A culture of joy in the workplace can only be achieved with the right level of human connection and positive goal-setting. This is exactly what Menlo Innovations did so that they can bring happiness to every software they design. Steve Farber is joined by the company’s CEO and Chief Storyteller, Richard Sheridan, to share how they implemented a joyful workplace culture by having everyone work in pairs. Richard talks about the challenges when their team was forced to work separately because of COVID-19’s virtual setup. He also shares the inspiring story of a 180-year old life insurance company to prove that the culture of joy is not only reserved for small or medium-sized businesses.
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Creating A Business Culture Of Joy With Richard Sheridan
I invite you to come along and take a look at what we do at the Extreme Leadership Institute at ExtremeLeadership.com. To listen, watch on video, read a transcript of this episode, or do all of the above, you can go to SteveFarber.com/Podcast. You’ll find that all there and subscribe too. That would be cool. My guest, I am joyful to say, is Richard Sheridan. Richard has become a world-famous thought leader and speaker. He comes from a category of a guy who does the work. There are folks like myself who write books and speak. There are folks like Richard who run companies. Richard is the CEO and Chief Storyteller at Menlo Innovations. He’s a successful entrepreneur. He’s written two best-selling books. The first being Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love and then the second book, Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear. You’re seeing why this is going to be a great conversation already.
Richard says that the joy in your organization is not just possible but essential in all the ways that business people think of essential. In other words, essential to profitability, productivity and to every other measure of success that you have in place. Menlo Innovations is a custom software and consulting company that Richard cofounded in 2001. They’re in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since 2001, Menlo has received worldwide notice for its unique culture including recognition by Inc. Magazine as the most joyful company in America. You may want to start working on your resumes, folks.
Menlo has also been recognized by the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. That’s a special award for eleven straight years and has received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Freedom at Work from WorldBlu, as well as five Revenue Awards from Inc. Magazine. Now, people come from all around the world to visit Menlo and see what they do and how they do it. They’ve had 20,000 visitors in the past years. I imagine 2020 might have been slightly different with the pandemic and all, but people come to learn all about the company. Not just because they think it’s an interesting sociological study but because they would like to emulate it for themselves. Richard, thank you so much for being here. Welcome to the show.
It’s great to be here, Steve. Thanks for having me on your show.
I want to start at a high level. We’re not going to stay there very long, but I want you to give us a sense of what Menlo Innovations does. Tell us about the business, the market that you’re in, the number of people, just the basic statistics of the company.
We are a small software design and development firm. We design and build software for other businesses and with one crazy goal, which is joy. We want to delight the people we intend to serve. That is our purpose in life. The people we serve are not the ones who pay us for what we do. They are the end-users of the software we are creating. We created an entire system that allows us to produce that delight in the world for the people who use the work of our hearts, our hands and our minds every single day.
What kind of software, for example? That’s a pretty broad space.
It is and we play in a very wide version of it. We didn’t focus on a domain, technology, segment or industry. We chose to be generalists in many ways. We have ended up building the organ transplant information system for the University of Michigan Health System. We have done diesel motor diagnostic tools. We did the design for the heads-up display in the 2018 Lincoln MKX. We helped this solopreneur who runs all of the dog agility contests in the nation keep track of all these statistics related to people who run their dogs through hoops. We work in just about everything you can imagine because software is everywhere now. You can’t run a business without software. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, we decided if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it well.Genuine joy comes from serving others. Click To Tweet
You have about how many employees now?
We typically carry between 50 and 55 employees. That’s been our tradition for quite a number of years. We got a little smaller in 2020 because of the economic conditions we were hit with like everybody else, but we’re growing fast again.
The first word out of your mouth in describing the company is we wanted to build something that creates joy. Was that true from the very inception of the company or is that something you discovered along the way?
It’s a little bit of both. We started the business with this crazy idea that we were going to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology. I had plenty of it in my career, up to that point where I’d gone from a programmer, went into my career to VP of R&D for a tired old public company here in Ann Arbor. I didn’t want to be in the industry anymore. Yet it was the thing that was paying for my life. It was the thing that I had built an entire career around. I was trapped, scared, frustrated, and I thought there’s got to be a better way. It was our mutual friend, Tom Peters, that started to paint a picture for me that there is a possibility of producing excellence in everything we do.
