Oswald Letter

Encourage Workplace Experiences that Inspire, Motivate Employees

I had a conversation about Christmas the other day with my 15-year-old son. We were talking about the gifts he might like to get when our conversation turned to things he’d like to do. Might he prefer tickets to a concert or a ballgame instead of a new iPod or video game? The idea seemed to appeal to him and we talked about the experiences he might enjoy.

A few days later, I was reading a book a colleague gave me, The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley. Among many interesting observations in the book, Mr. Kelley asserts that “Many GenXers and Millenials are less interested in accumulating material possessions than their parents were. As new generations define affluence, it may be less about what you own and more about what you’ve done.”

Now, my kids have more than I did growing up when I had to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow barefoot. So maybe it’s that they’ve accumulated enough stuff and they’re on to experiences, but what Mr. Kelley wrote struck a chord with me as I thought of my kids.

Our family tradition is to go out for a nice dinner on Christmas Eve after we’ve attended church. It’s a great dinner at the same restaurant every year and the entire family looks forward to it. The kids get to experience a fine dining experience that’s reserved for only very special occasions and it’s something they look forward to each year. We don’t have family nearby, so our gang of five spends the evening together enjoying great food and each other’s company. It’s a great experience and one we all treasure.

At our dinner last Christmas Eve, we came up with an idea that I hope becomes another tradition. Each of the kids gets the opportunity to donate a set amount of money to a charity or charities of their choosing during the coming year. The rules are (1) they have to pick organizations they have an interest in; (2) they have to do research about the group; and (3) they have to present their request to their mother and me. We expect them to do their homework about the organization and be able to explain why they want to donate money to this specific charity. Our hope is that they develop a habit of thoughtful giving and learn to support causes they believe in. We’ll see if it works, but I believe it’s another great experience for them.

Experiences matter at work, too. Consider the people you manage. I challenge you to think about the experiences you’d like them to have in the coming year. What can you do to provide them with opportunities that will challenge them? What new experiences can you help them enjoy — experiences that they will learn from?

At our company, we’ve been working on a strategic plan that will be rolled out in January. One of the main goals in our plan is to provide a culture that emphasizes “autonomy and invention.” I’m convinced that to cultivate that culture we will need to provide our people with new experiences. But if we can be thoughtful and intentional about it, they will benefit from the experience and so will the business.

People are people. And if they want to have a variety of experiences, as I believe they do, then the responsibility of a manager includes providing an environment in which people have the opportunity to try new things. Sure, it means they’re going to have some failures as they navigate — what is for them — uncharted waters. But they’ll also learn new skills, come up with great ideas, and help your organization. My guess is they’ll also bring new energy to their work.

There’s nothing more invigorating than a business that embraces new ideas and pushes the envelope. My hope is that we can create a great deal of energy and enthusiasm at our company by providing people with new experiences.  I’m betting that it will work.