The March Madness of Business

Do you enjoy your work? Do the people you lead find their work meaningful and rewarding? After all, the average working American spends one-third of his or her time at a job. Shouldn’t we spend that precious time doing something rewarding?

Every year when March Madness rolls around, I am taken back to when we at Barry-Wehmiller first discovered the power of a simple game to change the culture of the team and the way the members felt about their work.

The potential of our people is limited only by our ability as leaders to inspire them. Click To TweetIt was March 1997 and we had just acquired Hayssen in Greenville, SC.  The first meeting on my agenda that day was with the Customer Service team. At that point no one recognized me so I was able to hang out by the coffee pot for a few minutes quietly observing the associates before the start of their shift. The NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament was in full swing and the associates were passionately discussing their teams, the office pool, how much money they were going to win, and so on. They were smiling and laughing; their body language showed that they were having fun. As the clock drew closer to the shift’s 8 a.m. start time, however, you could just see the fun draining from their bodies.

It made me think: Why can’t business be fun? Why do people work to make a living just so they can leave to have fun?

During the few short steps into the meeting room, I came up with a plan. “Listen up, everyone,” I said. “We’re going to play a game and here’s how it’s going to work: the person who sells the most parts wins, and if the team makes its goal, the team wins. We’ll play this game every week.” They had no idea what I was talking about—and neither did I since, inspired by their March Madness excitement, it just popped into my head. Together we decided to give it a try. The results from this simple game were astounding: the very next week, their orders increased 15 percent and stayed there! Even more dramatic, however, was the change in their feelings about their roles and their daily work that resulted from simply establishing goals to aim for and then celebrating their achievements.

As leaders, our responsibility is to define “winning” at work. When people are inspired to achieve, they almost always do so.  When people feel a sense of “winning” the dynamics of the environment change, and people begin to have fun.  The entire team culture changes.

Since that first simple game inspired by March Madness, we have rolled out motivation programs in 34 companies. We do it even before we close on an acquisition and, in 34 out of 34 times, we’ve seen a significant increase in our revenues. In one instance, we brought the program to a customer service team of a newly-acquired $200 million company that had $100 million in aftermarket revenue. The team, however, was feeling beaten down, unmotivated and unappreciated  We offered them this: the top seller each week gets $100 and if the team makes its goal, everyone on the team gets $100. Their sales went from $714,000 a week to $763,000 a week immediately!

People have an incredible capacity to respond to leadership. You don’t need to change the people, you need to change your leadership of the people. The problem in America is not the American worker; the problem in America is the absence of true leaders. Through these simple games and motivation programs, we have seen unbelievable results from ordinary people–because they felt inspired rather than managed.

The simple lessons learned from these games are the foundation of our culture today.  When we acquire new organizations that face the need to change, we know that the future of the business is in the hands of these people.  They simply need the right leadership.

Over the years I have asked customer service team members how these programs made them feel. One replied, “Well, my daughter is getting married, but she has champagne taste and a beer budget. With these extra earnings, I’m going to be able to give her a nicer wedding.” Another team member shared “One Friday night when I knew we had made it, I called my husband and said, ‘Tonight, I’m buying. I’m taking you out to dinner.’” She was immensely proud of her accomplishment.

Another team member, who had been with the company for more than 30 years, offered this story. “My 91-year-old mother lives with me. She isn’t up when I go to work so I go home at lunch to see her. My mother and I have talked about this program a great deal. The other day when I went home at lunch, I walked in and asked her how she was feeling. Instead of answering me, her first question was, “Have you made your numbers yet?’”

Later, the VP of customer service at her company shared with me that she had really struggled before we rolled out the incentive program. Afterward, she became the No. 2 performer in the company. She was inspired to perform well.

Ordinary people motivated by simple games, goals and rewards can create extraordinary results.

The potential of our people is limited only by our ability as leaders to inspire them. What do you do to inspire the people you lead?

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $2+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 11,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.


  • Rod says:

    Bob, I especially agee with one statement you made. You stated, “The problem in America is not the American worker; the problem in America is the absence of true leaders.” I see that you are doing something about it. Later when you use the words, ” change the leadership,” I think you mean to say, “educate the leadership.” I see this by the various programs that have been started such as the Hoshins, 7s program, the communications classes, etc. You are educating people and changing the culture of the company. This gives great credence of you commitment to the Guiding Principles of Leadership. I have seen this happen over the years and my personal commitment to this company is changing more as I watch the changes occur. Our country needs leaders like you. You take ownership,see what needs to be change, roll up your sleeves and go to work. Thank you for doing that and for spreading this concept of leadership. Only good things can happen from it..

  • Elliot McKinney says:

    I truly enjoy this weekly blog. Fantastic! I’m generally cautious of a carrot / stick program and looking for some other thoughts on this. The programs described do not look like it would generate unintended consequences because the dollar amounts are low and the gaming is simple. My concern is that introducing “money” into a task that we should be otherwise motivated and driven to do well (we are internally driven to do well, right?) may cause us to feel less satisfaction??

    I’m all for competition, having fun and winning yet, I struggle with balancing programs like these…… Tough topic for me.

    Excellent blog!! thank you, em

    • Sean Murphy says:

      While I can’t speak for Bob directly, I can share with you my own experiences with these programs here at Barry-Wehmiller as they pertain to sales. We engage and inspire our sales force using a number of variable compensation programs, just as most organizations do. What sets us apart from the rest in terms of our execution is that we couple these programs with consistent, broad-sweeping recognition and celebration of successes – through e-mail, PPT slides displayed on plasma TVs, letters home from Bob or from senior leaders to the spouses of our associates, and other ways that complement and amplify the monetary incentives. The monetary incentives drive specific behaviors and make it fun for our associates who participate– let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be compensated for great work–and the recognition and celebration of successes inspire future successes and drive home the message that we truly care about our people and appreciate their contributions and efforts.

      The learning here is to not necessarily look at monetary programs in a vacuum; rather, to look at them as one element of a larger, more holistic system of driving behaviors and inspiring greatness.

    • Bob Chapman says:

      We have learned that the best way to find the hidden skills/talents of people is to inspire them and there are obviously many way to do this. One way, among many that we use, is the inspiration that comes from simple weekly ‘games’ where the fun becomes as important as the reward. The team members know the score every minute of the day, just like professional athletes know the score in the games in which they play. I only wish I could find a way to bring this same motivation to every team member, as those who are engaged in these ‘games’ go home each night knowing how they did and how the team did. We had no experience in this type of inspiration but it was amazing how it created positive cultures and inspired people to develop and share their best talents and go home fulfilled! –Bob

  • Dan Aude says:

    Thanks for sharing your words Bob. It makes complete sense to me that because of a simple game as the examples given some clarity are provided to a standing goal. For example, when defining the game some very important components are defined; the objective, the rules, teams, and score keeping providing clear and concise expectations. People respond to systems that are familiar to them, and we all have been involved with games from very early on so it’s natural for us to understand the goals and by motivated to win. Great post.
    Dan Aude

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