I was determined to find it. It was a long journey. It wasn’t an immediate click moment, at least not at the beginning. It turned out it was later. We formed Menlo with this idea back in 2001. Interestingly enough, hiding for me almost like a gift and this was a mission statement that came out of these two fingers. We said at the bottom of our mission statement, “Our goal is to return joy to one of the most unique endeavors mankind has ever undertaken in the invention of software.” We never focused on that per se. It was there. It was always waiting. It wasn’t until Simon Sinek’s Start With Why Movement came along where someone said, “Rich, you do this.” I listened to it. I said, “No, not quite.”
We do 1 to 3 tours a day at Menlo even during pandemic times. They are virtual now. It makes our reach a little bit wider than even normal. This group came in and I said, “I’m going to start with why.” I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say and I looked at our mission statement. I thought about suffering. I said, “I want everybody to think about suffering when they think of Menlo.” I don’t know. That’s probably not it. Finally, I see this phrase down at the bottom.
I turned to the group and I said, “Welcome to Menlo. You come to a place that’s very intentional. I created a culture focused on the business value of joy.” They were like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Pretend you’re bringing a project to us.” Let’s say we were going to build software for you and pretend for some weird cultural reason, that room of people behind me, half of them have joy and the other half don’t, which half would you want working on your project? They said, “We’d want the joyful half, of course.”
I said, “Why? What difference would it make? Why would you care?” ”They’d be more productive, engaged and produce better results. They care more about the outcomes.” I’m like, “You’re with me that there’s tangible business value to joy.” I said, “Now I’m going to give you a tour and show you how we do what we do. I can draw a short, straight line back to the joy we intend to create in the world, which is to delight the people we intend to serve.” That was like a decade into the company about several years ago and it changed everything.
First of all, I’m intrigued that a guy who has been in the software industry for so long types with two fingers, but that’s another story. What I’m hearing you say is from the inception, you had a mission to alleviate suffering, which is a huge statement. It wasn’t until ten years in where it became conscious and intentional. The way that you do that is by pursuing the creation of joy. You were already giving tours. I was under the impression that people were coming to tour Menlo because of that joyful culture that you created, but the tours are already going on, so why were they visiting you way back when?
There’s a deep, dark secret in the technology world that most are unwilling to acknowledge. Software projects fail at an alarming rate. If you think back to when Obama became president and he talked about launching Healthcare.gov, then he had to come before the nation in utter disaster and say, “Don’t worry. We have people working 24/7 to get back on track.” I will tell you when anybody talks about a software team working 24/7, they’re not talking about three shifts. They’re talking about the same human beings. This is the deep dark secret in the software industry. We are a death march culture that regularly produces. Think back to it, you probably are old enough to remember the blue screens of death coming out of Microsoft. That was simply accepted. Poor quality was an accepted practice. If you live in that world where every day you are reminded dozens of times a day that you did inferior work in the past, that is suffering.
Everybody saw that we had created something different that didn’t produce those results. They wanted to know, how did you do it? Most of the tours were about our methods, our processes, and the principles behind them. When we turned up the dial one more time, which it’s always been there, we were just never explicit about it. People started asking me, “Where does the joy come from for you, Rich?” I will tell you, it’s about serving others.
You’re bringing together two things that way too often people considered to be mutually exclusive pursuits. Your initial superpower as an organization sounds like your systems and process. This pursuit of joy and the intentional creation of joy in your culture, and the way you work is not something that we typically put in the same category as the process. Either you’re a process person or you’re that touchy-feely, hoo-ha crap person. It’s either the systems are beautiful or the people are beautiful. Never the twain shall meet, but it sounds like you guys are the culmination of all those things.
The software industry like so many is built on the backs of heroes. Hero-based cultures, when things go wrong, people try and find someone to blame. Systems-based culture, when things go wrong, if the leaders are reflected, they will say, “How did our systems allow this to happen?” Systems are very different from bureaucracy, which is where most people get trapped in systems. We need to write big thick binders. We need everybody to follow this process. That’s soul-crushing bureaucracy. I compare the systems that work in a human organization to the same kind of forces that are working in an airplane, the forces of lift, weight, thrust and drag. If we get those in the right balance, we can create a very simple, efficient, high-speed aircraft that will get off the ground reliably and safely every single day.
It seems pretty obvious that once people hear it, like you said, “Doesn’t joy produce productivity?” They know it themselves. It’s a matter of making it conscious for people.
