When I started seeing that my business was losing employees – and ultimately clients – because of my approach to people problems, I knew I had to do something drastic to stop the bleeding. Here's why and how I created the position of chief happiness officer.
I've been an entrepreneur since I was a teenager. I built and sold a promotions company and a nightclub before I was out of college. Having that success early on taught me to trust my instincts and be comfortable with my decisions, because they were usually the right ones.
I carried that approach with me when I founded my current agency, Drive Social Media. It worked for a while – until we grew from a 10-person company into a multimillion-dollar agency. As I became responsible for the professional development and, ultimately, long-term success of more and more employees, it became apparent that there were gaps in my personality and skill set that weren't conducive to a thriving business.
My mind is always on growth – the next step, the next idea, the next deal. As a result, I don't have a ton of patience for underachieving employees, missed deadlines or consistent mistakes. However, I do realize these things happen, they are part of owning a business, and I can't fire every person who makes an errorf. I also realize that today's workforce has different expectations of an employer from previous generations. People want their employer to pat them on the back when they do a good job, and talk them off the ledge when things aren't going well.
I've lost employees because I haven't catered enough to their feelings and emotions, and because they don't like the fact that I never take time to slow down and recognize them, their milestones or accomplishments. My mentality is always "OK, that's done, what's next?" But I know today's workforce has a strong focus on work-life balance. In fact, only 67 percent of millennials say they are happy at work, so my old-school approach could be detrimental in some ways to the growth and stability of the business.
But it wasn't just employees we sometimes struggled to retain. Clients threw us a lot of curveballs too. We noticed that, because many clients love their team and their account executive, they don't want to tell them if they don't like the work or aren't seeing the results they want. The client will bottle that information up until it comes time for contract renewal. The team then thinks, "What the heck? We thought you were happy with everything. You never said you weren't happy." I wanted to give our customers an additional outlet to voice concerns or ask questions without worrying about sparing their team's feelings.
I didn't have the time while I was growing the business to deal with every client who needed to speak to someone outside of their team. Because I'm so deeply focused on developing the business, I knew I needed to create a position that focused on the satisfaction of our two biggest assets: clients and employees. That's when I created the position of CHO – chief happiness officer.
The right person in the right seat
CHO isn't a role for just anyone. You need someone you know you can trust with this kind of freedom and someone who truly cares for your employees and clients as people. I chose our CHO, Jen Meinhardt, for several reasons. The main – and most important – was that people naturally gravitated to her with all their complaints, concerns and feelings. A lot of people would go to her and vent because they thought I didn't like them, or I was being hard on them, or they thought my feedback was personal.
My CHO has the natural and honest ability to make employees feel valued, even though I don't always express it. She's a chameleon with people in general, whether that be a client or a co-worker, and she's able to adjust her approach from conversation to conversation while still coming off as genuine. She quickly gains people's trust and comes up with strategic solutions that are specific to the client or employee in question. Simply put, she's the best people person I've got.
Building employee relationships
Studies show that happy employees contribute to successful businesses – in fact, they are up to 20 percent more productive than their unhappy counterparts. Our CHO takes all employees out for a one-on-one outing within their first six months of work. She bases the outing on what she learned about them though the onboarding process and the interactions they've had with her since beginning work.
She ensures the setting will be something that makes the employee comfortable, not herself. She plans something to get them to open up. She chooses an environment that feels like a warm blanket, which helps the employee feel more comfortable to be candid in their interactions. The idea is that she fosters a relationship that makes the employee feel like it's all about them. They feel like they have a support system and that they are truly cared about where they work.
Free rein to please clients
Our CHO is given the freedom to make moves that are in the best interests of the company. She is the only employee in the entire company besides myself who can hire and fire and has an unlimited budget. When a client needs some hand-holding, the CHO is the one to handle the situation, and she's free to make a decision on how to do that. This can be as simple as a phone call or a lunch date, or more outside the box, like taking them ax throwing, skydiving or on a helicopter ride (which she's done). At one point, a client mentioned that they loved goats. So, when we were getting close to contract renewal time, she somehow found a place that does goat yoga! This creative approach facilitated a personalized experience that she knew they would love – not just "let's get lunch."
This sets up a system where I worry about client retention from a data/results perspective, and she can focus on maintaining and developing the relationship. That way, I can continue pressing forward, developing strategies and products that contribute to our growth.
Rating performance on retention
The one benchmark that a CHO should be held to is retention of both employees and clients. Every week I sit down with her and we go through where our employees are, who's having issues, and who we think might need some extra love. Then we go through clients who have voiced some concern or given us reason to think they might not be 100 percent satisfied. We discuss how she plans on addressing it and what the next steps will be. Our client and employee turnover has drastically decreased since the position was created, and our culture and morale is extremely high as well.
I call my CHO the moment a client or employee comes to me to talk about their feelings or frustrations with their job or our process. The entire purpose of the CHO is to fix the troops and put them back out on the production floor, or find the pain point of a client, alleviate it, and get them back on track with us as soon as possible.
If you're like me, you started a business because you have an entrepreneurial spirit and/or an idea – not because you're great at talking to and managing people. If you're experiencing issues with retention, or if you simply want a good team and client roster to remain intact, creating a CHO position will bring many happy returns.