My Interview with Barry-Wehmiller: the $2B Company that Chose People over Layoffs During the 2008 Recession

My Interview with Barry-Wehmiller: the $2B Company that Chose People over Layoffs During the 2008 Recession

Check out my guest-post here.

What is the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge?

In our current world filled with uncertainty, ubiquitous inundation of technology, and political turmoil, many of us are feeling more and more disconnected from the very thing that has been scientifically proven to determine our overall sense of happiness: our connection to one another. Anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide rates continue to rise within populations across North America. In the name of efficiency and cost cutting, many businesses focus on numbers over people. Many schools focus on grades and achievement, instead of cultivating conscientious, passionate, innovative, and entrepreneurial students. On both macro and micro levels, it feels as though our country, many businesses, organizations, and schools are in crisis.

As bestselling author on workplace motivation and behavioural management Dan Pink asserts, “individuals spend over half of their waking hours at work.” Most people want to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, that what they are doing is meaningful, and essentially, that they matter.

I believe we are all responsible for the cultures in which we work, learn, and live, and it falls on the shoulders of our leaders to show us the way.

The Small Act Big Impact 21-Day Challenge serves to promote and cultivate safe and supportive cultures in workplaces and educational organizations.  We encourage individuals from all walks of life (leaders, employees, parents, students) to intentionally commit to performing at least one altruistic act per day for 21 consecutive days, putting aside differences, busy schedules, expectations of recompense, and assumptions, to do so. What’s incredible is that it’s scientifically proven that people not only feel happier when they do kind acts, but their actions actually contribute to making those around them happier, too! The kicker? By committing to 21-days of intentional kindness, habits of perspective-taking, altruism, and gratitude are formed at the neurological level and eventually lead to significant positive, long-lasting ripple-effects in workplace and institutional cultures.

How can businesses incorporate the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge within their workplaces?

The 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Kindness Challenge starts with a conscious commitment from individual employees, employers, and/ or companies to come up with meaningful ways to add value to their corporate culture throughout a dedicated 21-day period. It can be as simple as buying a coffee for a co-worker, congratulating a team-member on a recent success, writing an appreciative email, or listening to a friend vent, without judgement.

Or, it can be as far-reaching as, CEO of $2+ billion-dollar global supplier and manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller, Bob Chapman’s legendary furlough program, through which he was able to avoid devastating layoffs in 2008 by implementing a mandatory unpaid 4-week vacation. As Chapman has said, “It’s better that we should all suffer a little, than any of us should have to suffer a lot.” The leader is responsible for setting the tone through the choices they make, not by simply plastering their walls with slogans that sound good or are ‘on trend.’ We must ask ourselves daily whether we are proud of our interactions. It comes down to choosing integrity over what feels easy.Taking care of our employees and coworkers reinforces that they matter. We should all be striving toward actively creating workplace, educational, and community cultures guided by principles of tolerance, respect, and generosity.

How did the idea for the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge come about?

I read Simon Sinek’s incredible book, Leaders Eat Last(which told the story of Bob Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller) while on maternity leave with my second child. So many of the ideas he shared resonated deeply with me. In the book, he explains effects of stress and kindness on the brain.

Cortisol, Sinek explains, is the stress chemical dischargedby the brain into our body. It shuts down all of the non-essential functions in our bodies like digestion, growth, and our immune system so that we can instantly react to danger by running away, fighting, or freezing.Cortisol also directly stops the flow of oxytocin (the empathy hormone) in our bodies.The problem is, people are feeling stressed out more and more frequently and cortisol is staying in our bodies for way too long. It’s having harmful effects on our health, mental well-being, and most importantly, our ability to connect with people.

Oxytocin, the hormoneresponsible for the feelings of love, connection, and empathy is released when we receive or perform an altruistic act. It turns out, oxytocin is also released when someone simply witnesses a nice gesture. Incredibly, neuroscientists have discovered that genuine kindness is literally contagious and has the power to counteract the effects of stress. Consequently, simply engaging in kind acts can make those around us happier and less-stressed through association.

It was the first time I had truly come across the science of kindness as it relates to workplaces and educational cultures.It felt like a powerful realization for me. As a teacher and aspiring educational leader, I naturally began thinking about the way that these theories could be adapted for implementation within the classroom and our school communities.

Teachers and educational leaders need to work actively to create supportive environments that foster a sense of belonging, especially if we wish to create cultures of innovation within our schools and post-secondary institutions. After all, we are preparing our students for the very uncertain future. We need to teach them to innovate and adapt. We need to encourage students to try new things, share their ideas, take risks, and feel the sting of failure in a safe environment.

