How does an office that seemingly only has fun not only get work done, but get it done with such a high level of quality and innovation as well?
I get asked a variation of this question all the time and while some people are being snarky, I believe most are genuinely curious about the fun, yet hard working culture we maintain at the Toppel Career Center. What I find interesting is that for many, play and work are mutually exclusive. Well, I’m here to tell you that that is certainly not the case at Toppel! So, if you’re wondering how we make this happen, read on.
Don’t be Fooled: Play Is Work
Let me be upfront: the “play” takes “work.” Consistent work. There was a time when it wasn’t a whole lot of fun to work at Toppel. Sure, we had our exciting moments and yes, we tended to produce some great work, but the fact of the matter is that we had some toxic individuals and behaviors that routinely undermined the important work we were trying to accomplish. The question became: how do we right the ship?
Strengthening Teams Becomes a “Thing”
Once we had the right team in place (read between the lines here), we tackled our issues head on and without any filtering. Staff members openly and honestly shared their feelings about the culture: the good, the bad, and lots of the ugly. The caveat was that while everyone was encouraged to be completely honest, we also had to share responsibility for our part in the bad and ugly. Using Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we began our never-ending journey into what we call Strengthening Teams. Every other Tuesday, the leadership team led a discussion/activity on one of the dysfunctions in a direct and honest manner:
- Absence of Trust
- Fear of Conflict
- Lack of Commitment
- Avoidance of Accountability
- Inattention to Results
The following semester we did it all over again, except we had staff members work in pairs to lead the team through activities and discussions on the dysfunctions. Seems like overkill, right? Wrong. Repeating it not only drove the points home, it also created buy-in because we shared ownership with all team members. The best part of all of this is that almost instantly, the walls started coming down and that’s when the play began. And I’m not talking about the “fake fun” we see in so many places; I’m talking about genuine appreciation for each other’s well-being and truly wanting to spend time with each other in and out of the office. Several years have passed since that initial meeting and we still have our Strengthening Teams meeting every other Tuesday and yes, we dust off Lencioni’s book regularly to not only keep us on track, but to bring new staff members into the fold.
But Don’t Take My Word For It
Sure, I’m the leader of the office and this whole blog post can just be me bragging about how great my organization is. But I’m more honest than that and therefore asked folks— both within and outside of Toppel—for their thoughts on why our culture is the way it is.
Ali Rodriguez, Director of Employer Engagement says, “By taking advantage of people’s strengths, the joy simply comes through.” and “It’s become so natural and organic that it’s hard to put our culture into words. That said, what it comes down to is that we don’t lose our sense of humor in spite of all the work and stress that comes with the job.”
Chris Hartnett, Director of Residence Life says, “Toppel exudes an energy and enthusiasm that is both palpable and contagious. The staff is passionate about the work they do and strives every day to better their events for student excellence. Working with Toppel is a highlight of my job; the talented and creative folks in their office are some of the best and brightest on campus!”
Kim Burr, Assistant Director at Toppel, is one of our newer staff members at Toppel and after a week where the majority of the leadership team was away on business, she told me, “This isn’t an office where the mice play when the cats are away. I’m so impressed at how seriously everyone takes their work, while at the same time not taking themselves so seriously.”
Devika Milner, Director of Study Abroad says, “Toppel is a place where ideas are generated, where you feel like a valued part of a community, and where you consistently learn something new. I have never seen a group of individuals who exude such passion and excitement for the work, while also truly caring for each other much like a family. I love being around them!”
Gosh, This Is a Long Blog Post! What’s the Moral of the Story?
The moral of the story is that ALL work and ALL play is possible, but only if you commit to it. You have to hire the right people; people who are positive and passionate (everything else can pretty much be taught). But it doesn’t end there. You have to get to know your people: what makes them tick, what are their strengths, and what pisses them off. You have to let go of your own ego, be vulnerable, and ask the tough questions without being scared of the real answers. You have to take risks, allow your people to take risks, and above all, be okay with failing hard. You have to spend quality and consistent time working on the team, the same way you spend time running your programs, events, and initiatives. You have to relinquish control and give it to your staff. And remember when I said this was a never-ending journey? That wasn’t hyperbole. You have to realize that to maintain this type of culture, the work never ends. And therein lies the irony: the “play” takes a great deal of “work” in the very same way the “work” takes a great deal of “play.”
We have our detractors. We have folks who think we’re silly. We’ve had people call us the “Toppel Cult.” You know what I say to that? You can’t spell culture without CULT.