“Once the bear’s hug has got you, its apt to be for keeps.”
About a year ago while employed by a San Francisco biotech start-up, I attended a professional conference along with the rest of my department (HR). I was excited about going, as a major part of my job responsibilities were directly connected to the organization hosting the event. I figured that I would be exposed to tons of new information, people and ideas. What I didn’t know however was that a keynote speaker would deliver a heartfelt address that would inspire me on many levels. In particular, this powerful presentation would end up reigniting my own dormant belief in difficult change- that it is possible, necessary and worth all the effort.
Before transitioning from my role in Administration into one in HR, I was unfamiliar with many of the organizations that help educate Human Resource professionals on the status, trends and innovations in their industry. As a job seeker, I had utilized LinkedIn, Glassdoor and other recruiting tools to find work, but I had not had a user experience from the employer side of these incredible tools. I was unaware that an organization titled Great Place to Work® existed solely to assist other companies in assessing, defining and reshaping their company culture for a more positive work environment and consequently, greater productivity. And completely unaware that they conducted an annual conference for HR professionals that I would soon be attending.
The 2016 Great Place to Work® Conference was held in San Diego at the Grand Hyatt, and would last two and a half days. Upon arriving at my room, I found a sweet surprise: a white teddy bear on the bed pillows sporting a red GPTW logo sewn to the bottom of its right foot paw. I hadn’t checked event speaker list very carefully and didn’t yet realize that the Build-a-Bear® CEO was slated to speak on Day 2 of the conference. The bear was her gift to all attendees, and I was delighted by the unexpected feeling of childlike wonder this gesture brought to the kickoff of the event.
The first speaker on Day 1 was the CEO of Great Place to Work®, the charismatic Michael C. Bush. He gave a great overview of the current state of HR in industry, of work culture trends in the US marketplace, and of what GPTW as an organization learned about those trends including what they tell us about the future. He delivered his talk with purpose, enthusiasm and a sense of humor, also outlining what we could expect over the next 2 days. He set the tone for an activity packed event and I was eager to learn more about and participate in all that it had to offer. Soon we were all off and running to different presentations in various meeting rooms around the hotel.
I attended break-out sessions conducted by industry experts on various topics: case studies on employer methodologies in recruiting and hiring great talent, presentations on company culture and novel ways in which to effect positive culture change, talks on the generational differences that exist in today’s workplace and how to strategically address and accommodate them. Since I was so new to HR, most of the topics and information were really interesting and educational for me. I was a completely captive audience, and somehow felt like a kid in a candy store.
Spending time outside the office with my co-workers was a great perk of the trip. I was fortunate enough to be working with people I genuinely liked and admired. We had dinners together and talked about the things we learned at the conference, and how we might apply some of the best things to our own organization’s culture and office environment back home. The real prize however, was still yet to come in the morning.
On Day 2, we headed downstairs to the main hall of the conference for the Keynote address. As we took our seats in the middle of the room at a round table with 12 chairs, I saw that at set at each place was a little red heart wrapped in plastic. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Build-A-Bear®, no bear is complete until its satin heart is wished upon by the new bear owner, and placed inside the bear’s chest. How clever, I thought. These hearts belong to the gifted bears! I knew this due to several visits my daughter and I had made to Build-A-Bear workshops. Our bears could now be made complete, as their hearts were now in their new owner’s hands, almost ready to be placed in their little chests. I picked up my heart and held it to my own, just as my daughter had done each of the times she adopted a new Build-A-Bear, and waited for the session to begin.
Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear strode onto the stage and began her talk. I was mesmerized by the petite, warm and articulate executive- she literally had me at hello. She related her backstory, about her work experience in the retail industry, from her days working on the Barbie product at Mattel to time spent at Hasbro. Then on to her career-defining leadership role in the turnaround of the children’s Stride Rite shoe company. Price John was soon hired by Build-a-Bear in 2013, after the company recorded a whopping loss of 50M dollars. She rolled up her sleeves to begin the challenging task of reversing their downward trend and reviving the beleaguered organization.
And reverse the trend she did. Under her guidance, Build-A-Bear went from deeply in-the-red to realizing a $28M Operating Profit in 2015. Driven by her belief in the Build-A-Bear product and its company culture, Price John explained how slashing operating expenses and closing underperforming stores was difficult but necessary work. She outlined her change strategy: first, of clearly describing the future of the company without change to her management team. Then, directing the team to conceptualize and plan business changes in a way that the company would not lose its identity along the way. Trying to replicate past successes, she told the listeners of the quiet conference room, likely will not work.
She stopped and asked the audience “How does one set a fire for change?” And answered her own question with this strategy: SPARK.
See it: Clearly describe the future of the company without change
Plan it Plan changes in a way that the company does not lose its identity
Action it Put the plan into action
Run it Go all out, run with the plan even when stumbles occur
Keep the faith Don’t give up and remember that change never ends
After taking us through these steps, she asked us all to pick up our tiny hearts, and wish on them by thinking about what each of us knows that we personally have to do to make change. Go through the steps we will have to take in our minds using SPARK to guide us, she said, kiss the heart with a promise (just like the kids do at the Build-A-Bear stores Heart Ceremonies), and place it in our pockets. She advised us to keep it there every day to help remind us of our purpose and to help us keep the faith, assuring everyone by saying “Today could change your life. It really could!”
As I listened to her words, I fully realized the brilliance of her keynote address. Sharon Price John caught the attention of every conference attendee from the moment they checked into their hotel rooms and held it until after she walked off the stage. The delivery style of her message was direct and almost personal- I almost felt she was speaking directly to me, encouraging me, almost commanding me to understand the power of the simple act of just recognizing the need for change, and resolving to make it. It triggered a shift of fresh resolve in my own mind, driving a realization of the need for change in areas of my life that might be holding me back from creating a better future. I had never been so inspired at a professional event in all my working years, and it was an enlightening moment in time I will likely never forget.
Price John concluded her presentation to loud applause, and conference attendees began to exit the main room to dash off to hear the last of the presentations. I lingered behind awhile longer, wanting to absorb what was left of the remaining positive energy and emotion our speaker had created in the vast ballroom. I took the red heart I had made a wish and a promise on back out of my pocket, and re-read the fortune cookie-style message that came with it. I felt grateful for my job, and grateful for the opportunity to attend the conference. But most of all I felt thankful for the gift that Sharon Price John had unknowingly given me. I couldn’t wait to get home and stoke the growing fire of desire for necessary change.
©2017 Lisa Ihnken All Rights Reserved, except where noted