We've seen it time and time again: high-stress sales teams whose members ruthlessly stab each other in the back just to get ahead. Even though the company's revenue is technically the end goal, individual success is often put above team success.

What if it didn't have to be this way? What if you didn't need to foster cut-throat competition in order to see business success? What if you could keep your staff happy and your revenue goals lofty? More than that, what if by creating a system that promotes teamwork, you were actually able to increase production? This is precisely what digital media recruiting firm AC Lion set out to do with its 2014 Q4 challenge.

"Showered with Cash"--AC Lion overall competition winner Jamie Filton

The company, headquartered in New York City, is home to a self-described highly competitive workplace. Yet, when you look closer, you can see that it is most akin to sibling rivalry. That's because when push comes to shove (metaphorically speaking, of course), the staff looks out for each other like family.

This is all thanks to the leadership philosophies of AC Lion's CEO, Alan Cutter, who believes in building a positive work environment with three important components: competition, collaboration, and, of course, production. In order to reach that third rung, the first two need to be balanced.

Therefore, in Q4 of 2014, Mr. Cutter and senior management constructed a sales incentive program strategically fueling competition in areas where it was lacking, and creating collaboration where there were too many butting heads. The challenge, nicknamed "Reach the Beach," successfully gamified the sales process, ultimately helping AC Lion reach not only the beaches of the Dominican Republic, but also an incredible revenue target--a full thirty days before the deadline.

This is how they got there.

1. Creating multi-tiered goals

In October 2014, Alan implemented a four layered company-wide challenge. The first step was announcing AC Lion's end-of-year sales goal--an ambitious 25% YOY increase. Next, each employee was handed their own secret envelope with an individual revenue number inside, based on their seniority and expectation - known only to that person and upper management. The third layer was that each team had to make a certain number of points, based on a variety of KPIs (number of interviews per week, job offers). The last obstacle was each team member's target of 60 points. AC Lion also implemented a system that allowed teammates who reached their individual points goal, but were not quite at their revenue target, to convert extra total team points to revenue dollars (similar to a frequent flyer miles program). This spurred the members who already surpassed their revenue goal to continue bringing in those points to help the whole group get on that plane.

The whole method behind the madness was to break the competition into achievable levels. AC Lion gave each team member the opportunity for multiple small wins to attain the final prize, which kept everyone on track and motivated. They challenged the team to rise to the occasion, and rather than feeling discouraged, they were driven to beat their personal best and set a company record (which they did!).

2. Mixing up the teams

After goals and points were set, the company was then divided into groups named after their favorite NFL teams. The groups were deliberately jumbled with a mix of management, junior members, remote workers, and everyone in between. Employees even ended up competing against their bosses, and senior members were placed on a relatively level playing field as the rest of the company. It created a sense of camaraderie between departments that hadn't necessarily existed before.

Foster collaboration by forcing your staff to work together across seniority levels. Open up the gates between management and junior employees. Ultimately, your company will become more unified, even well after the challenge ends.

"Reach the Beach" team winners celebrating with the cash in the DR. From left: Mike Giunta, VP, Jamie Filton, team coach/exec recruiter, Meredith Thomas, exec recruiter, Michael Adler, partner, and Alan Cutter, CEO

3. Empowering coaches

Each team had a designated captain (called the "coach"). For this challenge, AC Lion nominated the "unlikely suspects" of the company to be the five coaches--some were more recent hires, one a remote worker, and others were just less visible than their counterparts. Alex Yee, coach of the 49ers, described this role: "I always push myself to work as hard as possible, but by being the person who my team was going to look to lead by example, it drove me to work even harder." In fact, across the board, these coaches ended up producing numbers like never before.

Tap individuals who you see as having potential for leadership. By giving them permission to lead, along with your vote of confidence, they'll be empowered for future success. Oftentimes, this will foreshadow management potential. Think of it as a trial run.

4. Keeping things interesting

A 12-week sales incentive challenge is a marathon, not a sprint. To that point, each week there were added activities to keep things fresh. The coaches were responsible for encouraging team members to participate in these bonus rounds, which included everything from staying late at the office to crafting a team song.

Reward employees for playing to their individual strengths rather than pigeonholing them. Look for ways to "spice things up" to ensure that momentum doesn't stall and your staff stays intrigued.

5. Visualize the reward

It's also not enough to promise a reward; allow your staff to work toward it in a tangible way. To help employees visualize the celebration, AC Lion created a virtual plane with empty seats. As employees hit their individual targets, they were invited to pick their seat on the plane and handed a mock boarding pass. By the middle of December, seats were filling up fast, and employees were working harder than ever before, determined not to be left behind.

"Boarding pass" for "Somewhere Warm"--additional motivation for team members.

6. Celebrating the positive

Award the positive; don't highlight the negative. During this challenge, there was no embarrassing spotlight on the under-performers. Instead, AC Lion took every opportunity to celebrate individual and team successes every week. When they hit that incredible revenue number, there was a toast with shots and champagne all around.

Specialized AC Lion shot glasses for the company-wide toast.

After months of grueling work and heated competition, AC Lion escaped the brutal NYC winter for a few days on the gorgeous beaches of Puerto Plata for the real celebration. During their stay, awards were given out during a celebratory dinner (e.g. Recruiter of the Year, Rookie of the Year), and Josh Marmer was even surprised with a significant promotion to partner. Jamie Filton, the winning coach of the Chargers, was literally showered with cash to spend (treating her team to spa days). Nonetheless, the real reward was celebrating together as a family.

CEO Alan Cutter sums it up best: "The challenge allowed a healthy outlet for friendly rivalries, while simultaneously fostering teamwork. By implementing a system which gamified the sales incentives, AC Lion was able to maintain motivation, create learning opportunities, and strengthen leadership skills."

Ultimately, AC Lion proved that it is possible to foster a dynamic and sustainable culture of both competition and collaboration, and they look forward to blowing this year's competition out of the water.

The AC Lion team rocking their company pride in Puerto Plata, DR.

Now it's your turn. How is your office culture helping to drive success?

Published on: Apr 25, 2015