Douglas J. Erwin Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Douglas J. Erwin is a culture nut. Culture, he says, allows people to work in a fun environment and gives them something to believe in. Erwin has created fun environments wherever he’s worked, from peddling an ice cream cart around the office and serving tasty treats to employees or turning a parking lot into a beach party. It’s hard to create that environment, but Erwin, who became chairman and CEO of The Planet in 2006, has focused on making sure that his 500 employees are excited to come to work each day at the Web and Internet technology hosting company. The business hosts more than 22,000 small and mediumsized businesses and 2.8 million Web sites worldwide, posting $110 million in 2006 revenue. Smart Business spoke with Erwin about how to get employees excited to come to work each morning and how to create a fun-filled environment.

Have fun and work hard. Create a workplace where people want to come to work. People like to work in cool places. You’ve got to have fun at work. If you don’t have fun at work, that’s not going to get transferred to when you deal with customers.

It should be an environment where, you walk in, the people will say, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ It’s creating an environment where it’s fun to work. Just something that would make it different.

If you could take somebody out of a standard job and move them to something else for a couple of days, it gives them a break and gives them a chance to see that maybe their job isn’t that bad after all.

Try to bring more value to a person’s day-to-day job by involving them in other things outside of their realm of job responsibilities. You get buy-in with these people because they had a chance to do something a little different.

Have the patience to make changes. It’s not an easy thing to do, to create culture. What’s worse is to start down that journey and not really want to. People will see through you immediately, and you will lose credibility as a leader. Hire somebody that can do it for you. Find somebody on your management team that has that twist.

You can’t just go in and wave a wand and say, ‘New sheriff in town, here’s the new culture, here’s what we’re going to do.’ It’s an evolution, a journey, a slow process.

The first thing I would ask is, ‘Do you really want to do that?’ If that person doesn’t have that passion to do that, it will fail immediately. Throw in a foosball table, big deal. Throw in a ping pong table, big deal. That’s not what makes it cool.

Just tap somebody on the shoulder when you walk by a cube and ask them what they do and listen to them. If they don’t jump up and start rattling off what the company does and how great it is, you know you’ve missed it.

If people are happy at their job, if they feel like they are more than a cog in a machine, if they’re getting paid fair, if their management treats them fair and if they’re n an environment that’s a cool place, you will have loyalty like you’ve never had before. That’s hard to do, and it takes time to build.

Be a model for employees. People are constantly looking at you. You could be walking down the hall to get a cup of coffee, and people know that you went by. Once you know that you’re in the limelight, you have to be on ‘go’ all the time.

When you talk about culture and successful cultures or not, you take a look at any of the successful companies, it starts right at the top with the leadership. Then it has to go to the next level down because if you have guys in the next level that are not leading and doing the same thing, you lose that whole side of the business.

The team should ask, ‘Are we approachable? Are we involved? Do we go out and talk to people? Are we behind closed doors?’

Let employees know their opinion is valued. You might not follow it, but at least you took the time to ask it.

Look for passion, integrity, trust, ownership and customer focus. You can see passion the moment candidates walk in and shake your hand. You can see it in their eyes, you can see it in their body language.

Start talking, and their eyes are either going to be engaged and locked in on you, or they’re going to be distant.

During an interview, I go to my board and start drawing and explaining. The passionate people will sit there and watch, and before the interview is over, they’ll be at the board drawing what they think, and you just see it in them.

Ask questions about how they manage people. Ask them how they fire people. There’s a right way and a wrong way to fire people, and most people do it the wrong way. The right way is to make sure that you’re helping people and that you’re helping them so much that they get frustrated and say, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ and leave. A firing is usually a mutual thing if it’s done properly.

Talk to them about their style of management. Start asking them to describe their strengths, and the word trust is going to get used there one way or another. That trust, unfortunately, is going to have to be a gut feel.

Turn back around and ask them a question you asked four interviews ago and see how they answer the question, see if the story changes a little bit.

Look for a person whose capacity is greater than the job they’re going to be asked to do.

When a problem occurs, own it. Don’t pass it to somebody else to fix. You might need somebody else’s talent to help you fix it, but you own it until the customer’s happy.

HOW TO REACH: The Planet, www.theplanet.com or (713) 400-5400