Leading in Celebration

This is the second post in my four part Leadership blog series. Last week I discussed the importance of service in leadership. This week I focus on another important aspect: Celebration.

It was our second year as a company, and I was in the mood to celebrate a small victory. So I grabbed my phone, punched in the page all feature and let my good news fly. A few minutes after I made the announcement, I was at my desk when one of our software engineers burst in and slammed his phone down in front of me. “If you page one more time, we are all going to walk out of here and quit!” he snapped at me. Then he turned around and went back to work.

At the time, we had about 75 associates and every day seemed so critical to our survival. I would look for any good thing I could pass along to the team to encourage them, to reinforce what I believed so deeply: that we were on our way to building a wildly successful company. At the same time we had a long way to go. There was plenty of tension in our engineering group, as the product was young and the client list was growing rapidly. Every new celebration meant more work for the engineering team, and it was clear this software engineer was stressed and near his breaking point.


Benefitfocus Company Culture - Patio Meetings


I learned two things from that experience. First, I learned getting on the phone and paging everyone to tell them everything that was happening was not always the best idea. Second, I learned we needed to find a way to come together and celebrate even when everyone didn’t feel like it. The tension between wanting to celebrate yet feeling like you are nowhere near the finish line is a common paradox in high growth companies. Either you learn to live in that tension and find a way to thrive, or you will break apart. We needed to find a way to thrive.

To me, celebration is a very organic response to just about anything I see or hear that is good. In the situation above, I didn’t want to have a wet blanket placed on my enthusiasm for all that we were accomplishing; however, it became clear that our team needed some space and time to focus, so I began to organize our celebrations into what we called “patio meetings”—and made sure to give everyone plenty of notice. Our patio meetings gave us a way to channel our enthusiasm in a simple yet powerful way, while also providing the opportunity for us to learn and develop together. It also provided me an outlet to share why celebration was important.

That message acted as a consistent reminder of the importance of pausing to enjoy the moment. We learned the value of clapping for our peers, even when we were maybe behind on our own project. Eventually, “Celebrate” became our third core value and is now printed on the back of our badges. It became an essential part of our culture. The tension still exists but now our appreciation for victories, small and large, has given us a new perspective, one that keeps our organization united, healthy and strong.

We can all use more reflection on what is good, so I continue to press for more celebration, not less. Our natural tendency is to wait for everything to be perfect before we feel "allowed" to celebrate; therefore the role of the leader is to set an example and recognize ongoing accomplishments. 

Experiment with some formats and frequencies of celebrating. When you get push back, use it to reflect but don’t allow it to slow or stop the flow of group celebration. People work very hard, and they deserve to be recognized. If you do not stop today and point out something that your team did well, then when will you? Do something spontaneous for your team. Order balloons, and when people ask why, simply reply, “For my awesome team!” A leader brings people through cloudy areas and moves them back into the sunshine. Become a lifelong leader of celebration, and become the leader people want to follow.


Benefitfocus Company Culture - Unique Meetings