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Laugh, Cry Your Way to a Great Culture

Creating a great company culture doesn’t have to be serious work all the time. It can be funny business, too.

October 2, 2013

Mike Prokopeak, Workforce's editorial director, left, talks with Ed Frauenheim and an attendee at Workforce Live in New York.

Creating a great company culture doesn’t have to be serious work all the time. It can be funny business, too.  

I learned as much at the recent Workforce Live conference in New York, where executives from communications firm Peppercomm talked about their comedy training program. Peppercomm’s presentation at our event on “Becoming an Employer of Choice” was one of several eye-opening, stick-to-your-ribs sessions that morning.

Humor has been central to Peppercomm for the past several years. CEO Steve Cody was pursuing a hobby as a stand-up comedian when he noticed he was becoming a better leader in his day job. It had to do with the way comics have to listen to and trust the audience, and the way authenticity is crucial to telling a funny story. So he made comedy a crucial element at Peppercomm. He asked his comedian mentor, Clayton Fletcher, to become the firm’s “chief comedy officer.” Everyone now gets trained in stand-up comedy and improvisation. Seeing peers go up on stage to perform spurs people to pull for each other. Vulnerability becomes a strength, as Fletcher puts it.
On the strength of self-deprecation, Peppercomm recently ranked as the best place to work in New York City. That led to a new motto, Cody told the Workforce Live audience: “We have nowhere to go but down.”

As funny as the Peppercomm guys were, they might have been upstaged by, of all people, an expert on employee testing. Jana Fallon, Prudential’s vice president of talent, has a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology. But she joked with the audience that she wasn’t there to analyze them. On a more serious note, she called attention to a number of assumptions about assessments used in hiring: They are easy to fake, they repel candidates, and you can get one-size-fits-all tests. Not true, she said.
By inserting carefully crafted assessments into the recruiting process, Fallon and Prudential have made hiring more efficient and hiked productivity by 12 percent.

That’s not a giant number. But, as Fallon said, “Who wouldn’t take that?”

Indeed. Another memorable session from Workforce Live was also about results — and getting them fast. Sandy Ogg, operating partner at private-equity firm Blackstone, talked about how his company and others in the private equity industry have moved past the days of “strip it and flip it” —simply cutting costs at acquired companies and selling them.

Now, it’s about making a company better, Ogg said. And doing so in the course of five years or less. Key to such upgrades is leadership, Ogg argued. “Get big people into big jobs,” he said.

“Think big, act small, move fast,” he added. “Show the organization is going somewhere.”

While Ogg offered a recipe for top-down transformation, we also heard about bottom-up change. Stacy Henry, director of learning at information management firm Iron Mountain, told the tale of a peer coaching program for front-line workers. The program marked an attempt to cut down on errors and establish more consistent operations at a company that had acquired some 250 firms since the mid-1990s.

Henry succeeded in lobbying for certified peer coaches to deliver the training, rather than managers or learning professionals. Three years later, the results indicate the Sentinel program has served its goal of acting as a lookout for the company. Attrition in the transportation division dropped from 40 percent to 15 percent. Workers’ compensation claims have fallen by some $7 million. And errors in handling customer documents have dropped by roughly 80 percent.

Henry concluded by highlighting a particular employee, “Chris,” who had one foot out the door prior to Sentinel. But he heard about the program, applied and won a spot as a peer coach. Now he’s a rising star. He was just selected for a management development program where he will take Harvard Business School courses. Henry shared this testimonial from him: “I don’t think I’d be anywhere near where I am now if I hadn’t gone through the certified coaches certification program.”

It’s the kind of story that tugs at your heartstrings. At least it did mine — even made me a bit misty eyed.

But the Peppercomm guys were still there to crack jokes, and turn near-tears into guffaws. Did I mention that Peppercomm has gone from making comedy training a core part of its culture to a service it offers to clients? They’re laughing — all the way to the bank.

Workforce Live will be making appearances in Atlanta (Oct. 15) and Chicago (Oct. 29). Visit live.workforce.com to learn more and register.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce's associate editorial director. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.