So, I asked myself: How can we encourage individuals to become responsible for the culture of empathy in their workplaces, educational organizations, and institutions, and to do so with the intent of creating lasting change?

That’s when I came up with the idea of a 21-day kindness challenge. Intentional kind acts would result in a more positive change in culture and extending it to a 21-day campaign, would ensure lasting change.

What differentiates the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge from the random and sporadic nature of other kindness initiatives is the 21-day commitment. If we’re to create positive shifts within our cultures long-term, we need to fundamentally change our habits.

Shawn Achor, Harvard-educated author of The Happiness Advantage, states that it takes approximately 21 days to develop a single new habit. In 2008, he led a study with a large group of tax managers at KMPG to test the habits directly related to fostering optimism and happiness through kindness and gratitude. “Our brains don’t like change,” he noted. Nevertheless, the more you practice kindness and gratitude, the stronger the neuro-pathways become, which helps to make these habits become more automatic. Think of it like exercising a muscle. The more you practice perspective taking, random acts of kindness, and act altruistically, the easier it becomes. After the 21-days (and 4 months later after a subsequent retest), the experimental group’s score was much higher than the control group’s when it came to overall “optimism and life satisfaction.” This proves that practicing habits of kindness and gratitude towards others can not only create lasting habits but can also dramatically affect your own happiness.

So, I got to work. After creating a short and impactful animated whiteboard video explaining the challenge, I began touring a number of school districts, speaking in classrooms, at whole-school group assemblies, and, basically, spreading the word. That was nine months ago! The results and interest in the challenge have been phenomenal.

Currently, I am working on a number of projects that reflect the values of the Small Act Big Impact Challenge. I am in the process of designing professional development to provide teachers and leaders with a roadmap for integrating the program within their classrooms and schools in a cohesive way. I also write a weekly blog about kindness, resilience, and vulnerability. Because I am a huge fan of podcasts, the Small Act Big Impact 21-Day Challenge will be launching our very own podcast this summer! Finally, I’m putting my money where my mouth is through two projects that are close to my heart. Next year, we will be holding the Second Annual Small Act Big Impact Charity Photoshoot for single-parents through our synergy with a local non-profit organization. Ten world-class photographers have committed to providing low-income single parents from my hometown with beautiful, quality photo keepsakes of their families, free of charge. I am also currently working on developing a photo-journalism project that will tell the stories of and directly benefit the homeless population in my city. In a nutshell, this project has been tremendously rewarding!

What is “Minute Monday?” What is your hope for these videos?

Our lives are so busy! Many of us barely have 5 minutes for ourselves to meditate, eat well, or exercise, let alone time to stay up to date on the latest inspiring ideas and thought leaders out there.

My YouTube Minute Monday Series is a bite-sized, one-minute glimpse into the big influencers who inspired the 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge. Generally, the videos reinforce and provide examples of the possibility of intentional, daily kindness.

My hope is that individuals will resonate with what they see and become inspired to learn more about and incorporate some of the altruistic and innovative ideas within their own lives to make their workplaces, homes, and communities more positive, supportive places. I know from personal experience, sometimes, all it takes is a spark of inspiration to make big, lasting change.

The thing is, we can all contribute to kind and resilient cultures through our actions, whether we do so publically or through the small things we do daily. We all stand to benefit from a stronger sense of connection to one another. The 21-Day Small Act Big Impact Challenge is intended for anyone who wants to make his/her life more fulfilling and to inspire others to live in much the same way.

Together, let’s make a big impact, one small act at a time.

 

A Visit with Santa and a Generous Invitation

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It was 9:16 am, Frank Sinatra’s Christmas album was playing in the background, and both of my children, smiling faces illuminated by the late November morning sun, were bundled and strapped in the back of our vehicle as we cruised down the highway on our way to beat the crowds and meet Santa. My husband was out of town, so I had devised an itinerary jam-packed with fun-filled kid-friendly activities to get us in the holiday spirit and fight off cabin fever. Baking, crafts, checking-out Christmas book titles from the library, visits with friends, kicking back with classic family movies, and photos with Santa…it was going to be fun.

This is likely the first and only year I have ever embraced the “magic of Christmas” and all of its commercial baggage so darn early. But, considering last year’s Christmastime debacle and dashed dreams as a result of my unexpected vertigo symptoms, one can’t really blame my earnest and eager efforts to squeeze every last ounce out of the impending holiday season!

