our culture today.  When we acquire new organizations that face the need to change, we know that the future of the business is in the hands of these people.  They simply need the right leadership.

Over the years I have asked customer service team members how these programs made them feel. One replied, “Well, my daughter is getting married, but she has champagne taste and a beer budget. With these extra earnings, I’m going to be able to give her a nicer wedding.”

Another team member shared “One Friday night when I knew we had made it, I called my husband and said, ‘Tonight, I’m buying. I’m taking you out to dinner.’” She was immensely proud of her accomplishment.

Another team member, who had been with the company for more than 30 years, offered this story. “My 91-year-old mother lives with me. She isn’t up when I go to work so I go home at lunch to see her. My mother and I have talked about this program a great deal. The other day when I went home at lunch, I walked in and asked her how she was feeling. Instead of answering me, her first question was, “Have you made your numbers yet?’”

Later, the VP of customer service at her company shared with me that she had really struggled before we rolled out the incentive program. Afterward, she became the No. 2 performer in the company. She was inspired to perform well.

Ordinary people motivated by simple games, goals and rewards can create extraordinary results.

The potential of our people is limited only by our ability as leaders to inspire them. What do you do to inspire the people you lead?


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