Love is the most powerful emotion on the planet, yet we’ve been conditioned to check our feelings at the door when we arrive to work each day. Leadership consultant Steve Farber thinks that’s a mistake. In his new book, he explains why love is part of a successful strategy for business. Companies large and small can reap the rewards when both managers and employees make personal connections, share their passions, and invest in each other and their customers. Farber shares his vision in his book, Love Is Just Damn Good Business: Do What You Love in Service of the People Who Love What You Do. He recently joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to make the case for love at work. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: How did you first come to this theory about the importance of love in business?
Steve Farber: I’ve been doing this work of leadership development now for 30 years. I’ve had the opportunity to work with just about every kind of organization you can imagine and just about every kind of industry, and over and over again, I’ve seen this prove itself to be true. Behind closed doors, you’ll hear leaders talk about how much they love their team, how much they love their company, their mission, their cause, their customers. But then we have this stigma associated with it, which is unfortunate and potentially tragic because when people really connect their hearts with their work, that’s when we do incredible things.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that love and business are anathema to each other, that love is important in every other aspect of our lives. We want to love our spouse; we want them to love us. We want to love our kids; we want them to love us. We love our friends; we want them to love us. Then we go to work, and suddenly it no longer applies.
Knowledge at Wharton: Leaders are usually worried about other things: profits, partnerships, the structure of the company. But you say a lot of those things can be affected by love.
Farber: Yes, exactly. In fact, that’s the entire point. We are afraid that love makes us appear weak or irrational or emotional and that we’re going to make decisions that aren’t really based on anything practical because it’s all hearts and flowers. That’s not what I mean. Any business person worth his or her salt knows that our competitive advantage in our business comes from creating a product, a service, an experience that our customers are going to love. We all know by now that satisfaction is not enough. If a customer is satisfied, there’s no greater likelihood they’ll continue to do business with us or talk about us or be loyal to the brand. But when they love us, when they love the whole experience of working with us, that’s where the payoff comes from.
But let’s back it up. The first step is, in order to create that experience for customers in a meaningful and sustainable way over time, we have to create a culture or an environment that people love working in. If I don’t love working here, it’s much more difficult for me to create the products and services that my customers are going to love.
“When people really connect their hearts with their work, that’s when we do incredible things.”
… If I don’t love what we’re doing here and love the people that I’m doing it with and the folks that we’re doing it for, then I’m just faking it. People have a pretty good BS meter. They know when we’re faking it. This isn’t about pretending, and it’s not about printing buttons and banners and saying that we love our customers. We’ve been doing that for decades. Every dry cleaner in the world has paper on their hangers that says, “We heart our customers.” That’s easy. What I’m talking about in the book is that it’s not a nice-to-have. It directly affects our results, otherwise known as the bottom line.
There are three categories of people: people who think that love has no place in business; people who think it’s a nice-to-have but not a must-have; and then the third category, which obviously I am a member of, is that love is the thing that enhances every other thing that we do to make our business successful.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your group is probably historically the lowest percentage of the three, but is it growing?
Farber: I do believe that it is picking up steam, but I’m not so sure that it’s the minority. I know that sounds a little counterintuitive because we’ve been conditioned to believe [love has] no place at work. But what I’ve found in my work, and the conclusion I’ve come to, is that I’m really not trying to convince anybody of anything…. What I found is that most people already know this. The instinct is there. The impulse is there. But they’ve thought that maybe that was wrong somehow, that they shouldn’t act on it or explore it or try to put it into practice because you’re not supposed to do that in business.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you believe this needs to be a core principle for leaders these days?
Farber: Yes. In these ultra-chaotic, polarized times that we live in, and in these days where we’re spending more and more of our lives at work, I think we have an opportunity not just to change our own individual businesses, but to change things [in general]. Just about everybody goes to work somewhere, and if we can change the expectation and the experience of what it means to go to work into an opportunity to bring ourselves fully to that work, to do great work with people that we enjoy being with, we essentially change everything.