That morning, I had prepared and mentally geared-up for the usual Outfit-Resistance Routine, only to be pleasantly surprised when my 3.5 year-old-daughter not only agreed to wear the reindeer sweater I had laid out for her, but excitedly reached for it and exclaimed how much she loved it! Nonchalantly, I had slowly backed away, dressed her brother in his companion reindeer sweater, and ushered them both into the vehicle, barely saying a word so as not to draw her attention to my complete shock in case she changed her ever-loving mind.

We finally pulled into the already bustling Mayfair Mall parking lot and quickly found a spot. It turns out “beat the lines” was everyone’s mantra that morning. The mall had barely opened its doors and already streams of coordinated children, dressed in green, red, metallics, and stark whites, poured into the building, eyes gleaming with excitement, little hands tugging and urging their parents along. You could see some children jockeying to be the first ones in the doors, some of them literally pushing past families to do so. My heart skipped a beat. Maybe this was a mistake. I paused, gazed at the scene, and deeply inhaled the fresh, crisp air. Then, I turned to haul the double-stroller out of my trunk, a must-have fall-back when you have two small children under three-and-a-half years of age.

We reached the entrance of the mall and bee-lined for Santa. I immediately became aware of two little girls, sisters around 10 years of age, flanking either side of my stroller. They were dressed in the most stunning coordinated red and green plaid dresses, golden ballet flats, and white knit capped-sleeve sweaters. I realized quickly that these girls meant business. Their straight brown hair swung from side to side as they pumped their elbows to propel themselves past the stroller as Santa’s workshop came into view. I resisted the childish urge to pick up my pace. However, I couldn’t counteract the sinking feeling that ensued as we rounded the corner and spotted the snaking line-up, 20 people deep. Santa wouldn’t arrive for another 20 minutes. Again, I thought of the memories, sighed, and resigned myself to whatever misery would meet us in that line-up. We joined in, coming in second behind the coordinated sisters.

I should mention, before I had children, I made grandiose declarations about the “kind of parent” I would be. Technology, unhealthy treats, unnecessary negotiations, and kid-centric food would NOT be employed in our house. As a new teacher, I would sometimes find myself lamenting a romanticised historical time when children demonstrated the fine art of waiting patiently with little more than a verbal reminder. Cue the enormous eye-roll. How ignorant was I to the perils and unrelenting marathon that is parenting!?

Fast-forward to the present, I am humbled by the experience of motherhood. It has been an incredibly beautiful, challenging journey. Parenting my children has been the most humanizing, reflective experience in my life. In many ways, entering the world of parenthood has forced me to evaluate the, sometimes, unrealistic expectations I have not only of myself, but of my children.

So, I forgive my imperfections.

I employ the use of occasional unhealthy treats.

Sometimes, I make empty threats.

I use my best negotiation tactics on an almost-daily basis.

Most days, our meals consist of a predictable rotation of kid-centric food.

And technology makes appearances at least once-a-day.

And, in that Santa line-up…I used every last trick in my arsenal.

I had to laugh at the irony, as my son was back-arching, I was plying both children with “special treats” usually only reserved for the potty, and my daughter was plugged into Charlie Brown Christmas (I know, I’m pretty sure it’s single-handedly responsible for teaching preschoolers the word “stupid”), I made eye-contact with a past parent and student I had taught.

Oh…terrific.

There’s something sort of acceptable about feeling like a gong-show parenting failure in public when you feel anonymous, but the overwhelm reaches a whole new level when you actually know those around you, professionally. I smiled apologetically. She and her daughter gave a big friendly wave in our direction.

Forty minutes later, my parent-teacher ego a little bruised, we eventually arrived. We were second in line and could finally spot the big man, himself, between the photo set’s enormous sparkling trees. My daughter was star-struck, a smile spread across her face as she and her brother peered through the branches.

In that moment, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. The two sisters stood in front of us smiling and invited us to go in front of them. I’m not sure if it was guilt for having beat us in the race to greet Santa, outright pity, or the giving spirit, but I appreciated the genuinely thoughtful gesture, nonetheless. Instinctively, I started to refuse, but remembered how magnificent it feels when someone graciously accepts your kindness. Their generosity made a big impact on me. It allowed me to practice the art of receiving. It also reminded me to search for ways to make those around me feel supported by and connected to humanity, especially throughout the busyness and chaos of the holidays.

Genuinely, I thanked the girls and their parents, and watched as my children greeted Santa, my son tentatively and reluctantly, my daughter enthusiastically.