A lot of people think something like joy, a woohoo word, is a zero-sum game. I’ve had people said, “How much does joy cost?” I’m like, “Do you really think there’s a cost to this? When the Gallup statistics say that 60% or 70% of people for the last fifty years have been disengaged at work, do you think there’s a cost to joy?”
The implication there is it doesn’t cost you anything. Also, it is not something that happens magically. It happens through what you do and how you do it. Tell us a little bit about that. What are the things that contribute to that joyful experience for people?
I’m a firm believer that, as Deming said many years ago, all anyone asks for is to have pride in what they do, to take pride in their work. It’s all we want from our work. We want to feel when we go home at the end of a good, hard, long day of work that we got meaningful things done. We had a chance to work with pride, that we felt good about what we did. I will tell you again, my industry is robbed of that almost every single day. We work crazy overtime hours. We often work in chaotic conditions. We end up getting nothing done and we deliver crap to the world. That isn’t any fun. There is no joy in that whatsoever. We took this different approach, and some of the reasons people want to come to see us is because of what’s so different.
For example, most of the stuff I’m going to describe is not unique to Menlo. What’s probably unique to Menlo is they’re all fit together nicely into a total system. We’ve been doing them consistently for many years. Most people take some piece of ours. They might run it for a little while then they give up. We’re very consistent. We’re very intentional about this. For example, let’s go down one path that people are fascinated with. Everyone at Menlo works in pairs, two people, one computer, sharing a keyboard and a mouse.
In pandemic times, we’re doing this remotely, but they’re working on the same task at the same time all day long. The pairs are assigned and we switch them every five working days. The benefits you get out of doing this are we could spend the rest of the hour talking about the benefits of that simple construct. What it gives us is an ability to scale a team up, a team down, onboard people in a way that is mind-blowingly simple. It also allows you to build a team an inch a day while getting real work done.
Was there a specific event or was there something that happened that facilitated you guys saying, “Why don’t we work in pairs?” I’ve never heard that before. Where did that idea come from?We don't have to be apart socially in order to do our work. Click To Tweet
You have heard of it before. You just don’t think about it enough. Because most of us are so familiar with pairing, it just passes us by. For example, if you were in first class on an airplane so you could have a peek into the cockpit, and you notice that one of the seats was empty. They closed the door to the airplane and you’re like, “Wait.” The pilot comes out, “Ladies and gentlemen, my copilot has called in sick now, but don’t worry I got this.” You’re getting off the airplane right then and there.
There are lots of places we pair people, and lots of places we should pair people. We just happened to do it when we’re creating software. The idea sprang forth out of a book I read in 1999 by a guy named Kent Beck. He had articulated a new way of developing software that he dubbed extreme programming. I read the book and pairing was one construct in there. His premise was pretty simple. He looked back over his own career. He was probably nearly as tortured as mine. He said, “There were moments when it wasn’t always bad. There were moments when I did good work.” He started to catalog when were those.
In one of them, he said, “When we had a deadline to miss, I’d go grab, Steve. I’d say, ‘Steve, come here. You’ve got to help me with this and we worked on it together.’ It was the best code I ever wrote. It was the most solid code. It didn’t need any maintenance because I had this other guy with me who was asking me questions about everything I typed.” At that moment he said, “If it works in a crisis, might it work all the time? What if we turn the dial up to ten and just did it all the time?” I read that and my brain melted just like yours is now. I’m going to cut my productivity in half for some ethereal gain? No, but I tried it and it worked. It was dramatic. I thought I was solving these many problems. I ended up solving these many problems, just with that simple construct.
What happens when you have a pair that just doesn’t work?
As our team will say because you can ask them on tours, they’ll look at you and say somewhat sheepishly, “It’s only for 40 hours, Steve.” What’s interesting too is our industry in my business is filled with introverted programmers. People would believe, “Programmers don’t like to work like this. I’ve seen it. They’re working quite dark in cube farms. They got headphones on. They come in at weird hours.” Can you imagine what would happen if we took a bunch of introverts, put them in sensory deprivation chambers, cut them off from all other humanity, and then later lament that they lack interpersonal skills?