…In the meantime, the way that we can prove that this is a better way to do things is by getting better results through doing it. It sounds like an odd phrase, but it’s “operationalizing love.” I want to be really clear about this. I’m not talking about love as a sentiment, but it’s really love as a practice and a discipline. The question we have to answer in our business is what does that look like here?
Knowledge at Wharton: How is this concept translated in the digital age, where data and technology can sometimes be more important than people?
Farber: I think that concern comes from the idea that those are mutually exclusive — that numbers and technology are in one category and love is in another category. I’m suggesting they are not because human beings are creating those numbers. Artificial intelligence and the implications of that aside, we are a collection of human beings getting together in a work environment to create stuff, right? We use data and technology to give us more intelligence about our marketplace and an opportunity to find the right customers and connect with them. Once that connection gets made, we have an opportunity to create a relationship, to create an experience.
Knowledge at Wharton: Managers can bring forth a lot of this, but what about the employees? What about human resources?
Farber: This is a really critical point: Leadership fundamentally has nothing to do with your position or title, and what we are talking about here is leadership. It’s our ability to influence people around us to change things for the better.
I’ll be polite about this. I’ve met lots of people in my work over the years who sit very prominently on their company’s organizational chart. They have very lofty and impressive-sounding titles. They have thousands of people that report to them, yet they still have a bit of work to do as far as their leadership goes. But the other side of that equation, which is what you’re alluding to here, is I can’t tell you how many people I have met that are not in positions of authority. They’re nobody’s boss. They’re nobody’s supervisor. They’re members of the team. They’re on the frontline. They’re doing the work, no position or title, but they’re great leaders by virtue of who they are, what they do, how they approach their work, how they live, how they connect with people and their ability to influence people to change things for the better.
“If I don’t love working here, it’s much more difficult for me to create the products and services that my customers are going to love.”
This leadership model is something that’s open to everybody. Top-down is always great when you’re trying to change a culture or improve a culture or enhance an environment, but it doesn’t always have to start there. Regardless of your position or title, from wherever you sit in your company, ask yourself this question: What can I do right now, regardless of what anybody else around here is or is not doing, to change my piece of this business for the better? That’s a leadership question. To say, “Yeah, we’ll bring this love thing in as soon as my idiot boss gets it” — that’s the same thing as saying, “I choose not to lead.”
Knowledge at Wharton: But that’s a personal decision, and many people are nervous to take that step.
Farber: It’s always a level of personal decision, without exception. We do talk a lot about culture, and for all the right reasons. It’s a very important thing. If you work in a big company, you tend to think you’re a cog in the machine. But the fact of the matter is that companies large and small also have micro-cultures, subcultures. Each team has its own culture. Each neighborhood, so to speak, in the company has its own culture. And that’s where all of us have an influence.
If you can prove in your piece of your company that there is a better way to do things through the kinds of relationships that you create, then you have an opportunity to change things at a grass roots level. Because as business people, we’re interested in results. So it starts to happen. People from other parts of the company start looking over the fence at you and saying, “What are you doing over there? How are you getting those results?” That’s leadership. We don’t have to wait for somebody to give us permission to operationalize love in the way that we do business; we just start doing it.
There are people doing this all over the place…. It’s not about walking around saying, “I love you, man. I love you, man.” It’s about acting as though I do.
Knowledge at Wharton: Whether you’re a big or small business, are there elements that work for both?
Farber: Absolutely. I know this is going to sound strange, but every company that I’ve met, whether they’re big or small, has one thing in common. They’re all populated by human beings. This is the human element of business, but it’s something that has extraordinary impact. Let me give you an example, because I think I’m speaking a little bit abstractly.
One of my favorite case studies is a company in Jacksonville, Fla., called Trailer Bridge. They’re not in a sexy business. They’re in the shipping business, so they ship containers primarily from the mainland to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It’s a toxic place. They’ve been in business now for about 30 years. But a number of years ago, they were spiraling down, they were in bankruptcy. People were dying to get out of there. The customer service numbers were terrible. They burned through four CEOs in three years, four heads of HR in the same period of time, and then Mitch Luciano was tapped by the board to turn the place around.
