America's favorite highway oasis, South of the Border, is an emporium just inside the northern border of South Carolina on Route 301/501.
For 200 miles in either direction, drivers are treated to billboards featuring Pedro in a serape and a hat the size of Texas.
As a 10 year old, I liked the puns the best-the Marx Brothers' word play: "You never sausage a place. You're always a wiener at Pedro's. South of the Border. 10 miles," and there, hanging from a billboard was a humongous hot dog.
Or my favorite, the one that made me laugh so long my father asked me to knock it off: "Pedro's weather report: Chili today, hot tamale. South of the Border. 23 miles."
It was Looney Tunes on the road, selling what was basically a gas station and roadside diner with old-fashioned borscht-belt humor. No features and benefits. Just an attitude of fun that made you want to stop and visit.
And stop we did. We got gas and a new fan belt, except my Dad didn't think there was anything wrong with his old fan belt. He suspected the gas station attendant had palmed a jack-knife in his hand to nick the fan belt, so we were forced to buy a new one.
Who knows? Anyway, it was fun. My Dad had a skeptical streak.
Mr. Alan Schafer built the business from a 1949 root beer stand, and he built it with his goofy sense of humor. He came up with all the ads. They were corny, infantile, and effective because they promised a refuge of fun on the long drive to Florida and back.
I haven't seen any ads like his since then, and I certainly haven't seen too many PowerPoint slides goofing around the boardrooms of America either. Too bad.
Because more and more research is turning up that humor is an essential ingredient of good leadership. It helps teams build bonds, clients find common ground, and people connect.
According to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.
And Fabio Sala, in the same publication wrote:
Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels. It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages.
I had a client from India who spoke with a pronounced Indian accent. He had a standard opening line.
Standing at the lectern, he would look out at the audience and say, with a smile on his face, "Hello, my name is Deepak. As you can tell from my accent, I am from Cleveland." Audiences loved him.
So how can you create a business culture that has more fun? Here are some ideas, many from The Levity Effect by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. Scott, by the way, is a dynamite and hilarious speaker on the subject of humor at work.
- You have to have a Chairman, CEO, or boss who recognizes the value of humor in the work place. Once that's done, you're good to go.
- Alan Schafer turned a root beer stand into a thriving oasis with Mad Magazine humor. He turned a commodity into a one-of-a-kind experience and made millions.
- A national restaurant chain started a kazoo band at headquarters. Now, every time somebody exemplifies one of their corporate values, the band marches to the employee's cubicle where the chairman presents the winner with an award, a novelty store set of 39-cent chattering teeth.
- Hold a quarterly potluck lunch.
- Turn a break room wall into a giant whiteboard.Encourage employees to express thanks, pass on messages, or doodle what they want. Have managers write their weekly updates on the wall, so people can read them while they eat.
- When a team works hard to meet a goal, have the executives cook breakfast for them. Nothing says thank you like crispy bacon.
- Change the names of your meeting rooms to Humperdinck, Throckmorton, Cumberbatch, Rufus the Dufus, or The Howdy Room. You get the general idea.
- Have a trivia night, including questions about company products and history.
- To get a meeting started, have people come up with two truths about themselves and one lie. Everyone else must guess which one is the lie.
- At Microsoft, each day, one person signs up to blast a song across the room at three o'clock. Everyone is dragging by that point and needs a break. Some people get up and dance. Everyone claps when the song is done.
- Offer shopping sprees by limo to people who exceed performance goals. Announce it across the whole company and make the winner leave right away for the spree.
We could go on.
Fun is serious business. Too much gravity is bad for your health, unappealing, and could drive good employees to funnier firms. A dose of levity lifts hearts and minds, and believe it or not, the bottom line.