It’s one of those typical things in life. What if we practiced interacting with another human being all day long? What if we learned some specific skills to work through conflict when we have it? A lot of people ask me just like you did, “What are you doing if two people don’t get along?” I say, “What do you do?” I at least know it right away. You might not know it for months because they’re fighting passively-aggressively over email and you don’t see it. We see it right up front, out in the open.
Have you seen personality changes in people? I’m not going to say transferring from introvert to extrovert. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Have you seen introverts become more comfortable socially and develop some of those interpersonal skills?
There’s a young man in our team named Chris. Great example. He was on the tour with me. He was remarking his own transformation having come to Menlo. A lot of times people ask, and Chris is a good example of this, they said, “Did you work like this before you came to Menlo?” He said, “No. I was in this hermetically sealed cubicle and no interaction with other human beings.” They said, “How did it feel?” He said, “It was so uncomfortable at first. I’d never go back. The progress I’ve made in my own life, being comfortable, even being on a tour, leading a conversation, teaching another human being, presenting to customers. All of those skills, we work on with a pair partner, so it’s safe. They’re not going to let me fail. They’re going to support me when I’m struggling.” It has been a remarkable transformation. I don’t think it was a personality change. I think Chris is the same person he was when he began. This is a skillset change over time because he gets to practice it every day.
When looking at some of the videos that I’ve seen about Menlo and learning the company’s story a little bit more, quite a few things struck me as being unusual. One is it has become popular particularly in the technology world and the high-tech companies where people are encouraged to bring their pets to work, for example. You guys take it to a different level. I think you know what I’m talking about. We’re not talking about pets here. We’re talking about babies. Talk a little bit about what that looks like at Menlo.
This falls into a broad category of Menlo on, “Let’s run the experiment.” Several years ago, Tracy had little Maggie. That was her second child. She took off for maternity leave. We had an exciting new project just ready to start. Tracy was yearning to come back and be part of it because being part of the first stage of a project is just the best place to be. She wanted to be there. She came to me and she said, “Rich, I’m looking forward to getting back to work.” I said, “Great. I can’t wait to have you back. When can you be here?” She said, “It’s about that. The daycare we planned to put Maggie’s at fault. There’s a problem here in Ann Arbor. Her grandparents lived too far away to help. My husband and I don’t know what to do.”
At that moment, there was a screaming match in my brain that Tracy never heard. You know how it’s like the dark voice, bright voice. The dark voice whispers, “Don’t you dare say what you’re about to say. HR will shoot you. The lawyers will freak. The insurance policies will go through the roof.” The bright voice whispers, ”It’s your company. You can do whatever you want. You don’t even have an HR Department,” which was true and is still true. I looked at Tracy. I said, “Bring her in.” She said, “What?” I said, “Bring her to work.” She said, “All day?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Every day?” I said, “Sure.” This was not an offer to build a daycare. The baby’s going to be with mom. She looked around this big open room because we work out in an office with no cubes, offices, walls or doors. She said, “Rich, where will I put her?” I said, “Tracy, she’s three months old. She’s not going anywhere. Put her on the floor, a bassinet, Pack ‘n Play, a high chair or whatever, put her in the front pack.”
She said, “What if she makes a fuss?” I said, “Here it’s like a noisy restaurant.” She said, “Come on, Rich. You’ve raised three girls. You know what those big baby fusses are like. The team will hate me. It’ll disrupt the whole environment.” At that moment, I think I grew up a little bit as a leader. I said to her, “Tracy, you’re the mom. I trust you. You’ll do the right thing. We’ll work it out together. Let’s run the experiment.” We are on Menlo baby number 25 for the last several years. It has been a wonderful experiment. If we had tried to think it through, if we formed a committee to write a policy, we would have never done it. We just tried it. If it didn’t work, then it would have been a failed experiment. We need those too, but it worked wonderfully.
Do you put the babies in pairs?
It’s funny you mention that because we have tried a number of different things along the way. We’ve learned a lot about babies in the workplace. We wondered how will the team respond to this and the team responded wonderfully. The team started signing up for, “It’s my turn to hold the baby” list. Our customers start to behave better when we brought babies to meetings. They don’t yell at you. They don’t swear at you. We found out we can even pair the babies. I can tell you we found out that it works for introverted babies and extroverted babies.As humans, we need to give ourselves space, especially after a challenging time like a pandemic. Click To Tweet
If you’re reading this and not watching it on video, we’re looking at a picture of two babies sitting side by side. One is in a little rocker chair and the other is in a walker with colorful toys.
