I’m a CEO. But the other day I was playing with puppies in a pen, in front of my employees and about 2,000 colleagues at a sales and marketing summit my company co-organized.
I also had a bakery set up at the entrance. It’s my belief that warm chocolate chip cookies and blueberry muffins move people into a different mental state. They smile, laugh, share and start bonding the way kids do and when they enter and see the puppy area, more of those adult inhibitions go away. Soon, they take turns going inside the pen, and then stand around soaking in the cuteness and talking. And I’m right there with them. I also bring my own dog in to serve as our “booth helper.”
Some people still believe CEOs are supposed to be stodgy and buttoned up all the time. And many executives I’ve encountered are just afraid to let themselves go – to be seen as human, as though somehow it will make them less of a boss.
I’ve learned that having no desire to act like men of the past has made me a better leader, in front of my employees and behind-the-scenes as well. I want all my employees, both men and women, to feel free to let a child-like sense of wonderment thrive with them at work. That means I have to do so myself, because setting the right culture starts at the top.
I know that stress destroys productivity. These days, many people aren’t letting go of stress as much as they should, even when they get home. Playtime helps solve that and boosts innovation. At a company I helped build, Udemy, we would take breaks from working to go play FIFA soccer on Playstation. I found it made our employees refreshed, refocused and more productive.
Playing around like kids also helps me and my staff overcome challenges that seem insurmountable. When I find myself wondering how I’ll tackle a huge task, I know it’s a good time to go play hockey, which I loved as a kid. While I play, I think back to the days before I knew how to strap on the ice skates and move the puck around. I learned, and got good. It reminds me that I can do the same with the task I’m facing at work.
So I encourage all of my employees to take time out to play any kind of games, whether sports or board games, or do whatever else they found fun as kids. For some, it’s going out on a sailboat. For others it’s volunteering at Boys & Girls clubs — and literally playing with children.
I’ve noticed that when they come back, there’s a new energy and excitement that I hope strengthens our business.
And the best kinds of play are the ones we do together. We learn about other sides of each other. We relate better. That makes me a better CEO. The better I understand my staff, the better I manage them. And the more they relate to me, the more honest they can be with me. That makes them want to keep working for the company, and inspires their friends to ask about open positions.
I’m constantly coming up with future plans to keep the fun alive. We may take a trip to San Diego and go to a Padres game — not as an optional evening get-together, like some businesses do, but during a workday, together.
Of course, we also work hard. There’s a stereotype some people have of the tech world — that we’re all just wearing hooded sweatshirts, playing ping pong, and getting financially lucky when some behemoth buys us out. The truth is we need to play hard because we work hard, just as people at all kinds of companies do everywhere.
So we earn those cookies and puppies. It’s moments like this that make people feel they’re part of a team — more than just a company.
Max Altschuler is the CEO of Sales Hacker.