When new employees arrive at the customer service orientation for Tommy Bahama, the beach-themed restaurant-and-apparel business, most expect a traditional process-and-policy walkthrough. Instead, a presenter asks the group whether they've ever thrown a party where, at the end of the night, it's obvious that everyone had a great time. Most members of the group reply yes.

"That concludes our lecture on customer service," says the presenter.

That orientation session is what Stanford business professor Chip Heath calls a "moment." Heath defines moments as brief experiences that lift people out of the ordinary; change how they view the world; inspire and capture up-swells of pride; or deepen bonds with others. Startled and delighted by Tommy Bahama's sharp jab of corporate values, employees never forget the lesson embedded in that experience. 

The ability to create moments is a valuable leadership skill.

A healthy culture and respectful treatment may keep your workforce satisfied, says Heath, whose latest book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, was released in October. (Like all Heath's books it is co-authored with his brother, Dan Heath, a senior fellow at Duke.) But moments imprint themselves more powerfully. They amplify employee loyalty, collegiality, and dedication.

Unlike many leadership skills, creating moments comes naturally to most people. "It's something many of us learned growing up," says Heath. "We have had birthday parties and wedding celebrations. We have the talent for commemorating things in memorable ways."

Focus on the beginning.

"Research says that 40 percent of things you remember from college happened in the first six weeks of starting your freshman year," says Heath. "That's when new things are happening. Those are things that stand out."

The business analogy is a new employee's first few days: a time when the leader's personal involvement can be especially effective. Imagine, for example, the impact on a new administrative assistant of walking through the door and being greeted by the CEO, who is waiting for her.

"The role played by the founder or CEO has an outsize effect," says Heath. "That moment of meeting the person they've heard about in all these interviews and hearing from that person the story of the business. A small amount of your time can have huge benefits."

In that vein, once a quarter, Daniel Lubetzky, the founder and CEO of KIND Snacks, sits down with new hires and asks them to tell funny, personal stories, from which he plucks a common theme that becomes the identity for that "class." (For example, one class might be People Who Enjoy Eating Weird Things.) At age 68, Larry O'Toole, the founder and CEO of the Gentle Giant Moving Company, still runs the stairs--all 37 sections--at Harvard Stadium with groups of new employees.

Allow the moments--good or bad--to be shared.

Once employees are absorbed into the business, moments of pride should be cultivated, says Heath. He recommends establishing concrete milestones that can be publicly celebrated rather than vague goals to be checked off during the annual review. For example, the leader might set an employee's goal of training three people to the level where then can manage their own units. That's easier to commemorate than challenging them to display "excellent people-development skills." Not every achievement requires breaking out the champagne. The presentation of some doodads--like tombstones used by the finance companies to mark closed deals or T-shirts passed out by Silicon Valley companies after each successful stage of a project's development--give employees both a moment in the spotlight and a tangible reminder of it.

Heath also urges leaders to plan activities that create moments of connection between colleagues. Small businesses probably can't afford to send employees to retreats or on celebratory trips to Aruba. But fun and luxurious experiences aren't the only ones that are memorable. Heath describes a shoe company that every fall deploys staff to visit "a boring location" that carries its brand. Colleagues gain insights by talking to retailers, but they may also "have a memorably terrible meal at a bad restaurant together, and that becomes a story," says Heath. "Those shared experiences are important for their relationships the rest of the year."

Even bad times can be worth capturing in moments. It is better that employees openly mourn a failed project or a layoff together than whisper and tremble while managers pretend nothing happened. "There is a reason to get together and drink beer and sing songs and talk about the good old times," says Heath. "I think wakes are underutilized as corporate events."

Published on: Jan 24, 2018