This has been Menlo’s tradition for all these years. This is Josiah and Flynn, and his little girl and Lisa’s second little boy that she brought into the office. It has been amazing.
Tracy brought in baby number one thirteen years ago. Does Tracy still work for you?
She doesn’t. She moved down about four years ago.
Does Maggie still come in?
We still interact with both Tracy and Maggie.
Where I’m going with this question is I wonder if you’ve ever stopped and in thinking about the future, wondering when the first Menlo grandbaby is going to be coming in.
We’ve thought about that. I’ve actually brought my grandchild.
I mean a child of a child.
I agree. People often ask us, “Where are you getting your people from?” That’s a big issue in the software industry. I said, “We’re running a slow, complex cloning experiment right now.” It takes about eighteen years to figure out if this will work. We keep in touch. We’ll see what happens.
Let me ask you a question about culture as it relates to these times that we’ve all been challenged with over the last several months. By all appearances, Menlo and from the way you described how you work in pairs, the physical environment of the place, the tours, the babies, it sounds very much like an in-person, all under the same roof, sitting in the same room, breathing the same oxygen culture. We could agree that in general with human beings, it is easier to create a culture of joy or love when people are together because they get to know each other more. They’re working together more. They learn about each other’s lives. They tell each other’s stories, etc. How has it been for you guys in the days of the pandemic? At first, I would imagine for a lot of the software engineers, it’s like back to the cave. That was the fear. What does that look like for you over the last several months?
The week of March 16th, 2020 was like a Fire Drill. Get out of the building. Get out as quick as you can. You can imagine the environment that we were used to for several years probably would have killed us all in a month. We work shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jaw, sharing keyboard and mouse, passing around a plastic biking helmet to run standup meetings. We’re touching the same things. We’re breathing the same air as each other. It would have been dangerous. We had to get out just like everybody else did. Because the principles and practices were married together and welded together for so long, the question is would they survive the parting? I worried. I was panicky. I didn’t know how this would go. The team responded way faster than I did.
They kept pairing. We had been remote pairing with client people for the last few years continuously. We’d never done it to scale all of Menlo. We’ve never done it with all Menlonians, but it just worked. We do the same thing. We pair just like you and I are paired right now. This is the way we pair at Menlo. They usually have two screens. The code that they’re working on is on the left screen. Their pair partner is on the right screen. They say it’s a little easier now because they don’t have to keep looking at the partner to their side. They can look straight ahead. I think there’s less neck pain at Menlo right now than there had been over the years, but it just worked.
The practices were in place. The principles were in place. They were able to adapt them with technology very effortlessly. The team still would claim they miss each other. They miss being in the room together. They miss the camaraderie and the human energy, but they have found ways also to find each other. You and I had to establish a link in order to be on this show together. What our team does is they have to do this with each other every morning as they come together with their pair partners, then they publish that link in a little shared spreadsheet with the rest of the team. If anybody wants to jump in on you and me, they just click on the link, “There’s Rich and Steve. Click here.” All of a sudden, we’ve got four people in the group. That way, they just made themselves as accessible as possible just like they were when they were in the room. It’s been cool to watch them adapt to all of this.
Whereas a lot of people who have had to work at home for the first time were having to deal with feelings of separation and isolation. It seems like you guys superseded a lot of that because the nature of your work is you don’t work in isolation.
We never have and we don’t yet to this day. I think that’s been a big plus for us. I won’t say that the pandemic has come without its toll on our team’s mental health as well. It’s affected all of us. We’ve got still parents of young children, school-aged children trying to figure out how to balance that part of their lives, and not everybody had exactly this convenient place in their home to set up a home office versus everything else that’s going on in their homes. There has certainly been an adjustment. We’ve never embraced the term social distancing. We’ve embraced physical distancing. We don’t have to be apart socially in order to do our work.
You gave me a flashback. Back in the early days of the COVID, I got on my soapbox on social media one day and sent out a video about how we should not use the phrase social distancing. This is physical distancing. I then started hearing it pop up everywhere. You know how great ideas will pop up in several places simultaneously. It was interesting to watch that happen. What ironically has been true is that the virtual connection and the physical distance in a lot of people created a greater closeness, a greater connection between people because you’re sitting in each other’s homes.
You see their cats. You see their kids.