“I’m not talking about love as a sentiment, but it’s really love as a practice and a discipline.”
Now, Mitch is a love guy. That’s where he comes from. That’s his leadership approach. He was influenced by my first three books, The Radical Leap, The Radical Edge, and Greater Than Yourself, where I first posited this idea and this practice of love. He said to his board, “I’m going to turn this place around, but I’m going to warn you that it’s not going to be the usual sort of thing. … I believe in these people. I want to create an environment that people are going to love working in. That’s how we’re going to affect things.”
He did a number of things. Some of them were symbolic, and some of them were systemic. Symbolically, he said, “Listen, we’re a small company, 120 people. Everybody’s walking around with name tags on. Why? Shouldn’t we know each other? Let’s start with that.” Then he lowered the cubicles in the common area so people could see into each other’s faces. Then he put in foosball tables and ping-pong tables and taco trucks to bring everybody together. By the way, he did not take the title of CEO because of the baggage associated with it. He said, “I need to earn that title. When you guys see me as the CEO, then I’ll take the title.”
Here’s what it looks like from a customer perspective. In the old days, their policy was they would not ship unless their container was 75% full. Let’s say you’re a customer shipping a car to Puerto Rico for your family. You tell them it’s going to be there on such-and-such a date, and then you find out that it didn’t sail because the container wasn’t full enough. Your car is still sitting there.
They asked this question: “If we loved our customers, what would we do?” And the answer is really obvious when you put it that way. “We would sail. It’s not the customer’s problem that we’re going to lose money on it, but we should sail.” They started sailing, and they started taking care of people, and they started getting to know each other. And they asked this question: What does love look like around here? And they answered it in probably hundreds of ways.
Fast-forward and they were voted No. 1 and No. 2 best place to work in the city of Jacksonville. They are killing it. They’re expanding all over the country. The revenue of the last two years has exceeded the previous 25 years of the company. They’ve turned it around, and they are not shy about this. They’re very overt in their objective to create an environment that people love working in. As a result, they don’t spend any money on recruiters anymore because they don’t need them. Their employees are their best recruiters. It’s a phenomenal turnaround, and there is tough love associated in this. There are people that weren’t right for this new culture, and they are no longer there.
“It’s not about walking around saying, ‘I love you, man. I love you, man.’ It’s about acting as though I do.”
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s a short-term loss for the long-term gain,
Farber: It can be. Their history was that people in this small company would be fiercely protective of their turf, their title, their information and their knowledge. There were information and knowledge hoarders there. Mitch said, “Look, to create an environment that people love working in, we have to help each other. That means we have to share our knowledge and educate each other and mentor each other and help each other. We’ve got to break down these silos.” Frankly, there were people in his management team that wanted no part of that. He gave them a chance, he gave them coaching, and some just didn’t come around. He said, “If you’re more interested in holding onto your knowledge and information, then you’re really of no use or service to this organization.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Another company you mention in the book is American Greetings, the greeting card company. You would think love wouldn’t be an issue there.
Farber: This is not an easy thing. In fact, people say, “Oh, that love stuff is soft.” It’s hard. It’s about as hard as it gets. But American Greetings is a great example because their mission is to create happiness, laughter and love. It’s written on their walls at their corporate headquarters, which they call their creative studios. You could say that’s a marketing thing. Happiness, laughter and love — that’s what greeting cards are all about. But they challenged themselves to apply that internally. Their challenge there is you’ve got 20,000 people in an iconic company that’s been around for over 100 years. They’ve had changes in leadership. Their previous CEO, John Beeder, just retired. They have a new CEO. There’s always a challenge in this, but that’s OK because they’re very clear in their objective.
When they built their creative studios, they got a lot of input from their artists as to what kind of environment they want in their corporate headquarters. Everybody said they wanted natural light in every part of the building. So, they modified their plans and spent something like an extra $30 million to put natural light through the building because that’s what people said would be the most conducive environment for them to be creative.