Morale took a beating at my company in September -- and probably at yours as well. A business didn't have to be located in New York City or Washington, D.C., to feel the emotional shock waves of the terrorist attacks and the falling economy.
In our case, there was trauma on top of anxiety and general distraction. Because the World Trade Center had been plainly visible from our premises in Brooklyn, dozens of my employees had watched the terrible events of September 11 unfold before their eyes. Everybody knew somebody who'd lost a loved one. Several people lost friends.
But tragedies can sometimes bring out the best in people, as we've seen repeatedly during recent months. With a little inspiration, moreover, it's usually possible to find an answer to even the most difficult morale problems. In the process, you may discover that your company has hidden strengths you didn't know about.
Our flash of inspiration came from my wife, Elaine, who worked diligently after September 11 to help employees cope with their emotions. The week after the attacks she brought in grief counselors, who held a couple of group therapy sessions, and later she ran some sessions on her own.
But despite her best efforts, a cloud continued to hang over the company.
"We've got to do something," she said one evening as we were driving home. "Yeah," I said, "but what?" "Maybe that basketball tournament," she replied. "Now would be a real good time to have it."
The basketball tournament was an idea we'd been talking about half-jokingly for several months. We'd set up a makeshift basketball court behind our main building, where some of the guys from the warehouse played pickup games during their lunch hour. I would occasionally come by and watch them, and we'd banter back and forth.
"You guys are good, but I'm better," I said one day.
They all laughed. "Why don't you come play with us?" they said.
"Well, maybe we'll have a tournament," I replied. "What do you want for prizes?"
"We want your new sports car," they said.
I laughed and told them I'd see what we could do, but I didn't take the idea any further. As I thought about Elaine's suggestion, however, I realized she was right: now would be a good time to hold a basketball tournament. If nothing else, it would give people a way to take their minds off the troubles of the world.
So the next day, Elaine and I went to see Mike Harper, a supervisor of the warehouse and one of the regulars on the basketball court. We told him what we had in mind and asked him to help us organize it. We said we wanted teams of three people, or four if one person was a substitute, and everybody in the company was eligible to play. If Mike would get the names of the players and the makeup of the teams, we'd take it from there.
As word of the tournament spread there was an almost audible buzz around the company. People began putting together their teams and speculating about the prizes. In the end, about 40 employees signed up, men and women from every department. Some of them had never played basketball before, but they understood what we were doing, and why, and quickly got into the spirit of things.
Meanwhile, I focused on the rules, which were straightforward enough. We'd have half-court games, with one point per basket. In each game, the first team to score 16 points would win, provided it was ahead by two points. Otherwise the two teams would keep playing until one of them took a two-point lead.
Every team in the tournament would play at least two games. We would follow a so-called double- elimination format, meaning that a team wouldn't be eliminated until it had lost twice.
As for prizes, I decided to hold on to my sports car, but we didn't skimp. First prize would be $500 a person. Members of the second-place team would each get a set of two tickets to a Knicks game. The third-place team would get $100 gift certificates to a sporting-goods store, while the fourth-place finishers would win $50 gift certificates to another sporting-goods store.
There was a catch, however, as people discovered when we posted the list of teams and a chart showing how the double-elimination format would work. The players on one of the 10 teams were identified only by their last names: Brodsky, Weiner, and Kaplan. Those just happened to be the names of the three top executives in the company. According to the elimination chart, moreover, Brodsky's team had to play just one game: the final.
"Whoa, what's that about?" some of the guys said when they saw the chart.
"It's my basketball," I said. "You got to beat me to win."
Now, on the surface at least, a team of Brodsky, Weiner, and Kaplan didn't appear to be much of a threat. No one would ever confuse the three of us with, say, Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman. As luck would have it, moreover, I threw my back out right around the time we posted the chart, and so I was hobbling around the office with a cane.
Most people thought I was faking. They figured I had a trick up my sleeve -- as I did, of course -- and they tried to guess what it was. "We know," they said. "You're going to bring your own ref."
"No," I said. "The other team can have whatever ref it wants."
But that didn't end the speculation, and my teammates and I did all we could to keep people guessing. I spread a rumor that I'd once been an All-American. Weiner started coming into the office early to work out in the gym. Kaplan smoked cigarettes -- to increase his lung capacity, he said.
The tournament began, appropriately enough, on October 11, exactly one month after the attack on the World Trade Center. We'd decided that Tuesday and Thursday would be tournament days, with one game around lunchtime and another in the late afternoon. We'd also decided that, on those days, employees would get an hour off in addition to their lunch hour. That way, everybody would have a chance to take in at least one of the games.
In fact, most people came to watch at one point or another. At the designated hour, someone would roll the basketball net out of the warehouse and onto the court we'd marked off on the dead-end street behind the building. People would bring out chairs and take their places around the perimeter of the court. The players would start to warm up.