“I didn’t know you play the guitar. I didn’t know you have a cat. I didn’t know you were married.” At the same time, and I’ll speak for myself, there are things about this that I’ve enjoyed. I went for several months without putting on a pair of pants.
I wear a suit in the first keynote I do on a real stage in front of a live audience. I’m going to come out in a Zoom in shirt, shorts and slippers.
That is my uniform. I live in San Diego so I never have to put on pants. I wear my shorts when I go outside, gym shorts. I don’t think we call them gym shorts anymore. My point is that even with all the silver lining that we’ve been able to find in this, I find myself getting antsy to be out there again on a real stage with real people. A lot of people are pining for normalcy. Have you given some thought to what that future is going to look like for you guys as the glimmers get brighter, as the vaccinations are taking hold, etc.?
I’ve had my second vaccine already. I’m already starting to think about how I’m interacting in the world differently. Still being safe and all that, but these expectations are starting to change. I find myself wanting to focus our conversation on what do we do then? This has always been a temporary thing. We’ve forgotten that, but it’s always been temporary. What happens when we go back under the same roof, breathing the same oxygen, touching the same things? Have you given some thought to what this post-pandemic world should look like?
When all of this began in March 2020, there was that instantaneous cleaving from what I now call traditional Menlo for several years and then pandemic Menlo. It was such a jolt. For me, I know my thought consistently was eight weeks. We’ll be at this for eight weeks and then we’d just go back to the way it was. If it had been eight weeks. If this just fizzled out and it wasn’t what we thought it was going to be, the storm of the century wasn’t going to occur but it did, of course, we would have gone back exactly the way we were. It would have been so temporary. I don’t believe you can change human behavior for this long and not have a lasting effect. I believe two things about what I will now call post-pandemic Menlo.
Number one, it will not be the same as either version we’ve experienced over the first twenty years of our existence. There will be a third Menlo that emerges. Quite frankly, given how ill-prepared I was for the pandemic Menlo, my mind is wide open about where we go from here. I don’t know and I’m not even trying to guess because it will emerge just like pandemic Menlo emerged. I’m okay with that. I wasn’t okay with that a year ago. That was not my mind settling, “Please let us just go back to the way things were.” It’s not how I’m thinking about post-pandemic Menlo.Getting people to change is the hardest thing to do on planet earth. Click To Tweet
The other thing I think and I’m starting to see articles about this. We can’t assume it’s going to be easy just to go back. Even if it’s not the same, going back into a crowded restaurant, we’ve got Michigan Stadium here that packs 110,000 people on a football Saturday. Our brains have been rattled by being in close proximity to screaming people. As humans, we need to give ourselves some space and some time that whatever post-pandemic Menlo will look like, it will emerge over time and people will ebb and flow back and forth based on their comfort level, based on a lot of different things.
I know my mind is very different. For several years, I was a very big proponent of we’ll all be in the same room together, sitting shoulder to shoulder together. We will still be a proponent of that close collaborative teamwork, but I’m a much more open-minded person who says, “I’ve got to wait for the cable guy at home today. Is it okay if I work for a moment?” Our answer would be, “Absolutely. Why not?” Why would we force you into the office? We’ve made this work for over a year. It’ll be fine.
A little bit of an in-the-weeds question as to how you guys have adapted over the last twelve months. Have you invested in people’s workspaces at home? You mentioned everybody has two screens. Some people don’t have that. What have you done as far as that goes?
We’ve had to buy a lot more computers. There’s no question about it because people at Menlo were sharing a computer. It tripled now in some sense because your computer and my computer would actually tap into a computer back at the office. It’s one way to keep things very safe from a security standpoint. We’ve had to buy a lot more machines along the way in order to do this. We haven’t had anybody on the team asking to build an extension on their house or anything like that. I think people have just made it work. We’ve certainly had to buy a lot more computer equipment.
I had a vision of a Menlonian reading your comment and going, “That is not a bad idea.” The other thing that I’m sure you hear a lot is the culture that you’ve created at Menlo with a population of 55-60 people is a different challenge from a large organization. One of the things that I’ve noticed in the work that my team and I do is when we’re helping companies with their culture. Our work is about operationalizing love in the way that you do business, which is why this has been such a thrilling conversation to hear all the amazing things that you’re doing. We could call them different things, but they all live in the same neighborhood. Let’s just put it that way. It is easier to do that with small to midsize companies.