It had been worth it, after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handfuls of Hope

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“Why would God make me this way?” he threw his hands up exasperated, standing in the middle of the grocery aisle as she stood beside him.

My 84-year-old friend, Kate, a devout Christian, had spotted Sam immediately upon entering the grocery store that day, hunched over as he squinted at the ingredients on a box of cereal.

A resident in her senior’s complex, he had been struggling with presenting his true identity to the world. Born a female, Sam had recently decided to bravely transition in the last act of his life, through hormone therapy, to the man with whom he had always identified.

Adversity was no stranger to Sam. He struggled daily with depression and anxiety. He could be seen frequently breaking down publically, shouting angrily at passers-by from the steps of his apartment. Other residents in Kate’s complex tended to avoid Sam, unable to grapple with the uncertainty and erratic nature of their interactions.

He was often solitary.

He walked alone.

Shopped alone.

Spent every holiday alone.

Kate was always good to him. She made sure to honour and call him by his chosen name. She always acknowledged him in passing.

This day was a little different.

“Oh, I just can’t today,” she thought initially when she saw him standing there. She was exhausted after a long week of medical appointments and the last thing she wanted to do was navigate unpredictable waters with her neighbour. She began to turn on her heel for the opposite direction, to avoid Sam before he could see her.

But, in that moment, something stopped her.

She knew he needed her today.

So, she angled her cart toward Sam, and made her way over to him, greeting him sincerely with a big smile and a friendly “hello.”

He looked up, surprised, then, upon recognizing Kate, his face broke into a wide grin.

As it turns out, it had been a particularly difficult day for Sam. He had been contemplating his identity, struggling with whom he thought he had to be for the world to accept him, questioning his worthiness and existence.

They stood together, for a long time. She listened. He talked. She validated him as he revealed his fears. He felt safe and heard. Sometimes, that is all we seek.

There were tears and even a hug.

Before he turned to go, Sam stopped her suddenly, grasping her hand, “You know, Kate, I was feeling miserable earlier, but after talking to you, I feel…hopeful.”

My 84-year old friend, leaned in a little closer, placing her freckled hand on his shoulder and whispered gently, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Giving Thanks for An Unexpected Encounter

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“What beautiful blue eyes!” her voice broke through my thoughts as I waited, admittedly impatient for the sign to invite us to cross the busy road. It was the Saturday of a hectic Thanksgiving weekend, we were set to catch the next ferry to our favourite gulf island, and I had just raced into a nearby pharmacy to buy some necessary supplies to ward off the beginnings of flu season, my blue-eyed-one-year-old strapped to my body.

I had noticed her.  A flat brown mop of hair, swaying slightly, speaking to everyone and no one, gaping darkness where teeth once stood, assaulting the big yellow button repeatedly as she urged the lights to change, so she too, could cross the street.

I had noticed her, but I hadn’t really seen her.

Until she spoke to me.

There exists a distance so expansive between truly seeing people, as they intend to be seen, and accepting the representatives they send forth into the world. First impressions seem easier to comprehend. We allow ambivalence to bubble up somewhere deep inside of us, born from the lack empathic connection. Ambivalence often leads to dehumanization. When we dehumanize people, scary things can happen: incidents of road rage, hateful anonymous comments on the internet, violence, and general indifference to human suffering. We tell ourselves the story that we are not responsible for others, that they have made choices to wind up where they are, that we are powerless to create positive change, and we shrug our collective shoulders, overwhelmed by our own lives, and let ourselves off the hook.

It’s easy to become protectionist, to turn away from that we don’t understand, to write people off based on our assumptions of who they are.

But, when we choose to be witness to the humanity in people, to see people’s truth, to will ourselves to see beyond the confines of their label, beautiful moments abound.

I could have ignored the homeless woman, who took a risk to tell ME how lovely my baby was. The woman who had nothing to give, but gifted me her kindness. On a weekend meant for giving thanks for the abundances we enjoy, I could have refused to speak to her out of fear.

But, I didn’t.

I chose to see her humanity. To hear the kindness in her words. To feel her need for genuine human connection.

I turned to her, looked into her eyes, acknowledged and thanked her authentically, as I would a friend. Her eyes widened, then her face broke out into a smile. I asked how her day was going and listened attentively as she told me.

As the sign turned, indicating that it was finally our turn cross the street, I wished her a heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving.

“Bless you,” she said and grinned before turning and walking away.

The funny thing is, I felt luckier for having met her.

As I walked toward my vehicle, I wrapped my arms around my baby boy, reminded of how incredibly blessed I am.