Fourteen men and one woman are snaking up and down the steep tiers of Harvard Stadium. They started in a tight pack but have spread out, the natural athletes bounding ahead, the rest trotting resolutely behind. Their boss, Larry O'Toole, jogs along toward the rear, his back straight, his long legs scissoring.
At 59, O'Toole is almost three times the age of some of the runners. At the top of the final section, after racing up and down more than 1,000 steps, he rests, bent at the waist, his hands splayed across his knees. Around him, people are clapping. "All right, man!" someone cheers. "Nice, Larry. Nice."
The stadium run is an initiation rite at Gentle Giant, a $25 million moving company based in Somerville, Massachusetts. The practice began informally in the 1980s, when O'Toole hired members of college rowing teams, who liked to work out on the stadium stairs. In the early '90s, O'Toole institutionalized the run as a way to test the mettle of new hires and emphasize that he expects them to push themselves. Most movers complete the trial within their first few weeks on the job. Office workers are encouraged to try as well, and about a quarter of them do. Afterward, they recharge with scrambled eggs and sausage while O'Toole delivers an orientation speech.
"A lot of people who come here have heard about the stadium, and it tells them this is the kind of place they're looking for," says O'Toole. "Some come from other moving companies, and they're tired of working with layabouts. They want to work hard and challenge themselves. And they want to do it with people who feel the same way."
That a grueling run up multiple flights of stairs can be an effective recruitment tool speaks to the power of ritual. Institutions as diverse as religious orders, fraternities, and the military use ceremonies to welcome new members and communicate their beliefs. Businesses can do something similar. So long as they don't devolve into hazing, company initiation rites speed up assimilation by engaging recent hires in activities that convey the organization's character while creating an instant bond.
"Initiation rites are an opportunity to create meaning for employees and a connection between them and their new employer," says Daniel Denison, a professor of management at IMD in Switzerland and CEO of Denison Consulting, a leadership specialist.
Some rites are glorified icebreakers designed to transform strangers into friends as quickly as possible. For example, within 30 days of their hiring, all new employees at CXtec, a supplier of data networking and voice equipment, serve coffee and doughnuts from a cart to everyone at the company's Syracuse, New York, headquarters. Each freshman is paired with a veteran staff member.
At CityMax.com, a build-your-own-website service in Vancouver, British Columbia, new employees always start on Fridays, when work is less hectic and everyone has time to introduce him- or herself. The hire is greeted with balloons, streamers, and a welcome card signed by the entire staff. By the time lunch rolls around, "the comfort level is through the roof," says co-founder and president Dean Gagnon. That's when new hires are asked to relate an embarrassing story about themselves. "It gives everyone insight into the new person," says Gagnon.
The most effective initiations immerse new hires in the company's mission and directly involve the CEO. "Leaders can't always be there," says Denison. "And the best way to be felt when you're not there is to leave behind common stories and experiences that leverage your principles in a viral way."
When employees of Foot Levelers, a maker of chiropractic products, notice the "Rudy in Progress" sign affixed to the door of the executive conference room, they can picture the scene within. A handful of new hires sit around a long table piled with candy, sodas, and bowls of popcorn as they watch a DVD of Rudy, the 1993 inspirational football drama. Rudy Ruettiger, an ungifted but never-say-die sparkplug, finally takes the field in the last minutes of a game between Georgia Tech and his beloved Notre Dame. Fans in the stadium chant his name. As Rudy realizes his impossible dream, employees pluck at boxes of tissues.
The lights go up to reveal CEO Kent Greenawalt, who asks for everyone's impressions of the film. Then he passes out a sheet that identifies practices that made Rudy successful: Stay focused, have heart, plead your case, finish what you start, and a dozen more. Greenawalt leads a discussion of how the practices are applied in the film and how new hires should apply them at Foot Levelers.
Greenawalt estimates that several hundred people have watched Rudy in the 15 years he has screened it at the Roanoke, Virginia, company. "It moved me," he says of the film. "I decided: That's the kind of person I want working for this company. We've made it a policy that within 90 days, every new hire sees it. It's a rite of passage."
The lessons of Rudy have become ingrained in company vernacular. When an employee tells a manager he has run into trouble solving a problem, the manager routinely responds, "Did you Rudy that?" The employee is expected to say, "Let me get back to you" and go try again. "They learn to ask the question: Have I done all that I possibly can?" says Greenawalt.
Similarly, Gentle Giant's stadium run contributes to the quality control that has earned it nine Best of Boston awards from Boston magazine. In many cases, O'Toole won't put a new hire on a truck until he has observed the hire's performance on the stairs. "Moving is very unpredictable," says O'Toole. "You need to know the person isn't going to let up."
Many who complete the run return to do it again and again, panting alongside new employees to demonstrate solidarity -- and to try to improve their performance. "I'll definitely do better next time," says Kyle Green, who joined the company in the fall. "You're not a Gentle Giant until you've done the run."