Laughter, jokes, and humor in general are powerful ways of strengthening the bonds of community and generating good karma. And this can be an important part of the strategy that drives success in a retail venture, whatever its size or nature.
Howard Lester was the Chairman and CEO of Williams-Sonoma. I am so lucky that in my lifetime I got to meet and know him when I worked there. He was a distinctive American type: the Texas millionaire. (Today, of course, a million dollars is considered chump change. We’ve got billionaires by the dozen from everywhere.)
Howard was tall, had that distinctive Texas drawl, and he’d put his feet up on his desk during meetings. He was not only smart as hell but also canny, and he had a heart of gold. Howard was honest and authentic in everything he said and did.
Once each quarter, the corporate offices would have a “town meeting.” The company would rent an auditorium someplace close by, and everyone who worked there showed up. There’d be a financial report on the company’s business for that quarter; presentation of new projects (a new warehouse, IT system, or whatever); and recognition of new employees, or work anniversaries for current employees.
But it was the end that everyone in the audience, the entire corporate community, was waiting for: questions for the chairman. People would stand up, someone would hand them a microphone, and they’d ask a spontaneous question for Howard to answer. His answers were totally unscripted, delivered in that Texas drawl, and often very un-PC. They were funny, and the whole group could chuckle together.
Once someone asked, “Why doesn’t the company have a shuttle bus running from the transit station out to the offices for employees, while you travel around the country in a private corporate jet?” (People were very honest and unafraid to speak—a hallmark of a healthy community). Howard said, “Shucks, if ahh could drive the jet up Van Ness Avenue, ahh would.” Everyone rolled their eyes and sighed together.
Incidentally, the company did get a shuttle; and, the HR department eventually stopped having Howard answer these questions. As he himself explained at his last question-and-answer session, HR had told him that he was a loose cannon. And he was; but he did put People First in a very honest and authentic way, and inadvertently contributed to building the community by giving everyone a common joke to share.
This is excerpted from the book, The Five Laws of Retail.Be sure to subscribe to the blog and be one of the first to get notified when the book is available.