CEO Scott O'Neil runs two different organizations: the NHL's New Jersey Devils and the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. That means he oversees a collective 580 employees in different (often rival) regions, in different sports, with radically different franchise histories. 

Like any good chief executive officer would, O'Neil wants his teams to work together and learn from each other. But how do you do that when you have two distinct work cultures nearly 90 miles apart? Both teams, plus the Prudential Center arena where the Devils play, are owned by the same private equity group, which hired O'Neil to run the collective show. The 76ers have about 200 employees. The Devils and the Prudential Center combined have about 380.

O'Neil's solution seems to come straight from his Harvard MBA days: you organize a massive two-day offsite--dubbed Go Forward--to build trust, teamwork, and leadership skills through presentations, social mixing, and physical activities. A scenic locale is a must: Last year's offsite was in West Point, NY, and this year's took place in Hershey, Penn, in mid June.

Perhaps it all sounds familiar--achingly familiar, if you're an introvert with a distaste for sports and buzzwords. But for the 70 employees comprising the leadership ranks of the Devils and 76ers, Go Forward has become a cherished occasion. They look forward to it not only because it's two days away from their respective offices in Newark and Philadelphia, but also because--as a way to bond and share practices with each other--it's working. 

Help Me Help You

Let's say you're Jill Snodgrass, the Director of Service & Retention for the 76ers. Her job is to make sure 76ers ticket-holders keep coming back year after year. A team of seven people report to her. Her counterpart with the Devils is Danielle Toussaint. At last year's Go Forward, Snodgrass and Toussaint did the following: 

  • They met in person and got to know each other a bit. 
  • They compared notes on how they use Salesforce to keep tabs on clients (the individuals, families, and businesses who attend 76ers and Devils games). 
  • They brainstormed about the sort of info they could add to Salesforce to gain a better understanding of how to delight those clients. 

You might think: Couldn't they just pick up the phone and discuss this? Why did they need a pricey offsite--O'Neil says Go Forward costs in the "high five figures"--to come together over best practices? 

But think about it: even employees who are generous in sharing their time and knowledge seldom initiate it. They have their own high-pressure jobs to do. For Snodgrass, the period from February to May is especially intense because it's when her team asks season-ticket holders to come back next year. Not an easy task considering the 76ers were one of the worst teams in the league last year, with a record of 18-64.

So the odds that either employee would otherwise initiate a swapping of Salesforce notes are slim. But get them together in person, and the sharing begins. Specifically, Toussaint had the idea of finding out what type of music their clients preferred--and adding that info into Salesforce.

Snodgrass's first thought was, why would a hockey or basketball team care about something like this? Toussaint explained: The Prudential Center, where the Devils play, is also a concert arena. By gathering info on musical affinities, the Devils and 76ers would be in a position to offer privileged concert access to their clients. Plus, if they found certain genres or artists were popular among their clients, they could surely use the info in other ways to enhance their clients' experiences at hockey and basketball games. 

Engineering the Perfect Offsite

O'Neil was practically born and raised as a devotee of offsites. His parents owned a leadership development business called The O'Neil Group, based in Newburgh, NY, that served clients such as McDonald's, Texaco, and ADP. As a boy, one of O'Neill's chores for the business was to make mimeographed copies of the papers his parents used in their team-building workshops. He later worked his way up in pro sports, taking a brief detour to get his MBA at Harvard. Eventually he landed at the NBA as head of its in-house consulting unit, TEAMBO, where he helped teams operate more efficiently. At TEAMBO, O'Neil estimates he organized about 100 offsites over his seven-year tenure.

One of his takeaways, touchie-feelie though it is, was the importance of getting employees to open up about themselves, personally--even if it means erasing the church-state borders of work life and personal life.

"I don't know how you could possibly treat a person like a person unless you know about them," he says. "And it's not always comfortable for everyone."

In case you're wondering how someone like O'Neil plans an offsite, it can be summed up in a word: obsessively. 

At the heart of Go Forward are five employee presentations. Each one is prepared by a team of two employees: one from the 76ers, and one from the Devils. The two employees are always from different roles in the organizations. This allows bonding and teamwork to take place between two employees who otherwise would likely not meet, let alone collaborate. 

About two months before Go Forward--early April--the employees huddle with O'Neil about their presentation topic. They'll write an outline and submit it to O'Neil. The outline must mention what they're trying to accomplish, what exercise they'll conduct with the group as part of presentation, and what the takeaways are supposed to be. 