What we do isn’t easy. There’s a simple concept here, but none of it is easy. It requires work every single day. You don’t get to an intentional culture. I don’t care what word you put on it. You don’t get there by chance. You have to be intentional about it. Are there advantages to a small firm for what we’re doing? Sure, there are, except we live on a razor’s edge of amount of business. We don’t have millions of dollars in the bank to weather a storm like we had the last pandemic. We don’t have lots and lots of budget to build out an office just the way we want. We’re a small firm that lives off of the profits that we generate from our daily work. I could wax poetic about how easy this would be to do at a large company because of the resources they have available, but we know that’s not true either. You know this.
Because getting people to change is the hardest thing to do on planet earth. Just getting yourself to change is hard. What I always tell people is you don’t have to change the world. You have to change your world. Even the largest companies are composed of little 50-person fiefdoms all flying a common flag. You take the largest organizations on the planet. They have these groups. Change your group. If you want to make a change at something as big as Amazon, you don’t have to change all of Amazon, just be different where you are. People say, “We’ve got all these outside forces.” You don’t think we have outside forces? Every one of our customers is external. They care about our culture to a degree. They don’t care about it to the point where they think they’re going to give something up in order for us to be a more joyful culture.
All the same forces are at work. If there was a takeaway I could give your audience, it would be this. If you read something or from some other shows that you’ve done because I know you interview some wonderful people on this show. Your audience says, “You know what? Tomorrow I’m going to try this. I’m going to take this thing and I’m going to run with it, whatever it is.” They’re going to meet somebody who didn’t hear your show and didn’t hear your guest speak. That person’s going to look at me. I would say, “That won’t work here. We tried that several years ago and it didn’t work then. It won’t work now, That’s against policy. HR won’t buy into it.”
Everybody runs into that. I don’t care where you are. I don’t care how big you are. Right then and there, the idea dies because you’re busy. You’ve got emails to answer. You’ve got meetings to go to. You’ve got phones ringing off the hook. I arm people with one simple response. Look them in the eye and say, “I get it, but let’s try it before we defeat it. Let’s run the experiment and see what happens, and then decide whether we should or we shouldn’t.”
I have seen the largest corporations, the oldest corporations on planet Earth. In my second book, I talk about Amy Ferrero, the VP of Claims at MassMutual Corporation. This is a $30 billion a year, 180-year old life insurance company, that based on that simple encouragement from me in a talk, I’m clearly not charging her enough for these talks, they went and ran the experiment. They invited me back six months later to show me what had happened. They didn’t do babies in the office or dogs in the office, or even pair people. What they did was grab hold of the idea of “run the experiment.” She said, “Rich, I want to show you the Claims Department.” She said, “We process $3 billion a year in claims every year out of my department. Are we big enough yet? 30 billion, 180 years old?”
I once was at a conference and I said, “Anybody here worked for a company that’s older than 180 years? Some guy raised his hand and he said, “Yup, me.” I said, “Who do you work for?” He says, “The post office.” I’m like, “You got me. Ben Franklin,” but not many people do? You think it’s a life insurance company. Amy Ferrero made this change. She said, “Rich, when we get to the Claims Department, you’re going to see helium balloons.” I said, “Tell me more. What’s going on? What are you celebrating?” She goes, “Everywhere there’s a desk with a balloon taped to it, it is a declaration by the person at that desk, “I’m running an experiment. Come talk to me about it.”
I never told Amy about helium balloons. I never said this is the way she should do it. They just ran with the idea. I walked around this corner and there are balloons as far as the eye could see. I run up to Susan’s desk. I said, “Susan, tell me about your experiment.” She says, “I’m in charge of quality.” I said, “What do you do?” She says, “I’m the last stop before the beneficiary check gets cut. I get to decide whether it gets cut or it doesn’t. I have to do three steps when I do it, A, B and C. The trouble is if I find an error in Step C, I have to go back and redo Step B. It’s the longest part of the process. My experiment is do A and then C, and then B because the order doesn’t matter, and everything’s gotten better.”
