A couple weeks ago I attended a reunion for a hotel company I used to work for, 12 years ago. It was kind of like a high school reunion; some of us hadn’t seen each other in ten or fifteen years, and we introduced new spouses, talked about where we were working now, and secretly noticed who had gained weight and who looked older.
Sounds dismal, right? But it wasn’t. In fact, it was one of the most invigorating experiences I’ve had in a long time.
To start with, people flew in from all over the country for this reunion, many of them traveling on their own dime. How many companies have you worked for that would inspire people to do that long after the company was no longer in existence? There is really only one such company on my resume, and it’s this one.
We watched hours of video footage from our old conferences and meetings. No one got bored. All of us wallowed in the good memories we shared. The truth is, we had more fun working at that company than I’ve ever had since, or are ever likely to have again. As the former CEO said when he stood up to make a speech, “We can’t recreate the experience and we won’t try. But we can relive the memories.”
In the couple weeks since, I’ve thought about what made it so engaging to work there. Much of it came from the charisma, talent and personality of our chief operating officer, but I believe we can identify some organization-wide elements:
- Clarity about the mission: We all knew we were there to make those hotels cash flow, and that we needed to do it through smart management practices and delivering great guest service
- Clarity about the values and the culture: Our culture was about the autonomy and decision-making capability of our managers. We didn’t believe in letting our managers be puppets on a string for the corporate or franchise staff to maneuver. We defined ourselves in opposition to some of the leading branded hotel companies, where we joked that you had to have an SOP that spelled out how to get a hall pass to go to the bathroom.
- Work hard play hard: It helped that we all liked each other a lot. We did everything together, both work and play.
- Celebrate every individual for what s/he brings to the table: Our COO was a man who knew how to celebrate people’s differences in a special way. He always remembered little things about each of us, and he would celebrate those things through mass communication emails and practical jokes around the office. He had nicknames for each of us, and when someone got promoted or transferred he loved to put out an email to the whole company that praised that person’s strengths and joked (in a positive way) about their hobbies or personal interests. Mine, for instance, was my love of heavy metal music. He called me “Anna rocks” and played heavy metal music around the office sometimes. At our annual awards conferences every year, he would get photos of each award winner and find out what their favorite song was, and when they came up on stage to receive their award the music would blare and their photo would fill the screen, as if they were walking onstage at an Academy Awards ceremony.
- A organization-wide sense of humor: This came from our COO too. He was a lover of practical jokes. His favorite one was to get on someone’s laptop while they were away from their desk and send funny emails to someone else. He’d get on the finance director’s laptop and send a note to the operations team telling them that they were spending too much money on Mickey Mouse key chains. Then he’d get on a director of human resources computer and send an email to the finance director saying that the Mickey Mouse key chain reprimands would have to stop immediately. There was no end to how mischievous he could be.
- An environment that says it’s OK to be who you are: By celebrating the little things about each person, with a sense of humor and play, our COO told us it was OK for us to be who we were. And we took that very, very seriously.
We may not be able to go back, but we can certainly learn from great experiences in the past. And we can continue to celebrate them too—rumor has it we’ll be having another reunion in the California wine country in a couple years!