After 10 minutes or so, the teams would begin playing. They were fairly well matched. No one team had all the good players, and every team had its share of novices.
One of the salesmen, for example, became a star even though he'd shown up with two left sneakers and had to buy a new pair before he could play. Out on the court, he threw up a series of air balls that sailed 10 or 15 feet over the backboard, much to the delight of the spectators. Toward the end of the game, he found himself alone with the ball, far from the basket. "Shoot! Shoot!" somebody shouted. He took aim, and the ball flew in a perfect arc, swishing through the basket without touching the rim. The crowd went crazy.
That was the spirit of the games. People waved pom-poms, held up signs, and mixed Brooklyn catcalls with Bronx cheers. "Go back to calling receivables!" "This is basketball, not football!" It was fabulous.
As the tournament progressed I began to realize that we were getting a lot more out of the games than we'd bargained for. To begin with, we were seeing people interact in a setting that was a step removed from work, and we were gaining a lot of insights as a result. We were learning who hogged the ball, who shared with others, and who focused on the team. That was valuable information for supervisors. It also gave us important clues about the people we should be grooming as future managers.
"Suddenly, the salesman wasn't just someone who made demands on behalf of his customers. He was the good-natured guy who shot all those air balls and then sank a perfect basket."
At the same time, we were breaking down the barriers between departments. In the normal course of business, employees have relatively little contact with people in other parts of the company. The communication that does occur, moreover, often has to do with problems. Now people were really getting to know one another, and new bonds were forming. Suddenly, the salesman wasn't just someone who made demands on behalf of his customers. He was the good-natured guy who shot all those air balls and then sank a perfect basket.
And so the community grew stronger. Elaine and I have always strived to maintain the family feeling of the business, but that becomes harder as the company grows. Here, almost by accident, we'd found a new way to create that sense of familiarity.
Oddly enough, we were also building the company's reputation. One of our customers happened to drop by during a game. He joined the crowd at courtside and immediately got sucked in, laughing and cheering and having a ball. Afterward he came up to me. "That was the greatest," he said. "I really needed that today."
Pretty much the same thing happened with a woman who works for the company that supplies specialized software to businesses in our industry. "I don't know how you guys do it," she said, after watching a game. "That was the greatest thing I've ever seen a company do."
By the time we reached the grand finale, the cloud over the company had long since lifted. People were telling me that morale had never been better. Meanwhile, rumors were flying fast and furiously about what Brodsky, Weiner, and Kaplan had in mind for the last game.
What people did know was that we planned to make a party out of it. The game was scheduled for Saturday, November 10, and we'd invited all the employees and their families, as well as some customers, for a giant barbecue and lots of fun.
Game time was 1 p.m. The weather had turned cold and windy, so we set up the court in a warehouse. You could feel the excitement and anticipation as people gathered for the game. There was a carnival atmosphere. One of our accounting people handed out cotton candy and popcorn. Our head dispatcher served as the disc jockey. Spectators waved flags and pom-poms. Children ran around the court, trying to shoot baskets.
At about 12:45, Weiner and I came out in our basketball suits and began dribbling, shooting baskets, doing calisthenics, and generally clowning around. Soon we were joined by the members of the team that had emerged victorious from the double-elimination part of the tournament. I took them aside. "Whatever happens today," I said, "I want you to understand that you've won the first-place prize. So congratulations, and enjoy yourselves."
Back on the court, I took the microphone and introduced the daughter of one of our employees, who sang the national anthem. Then I said, "OK, now we're really going to play." At that moment, a door opened, and in ran three tall African American men in basketball suits with the names "Brodsky," "Weiner," and "Kaplan" on their shirts.
As people began to laugh, I said, "I'd like to introduce our cousins Broadway Brodsky, Speedy Weiner, and the Maniac Kaplan, of the Harlem Wizards. They'll be filling in for Louis, Sam, and me today."
The Wizards are similar to the Harlem Globetrotters. I'd seen them play once several years ago, and I'd tracked them down to serve as substitutes for my team. They put on a dazzling show for 20 minutes, drawing in people from the audience, and then played the final.
The Wizards worked their magic and won the game, but the real magic was happening off the court. The party went on all afternoon. When the last guests left, I had only one regret: that the tournament was over.
We're already planning the second annual CitiStorage basketball tournament. I guess I'll have to come up with a new surprise ending. The biggest surprise, however, has been the effect that the tournament has had on people in the company. Not only are we all closer now than we've ever been, but we're working more efficiently than before. Never would I have imagined that you could actually improve productivity by giving people an extra hour off to play -- or watch -- a game.
That's a kind of magic we could all use these days.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include an Inc 100 company and a three-time Inc 500 company. This column was coauthored by Bo Burlingham. Previous Street Smarts columns are available online at www.inc.com/incmagazine/columns/streetsmarts.html.
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