She’s just beaming with energy and I’m like, “Susan, how long have you worked here?” She goes, “Nineteen years.” I said, “Have you always been like this?” Her face turns into a scowl and she says, “No, I hated my job before. I hated coming to work every day. I was counting the days to retirement. I couldn’t even stand to drive in the morning.” I said, “What’s different now?” She goes, “Now, we can run experiments. Now, I love my job.” I said, “What was it like before?” She said, “Every idea I ever had had to go up to five levels, down five levels. Every single idea I ever had died in the vine. After a while, you just stop bringing ideas to work. After a while, you say ‘The heck with it. It’s just a job. I’ll find my joy elsewhere,’ and you start counting the days to retirement. Now, I never even think about retirement.” Imagine I’m looking across this room, there are balloons as far as the eye can see. By one simple admonition, run the damn experiment. This happened with a 180-year old life insurance company. If they can do it, so can you.
I hear that a lot as we all do that when people refer to a big company, the culture is a misnomer because every culture is made up of a lot of microcultures. The question is, what can you do to change your piece of that culture? As we call it around here, the small W world, my piece of this world. Looking at the world through a leadership lens as I do, what people will often say is, “That sounds like a great idea, Rich, Steve, but you don’t know my boss. You don’t know the team here or you don’t know the culture. If they change, I’ll be the first to step up.”
I get where that’s coming from, but what a person is saying when they’re saying that in essence is, “I choose not to lead.” If leadership is about waiting for the culture to change before you take an action that can potentially change the culture, you’re not exactly leading, are you? The choice to not lead is a choice that you can make. Don’t call yourself a leader or an aspiring leader if you’re not willing to say or to answer this question, which is what I pose to people every so often, what can I do around here regardless of what anybody else is or is not doing to change my piece of this enterprise for the better? That’s the leadership question. That is a beautiful illustration of that. Your books are must-reads, but what’s the best way for people to engage with you if they want to take a tour or if they want to learn more about Menlo?
We do about 1 to 3 tours a day now like we did when we were open when the office was still there. People just go to our website. Right on the front page, there’s Classes and Tours. Just sign up for a tour. They’re free. They’re 90 minutes. I often lead them. I’d get a chance to meet people. They run all the time. Just go and sign up for a tour.
It’s a Zoom tour. It’s 90 minutes and we’re going to get the whole Menlo story. Where do they go to register for that?
It’s right on our homepage, MenloInnovations.com. Just click on Tours and you can sign up there.
Maybe we should do a follow-up episode and take a tour. Can we do that?
Absolutely. You’d be welcome to do that.
Before we say farewell, I want to give a shout out to our mutual friend, Andrew Bennett, for making the introduction. I feel like I’ve met an old friend that I haven’t seen for a long time, except for the fact that we’d never met before. I’m grateful that we’ve made this connection. I foresee a lot of great conversations to come in the future. Thank you for joining us, Rich. For all of you reading, thanks so much for being a part of this conversation. Until next time, do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.
- Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love
- Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear
- MassMutual Corporation
About Richard Sheridan
Rich Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller at Menlo Innovations, is a successful entrepreneur and author of two best-selling books—Joy Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love and Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear. Rich’s passion for inspiring organizations to create their own joy-filled cultures has led him to address audiences across the world—through four continents and 18 countries (and counting) as well as throughout the United States. What motivates Rich to speak to tens of thousands of people around the world in nearly every setting imaginable? What does he share with his audiences that makes them jump to their feet with enthusiasm and return to their organizations on fire with inspiration? Simply this: joy. More specifically, that joy in your organization is not just possible but essential—essential to profitability, to productivity, to every measure of success. Rich and his message of joyful leadership have been featured in press outlets ranging from Inc, Forbes and New York magazines to Bloomberg, U.S. News & World Report, NPR’s On Point podcast, NPR’s All Things Considered, and the Harvard Business Review. His videos for organizations such as Gemba Academy, VitalSmarts, and the Arbinger Institute continue to inspire audiences around the world. Rich doesn’t just talk about joy in the workplace. He lives it every day at Menlo, the custom software and consulting company he co-founded in 2001 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since then, Menlo has received worldwide notice for its unique culture, including recognition by Inc. Magazine as the most joyful company in America. Menlo has also been recognized by the Alfred P. Sloan award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility for 11 straight years and has received a lifetime achievement award for Freedom at Work from WorldBlu, as well as five revenue awards from Inc. magazine. Today people come to Menlo from all over the world—nearly 20,000 in the past seven years alone—to learn about Menlo and how they can create a culture of joy in their own organizations.
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