After O'Neil okays the outline, the duos prepare, practice, and present to O'Neil. And O'Neil delivers harsh criticism. He'll say things like, "You're opening is awful." Employees who dislike such between-the-eyes feedback don't work for O'Neil. In his own career, O'Neil has learned to appreciate feedback that is "unapologetic, stark, honest, and constructive." He learned this most profoundly at his first job, with the New Jersey Nets (now the Brooklyn Nets) in the early 90s. Under the tutelage of then-team president Jon Spoelstra--father of Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra--O'Neil was part of a mentorship program in which young employees were harshly, yet lovingly, criticized for the sake of performance improvement. 

Shawn Doss, the Devils' VP of Ticket Sales & Service, presented at the 2014 Go Forward with Chris Heck, the 76ers' chief revenue officer. Heck had worked with O'Neil from TEAMBO. He made sure to pack their presentation--which was about communications best practices--with the humor and takeaways O'Neil coveted. Still, the feedback was strict. Like the director of a play, O'Neil wondered: Could they make it more humorous, more seemingly off-the-cuff?

From O'Neil's perspective as CEO, the rehearsals also help him foster teamwork and create a more unified culture. In addition, they help him train his leaders and managers to improve their presentation skills. In the process, he learns how they respond and react to criticism and deadlines. All this, before the two-day offsite officially begins. 

The Power of The Dash

At this year's Go Forward, O'Neil gave an opening presentation was called "hang your banner." In pro sports, a championship team typically hangs a banner in the arena rafters to commemorate a title season. 

As an exercise, O'Neil asked employees: What do you envision as your life's banner? What would you have it raised for? Who'd introduce you, the night it was raised, and what would you want them to say? Then, each employee received an actual banner, on which they could draw and/or write out their ideal commemorations. They discussed these banners in small groups.

The day's first employee presentation was based on "The Dash," a poem by Linda Ellis. It, too, had the aim of focusing employees on how they'd like to be remembered by friends and family. In their breakout groups, the employees shared their personal milestones--and discussed how those experiences informed their personalities and day-to-day drives as employees. 

Doss, 30, said the milestones exercise "opened his eyes" to insights about his own work-life approach. Twice in his career, he's moved across the country to take new jobs with a different professional sports team.

Why did these moves come so easily to him, yet not so easily to others? The exercise helped him realize that a move as a child from Saskatchewan to Philadelphia had made him quick to accept new circumstances. Doss, whose parents are from India, know how to blend, to adapt, to think of himself as just another Canadian kid skating the ice. Later on in his professional life, he decided to have two different business cards: One with the name Shawn Doss, and one with his given name, Prashanth Doss. He's comfortable using both names. It all depends whom he meets and how he meshes with them. "That's the power of this exercise," he says. "I never thought about how powerful childhood was." 

The Power of the Dollar

On the second day of Go Forward, Hugh Weber, President of the Devils and the Prudential Center, gave the kickoff presentation. His theme was trust. Whereas "The Dash" presentation was about personal reflection and lifetime milestones, Weber's presentation about trust was about moving forward: How could the leaders in attendance take action on all they had learned at Go Forward, and apply it to their day-to-day jobs and lives?

To bring home the point--leading with trust, going forward--Weber concluded his presentation with a literal takeaway: Each employee received a dollar bill with his or her name on it. The idea behind the dollar was symbolic: Upon returning to normal office life, employees could give their dollar to another employee. The gift is a way of saying: I trust you. I want to invest in you. 

Sean Saadeh, EVP of Entertainment Programming for the Prudential Center, gave his dollar to an employee who oversees The Prudential's analytics division. "I wanted to have a greater trust with this person," he says. "It's not just saying we'll hold hands. It's specifically about setting goals together." Already, Saadeh and this analytics leader have met in his office to discuss what their milestones should be. 

The dollar gives the employees an actionable way to bring the tenets of the offsite into their day-to-day jobs. The dollar becomes a passkey employees can use to get past both the subtle silos of the workplace and the everyday busyness that often prevents the initiation of interdepartmental teamwork. 

In other words, the dollar helps to make sure that what happens at the offsite doesn't stay at the offsite. "Symbolism is very important in how you carry forward these ideas," says O'Neil. Ask the CEO about his biggest takeaway from Go Forward, and he says: "That everybody's in. That we are together, one, and galvanized. But that might be too cheesy to ever write or report."

Not really.

Published on: Jun 22, 2015