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Wild and Crazy Guys: How Entrepreneurs Build Culture

Ray Smilor, President, Beyster Institute for Entrepreneurial Employee Ownership

Some entrepreneurs remind me of "Two Wild and Crazy Guys," a skit that Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd reprise occasionally on "Saturday Night Live." The silly, funny, unconventional things they do and say make them unique and irrepressible. We laugh at them and with them; we may shake our heads at their antics; we may be surprised by some of their comments. But we also recognize that they live in their own world with their own outlook on life. Entrepreneurs do something like this to create the culture of their organizations.

Entrepreneurs may seem crazy to people on the outside looking in, but if they're crazy, they're crazy like foxes. Out of their surprising antics and counterintuitive actions come unique and strong cultures that serve to inspire and motivate employees and customers.

Wild and Crazy Incentives

Entrepreneurs who are not afraid to do apparently wild and crazy things not only create powerful cultures, they leave their own inimitable mark on their organizations. Some examples:

  • Traveling band. Dennis Garberg of the Sunflower Group, a promotional services supplier, has created a "Nitty Gritty Dirt Band" with employees. He plays lead (and only) harmonica. The band travels to the company's best customers and entertains them with music and barbecue to show appreciation for their businesses. The employees say they get a real kick out of seeing their president and CEO rock-and-roll on the harmonica, even though Dennis knows he looks a little silly and says he is not really very good. So, why does he do it? To encourage what he likes to call "reasonable risk-taking" in the company and to help create an environment that's both participatory and productive.
  • "Glammy" Awards. Connie Suss and her partners run the Bijin Salon and Day Spa, a wellness and beauty center. In addition to events for employees like Hat Day, Wig Day and Spring Madness Day, she orchestrates an annual "Glammy" award presentation. The evening celebrates the company's success by giving employees amusing prizes for everything from superior phone answering to giving great massages. In addition to recognizing the special attributes of employees, the awards reinforce all the values that Connie and her partners believe are critical to success. Their goal with events like this is to create an environment in which employees can pursue "Wow!" reactions on a daily basis.
  • Golden Bell/Magic Bus. Drew Hiss wants his employees at Paydata, a payroll processing service, to know that he values them. He arranges summertime fish-fry dinners and guided fishing trips for them. His other wild and crazy ideas include the "Golden Bell" that's rung in the office whenever an employee gets a new order or kudos from a customer. The bell rings a lot. And the "Magic Bus" appears now and then to take employees to a special lunch or even to a bowling alley, as a way to thank them for their efforts.
  • Jeopardy game. Tray Vedock, head of SKC Communication Products, a distributor of telecommunication equipment, loves to play a Jeopardy-type incentive game with employees to encourage a proactive attitude and increase sales. His prizes are unusual. The champion of one game won a month's car payment. I'd like to get into that game! It tells Tray's employees that a positive attitude and higher performance go together in his company.
  • Day trips. Michael Carter, president of Carter Broadcasting Group, surprises employees with day trips. One of the latest was to a local casino where employees were put in teams, given some cash and told to work together to maximize their winnings. His philosophy is, "Together we win; together we lose." He wanted to reinforce the importance of that philosophy in his organization.
  • Fire walk. Jeff Smith runs i2b Labs, a dot.com incubator. He gave employees in one of his companies the astonishing opportunity to walk over hot coals barefoot—and led the way himself. Even those who were hesitant at first managed to get across. The event not only helped build relationships and enhance trust among his employees, it also created a memorable life experience. People left believing that if they could walk barefoot across hot coals, they could do anything!

The Power of Culture

Entrepreneurs in successful companies create cultures that have meaning for employees. The meaning is a reflection of the entrepreneur's own values and beliefs. By daring to be a bit wild and crazy, by experimenting with events and activities, you'll learn what works and what doesn't in reinforcing the culture that you want to create.

At the same time, the wild and crazy things you do to enhance culture form the mythology of the company. They become part of the story that communicates what's important around here and how people ought to act at work.

Entrepreneurs and employees in growth companies often tell me they want to be involved in an organization that's "fun." Entrepreneurs want to build a culture they can enjoy, and employees want to work in a culture that's enjoyable to be part of. By being wild and crazy, entrepreneurs can achieve both.

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