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Are happy employees better employees?

Experts suggest there is a connection between employee happiness and better business performance. To dig deeper into this topic, we spoke with Margaret Murphy, president of OLSONdenali to learn what her organization does for its employees to keep them productive, and, well...happy.
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By Grayce Belvedere Young, Prouty Project

The January / February issue of Harvard Business Review spotlights the economics and science between employee happiness and better business performance. The case is compelling and provides leaders an opportunity to truly examine their approach to their employees, customers, and business. To explore this locally, we asked Margaret Murphy (pictured above), the President of OLSONdenali, to share her philosophy and tactics of building a best place to work.

GBY: You and your business partners had a unique opportunity to build a culture and business from the ground up when you started Denali in 2007. How did you approach this and what specific actions did you implement to win the Star Tribune’s “Best Places to Work in 2010 (small business category)?”

MM:We focused on one of our core values – we all enjoy people and we recognized that we wanted to build a culture that “surprised and delighted” our employees, who in turn, would surprise and delight our clients to ensure a profitable, growth-oriented business. I personally believe I work for the employees; they don’t work for me. I wouldn’t ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. We all have high expectations of each other and they know I’ll pitch in to finish a client project whenever needed.. I want them to know I have their backs.

GBY: In one of the HBR research articles, they focus on the little things that contribute to people’s happiness. You talk about “surprise and delight.” What does “surprise and delight” to employees look like?

MM: We have made thoughtful business and financial decisions to build a place where people choose to work. Here are a few examples:

-- During an intense project, we gave “Bunches of Lunches” gift certificates for people to go out with each other for lunch.

-- At holidays, I give a personalize holiday gift to each team member with a handwritten note. This shows “I know who you are” and “I care about you, your family and your contribution to our business.”

-- We have monthly happy hours

-- We also have monthly lunch and learns – where employees do teach outs on clients projects, learnings from a conference, marketplace trends, and so on

-- We have ½ days on Fridays during the summer.

GBY: Lots of organizations do these types of employee-focused engagement tactics, yet few win the Star Tribune’s “Best Places to Work.” What evidence do you have that these things make a difference?

MM:Our focus on culture and clients has been instrumental in keeping awesome talent. Two pieces of evidence; first, we’ve had very few people voluntarily leave Denali, which is unusual in our industry. Second, during the Great Recession, we didn’t lose a single client. Our employees have great pride about this and it’s been a virtuous circle for us. Talented people stay; talented people attract more talented people; this results in innovative solutions for our clients; which brings in even better client work; which attracts more talent; and so on.

GBY: The HBR article quote, “People are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged – when they are trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach.” How do you incorporate this into your work?

MM:We ask ourselves as leaders and our employees to be true business partners with our clients. We seek to know the clients business strategy cold, proactively offer ideas, share trends, and share interesting perspectives across industries that will show clients how committed we are to success. This is enriching and stimulating for employees while creating an amazing client experience. We seek to provide ideas before clients even ponder what’s next. Employees love that!

GBY: Do you have any final words of wisdom?

MM: Be the co-worker you want others to be and we will all be much happier.

Grayce Belvedere Young, President, Organization Development: Grayce leads the Organization Development practice area at the Prouty Project. She brings twenty years of strategic planning and organization development expertise in numerous industries as well as the nonprofit world. Grayce partners with leaders to set strategy, drive alignment and execution, and develop talent.

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