'Hug Your People'

Jack Mitchell, CEO of a successful clothing retail company, shares his unique approach to rewarding employees for productivity's sake.

Friday, February 1, 2008
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It may sound a bit overt, but giving "hugs" to employees -- a euphemism for showing them, in very human and personal ways, that their work is valued -- can help the bottom line. So says Jack Mitchell, chairman and CEO of Mitchells/Richards/Marshs, headquartered at Mitchells in Westport, Conn.

In a recent Q&A with Staff Writer Barbara Worthington, Mitchell talked about his latest book, Hug Your People: The Proven Way to Hire, Inspire and Recognize Your Employees and Achieve Remarkable Results, due for release next month. Aimed at promoting team building and leadership, the book details ways to motivate employees, which he has found not only creates extraordinary loyalty, but also enhances productivity and morale.

Mitchell establishes personal relationships with his employees, and personally tailors rewards and recognition to their specific interests. It may be a gift certificate to a chic restaurant for a food lover or a round of golf for a particularly passionate golfer on his staff.

And for Mitchell, this personalization appears to be working as a retention tool, as witnessed by the long tenures of his 232 employees, including 11 percent with more than 20 years of service and two associates who have been employed by the upscale retailer for more than 40 years. With annual sales in excess of $75 million, the successful clothier outfits hundreds of power brokers from the Northeast region of the United States.

Please explain the concept of "hugging your people."

In our third-generation family business, we've been trying to build personal and professional relationships with each and every associate who works with us. We've been doing that since my mom and dad started the family business almost 50 years ago.

My brother, Bill, and my wife and me are second generation. We have seven sons between us who are in the business. From the very beginning, we have always tried to get to know all our associates as real people and we try to enable them to grow and maximize their potential within the organization. We try to hire people we trust, and they trust us. That builds a lot of pride in what we do.

We try to include associates in projects and decision-making we get involved in. We pay them well. But we believe it's really more than the money. It's trying to find different strokes for different folks and make them feel great so that, when they wake up in the morning, they love coming into work.

You attempt to personalize relationships with all employees?

Yes. And when that happens, of course, they feel really great about working with us and they stay for their career. We try to attract and hire really great people who will spend a lifetime with us. We're all about staying very close to our customers.

If we know our associates' names and their nicknames and their birthdays and their anniversary dates, they turn around and act similarly by 'hugging' our customers. We're a companywide customer-centric business. When we've established a relationship with each other, employees transfer that human connection, that personal relationship, to their customers and it becomes very special.

What part does hugging your people play in developing a productive corporate culture?

For us, it's everything. Without hugging our people and staying close to our associates, the whole foundation of our culture falls apart. Most clothing stores of our type are all about their products or their services. Our paradigm is: We focus on our great people because you don't get extraordinary personalized customer service in a vacuum.

Only great people can deliver that. The mind-set is to really personalize relationships. Everybody is different; and we allow those differences, talents and strengths to shine. We allow our associates to maximize their potential right here in the store. Enabling, by promoting employees' strengths, is the key to maximizing employees' potential.

Personalizing relationships leads to employees taking personal responsibility. The chemistry is then, in turn, manifest between the associates and our customers.

How would this concept apply in large corporations?

It's more difficult to execute and to have a hugging culture in a large company. But I think it can be done. HR should try to find not only people who are competent, but also determine that they're nice people and they really care about other people. Nike and Starbucks, for example, are companies that really do their best to hire and motivate and recognize their associates. It has to start at the top.

There's a wave coming across the country and globally, really. People are searching for ways they can energize their companies, and I think it starts at the top. If top managers buy into the idea, where there is transparency of policies, decisions and ideas, and if they can get their people to buy into them and feel included, employees become invested and the company's turnover goes down.

Is there a specific way to "hug" new employees when bringing them on board and integrating them into the company culture?

On the sales side, we're divided into teams, which are small groups. We have five teams at Richards, three in Men's and two in Women's. We have an orientation program during which they learn about the history, and the team leader introduces them to everyone on the team. At meetings, they're introduced to everyone and we tell a little bit about their background. And of course, we all clap.

It's amazing, when you give someone a standing ovation to start with in addition to when they retire, how that makes them smile and feel a part of the team.

We've just started Mitchell's Hugging University for educational programs, whether it's learning how to run a customer-service desk or how to ring sales up. It's done in a manner that always stresses the human connection. This whole environment promotes having fun. People develop lifelong friendships here.

How can companies identify rewards that are aligned to passions?

It's very simple. You ask the people what they're passionate about. We ask it when we hire them. We ask, "What do you do for fun?" For example, if somebody's a basketball nut, we reward him or her with tickets to a big game. We can get tickets for somebody to go to the Today Show or Saturday Night Live. They just continue to be motivated off the charts. It's important to take time off, too, to spend time with family. We're always on the lookout, trying to do something special for our associates.

How do you keep specialized rewards fair and consistent?

That is a challenge. There's no question about that. Especially for associates who think fairness means always equal. We all understand that fair is not always equal; there are different rewards and recognitions. Some associates win contests, which are open and available to everybody. People might want to go to fund-raisers, with the opportunity to dress up for the event. If you know that, then they're on the list for those types of affairs. You have to be attuned to what they like.

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In your book, you emphasize the use of contests. Why are they a good idea?

It's a motivating factor because you have a target and a goal that you're trying to hit. If you hit the target, the store wins or the department wins or the associate wins. We have contests for trunk shows, or selling shows where vendors bring special fabrics. We contact customers and invite them for the event. We have contests for how many units they might buy their customers and clients and how much money they would spend. Sometimes we might reward them per unit or per total.

Or there might be a grand prizewinner. For example, the person who sells the most might go to Italy. We try to structure it so there's something for everyone who hits a reasonably minimal bar. Sometimes, we even handicap associates in a contest like that because somebody might have many more customers than someone else.

How can large companies with large numbers of employees benefit from offering contests similar to those offered at Mitchells/Richards/Marshs?

Contests among team members create an atmosphere of smaller "communities" within large corporations. Even though they are competing, it's really about competing with themselves and raising their individual bars.

How do you feature associates in ads or letters?

We have a brochure and an in-house magazine. Both have pages that show all the associates at Mitchells, all the associates at Richards and all the associates at Marshs. It's the same thing with our magazine. We do our own photography. When the associates take these home and they show their spouses and their families, they're thrilled to be in these ads. It pays dividends because they want to come to work. It enhances their loyalty.

When you make special accommodations for associates with personal needs, such as an illness or family member's care, do you have a concern about privacy?

I really don't. To me it's mostly common sense. We have courses and our HR people tell us what the laws are so we don't violate any of them. We recently had a man in our shipping department, whose wife, I learned through the grapevine, had just discovered a recurrence of cancer. I discovered that he didn't understand the concept of a second opinion.

I went to him and explained it and he thought it was a great idea. I made a call. Within two days, his wife was seeing one of the top experts in the world. When people say 'this is a private matter,' then we just keep it that way. We are here for our people and they're here for us.

What message would you give to HR executives in large organizations on how best to implement this recognition concept?

First and foremost, it's the attitude that has to come from the person at the top who is giving direction and leadership to HR. If you have leaders who say, "We want to be nice to associates and we want to care for them and we really, truly, genuinely want them to stay for as long as they can listen, learn, grow and improve" -- i.e., for a lifetime -- then I say to them, "Be flexible. Have your guidelines, have your high standards. You have to be fair. Use that basic common sense. And align your people's passions and dreams with your company's."

When those things are parallel and they're aligned and you build those relationships, employees become loyal forever. And I think large companies can do it; but they have to work at it.

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