Something Fish-y Taking Hold in the Workplace
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Something Fish-y Taking Hold in the Workplace

In 112 pages, Fish! promises to show leaders how they can create such a workplace, drawing on lessons learned from World Famous Pike Place Fish Market, where fishmongers have turned their seemingly mundane work into an entertainment spectacle, energizing

Paul Holmes

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Looking for lessons in leadership? There’s never been a better time. Browsing the shelves of your local bookstore, you could come up with an intriguing variety of advice from towering historical figures (Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun; Elizabeth I, CEO), from daring explorers (Shackleton’s Way), from great athletes (Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the 20th Century’s Greatest Champion; Joe Torre’s Ground Rules for Winners), and from biblical characters (The Leadership Lessons of Jesus; Moses on Management).

Given the easy availability of so much wisdom from so many celebrated individuals, what kind of would-be leader would choose to pay $19.95 for a slim volume of advice from a bunch of guys who don’t make much more than minimum wage hawking their wares to housewives at the Pike Place fish market in Seattle? The kind of leader who is committed to creating a workplace “where everyone chooses to bring energy, passion and a positive attitude with them each day.”

In 112 pages, Fish! promises to show leaders how they can create such a workplace, drawing on lessons learned from World Famous Pike Place Fish Market, where fishmongers have turned their seemingly mundane work into an entertainment spectacle, energizing themselves and their customers in the process. The excitement of Pike Place is captured in the Fish! video, a companion to the book, which depicts the fishmongers at work: joking with customers, hurling and catching their wares, demonstrating that workers can bring tremendous enthusiasm to the most unappealing job.

The book describes the energy level on a typical day at the market: “One of the workers—they were distinctive in their white aprons and black rubber boots—picked up a large fish, threw it twenty feet to the raised counter, and shouted, ‘One salmon flying away to Minnesota.’ Then all the other workers repeated in unison, ‘One salmon flying away to Minnesota.’ The guy behind the counter made an unbelievable one-handed catch, then bowed his head to the people applauding his skill. The energy was remarkable.

“Another worker was playfully teasing a small boy by making a large fish move its mouth as if it was talking. A slightly older fish guy with thinning gray hair was walking around shouting, ‘Questions, questions, answers to any questions about fish.’ A young worker at the cash register was juggling crabs. Two card-carrying members of the AARP were laughing uncontrollably as their fish guy salesman carried on a conversation with the fish they had chosen. The place was wild.”

(While the book captures the spirit of the market effectively, devotees of Fish! insist that to really understand what’s going on, people need to see the video, available from www.fishphilosophy.com.)

Fish! has captured the imagination of an amazing array of corporations, including Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Nordstrom, Sprint, and 3M, of the U.S. Army, and of Boston-based public relations agency Brodeur Worldwide, which incorporated the ideas and ideals of Fish! into its culture after it was discovered by one of the firm’s human resources people.

“I was attending a conference on creativity in the workplace,” says Jennifer McNally, whose title is creative culturalist. “Like most conferences, you spend a lot of time going from booth to booth, looking at different offerings, and the Fish! video was one of the first things I stumbled on. You never know whether you’re going to find hype and hullabaloo or something you can actually use, but as soon as I saw the video I knew it was something that fit with the Broduer I had joined.”

Not everyone is going to be drawn to Fish! the way McNally was. The book is not just a business novel, it’s a business romance, a sub genre with severely limited appeal. It tells the story of a woman tasked with turning around the least productive department at the bank where she works—a “toxic energy dump”—who learns how to do so by listening to the advice of a Pike Place fishmonger. Moreover, the lessons it offers up seem simple, perhaps even simplistic: 

  • Choose Your Attitude: “Let me tell you about my grandmother,” says Lonnie, a character in the book. “All of us grandkids wanted to help in the kitchen because washing dishes with Grandma was so much fun. In the process, a great deal of kitchen wisdom was dispensed. Us kids were given something truly precious: a caring adult. I realize now that my grandmother didn’t love dishwashing. She brought love to dishwashing, and her spirit was infectious.”
  • Play: “Don’t misunderstand,” says Lonnie. “This is a real business which is run to make a profit. This business pays a lot of salaries, and we take the business seriously, but we discovered we could be serious about business and still have fun with the way we conducted business. You know, not get all uptight, but let things flow. What many of our customers think of as entertainment is just a bunch of adult kids having a good time, but doing it in a respectful manner.”
  • Make Their Day: “They engage people and welcome them to join in the fun,” observes Mary Jane, the lead character. “Customers like being a part of the show, and memories are created here that will bring smiles and make good stories for a long time afterward. Involving others and working to ‘make their day’ directs attention toward the customer. Great psychology. Focusing your attention on ways to make another person’s day provides a constant flow of positive feelings.”
  • Be Present: “I was at the grocery store, waiting my turn at the meat counter,” Lonnie tells Mary Jane. “The staff was pleasant and having a good time. The problem was, they were having a good time with each other, not me. If they had included me in their fun, it would have been a whole different experience. They had most of it right but were missing the key ingredient. They weren’t present and focused on me, the customer. They were internally focused.”

As simple as this may sound, it’s wisdom that apparently resonates with young employees who don’t want work to be the grind for them it was for their parents, and with older employees who want to recapture some of the passion they felt when they first embarked on their careers. They have found that the lessons of Fish! can be applied, even in companies where there’s no product to throw around, such as Sprint’s call centers around the country, where director of global connection services Lori Lockhart was given a new title—director of possibilities—after studying the Fish! philosophy. Sprint has installed TVs in all of its call centers so employees can watch soap operas while they work, encourages employees to use in-line skates to get around the office, and has had managers arrive at work dressed as Elvis.

“The fish videos sparked it,” Lockhart says. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘Hmm, they’re onto something here. They like their jobs.’ We had to do something about it. It’s all about finding your fish to throw.” Staff retention has improved 27 percent.

Brodeur hasn’t gone quite as far, but when McNally returned from her conference “reenergized and revitalized” she sat down with agency principals John Brodeur and Andy Carney, who watched the video and immediately saw how it might be applied to the agency’s business—particularly at a time when staff retention was a major challenge for anyone in the technology PR sector.

“Our initial thought was that it would appeal primarily to the younger crowd,” says agency president Janet Swaysland. “But in fact it played will with people at every level of the organization. It’s a great way to reinforce some of the key concepts in our culture, concepts like client service and teamwork and creativity.”

It dovetailed particularly well with the firm’s new client service initiative, an attempt to create what CEO Carney calls “the Brodeur difference.”

According to McNally, people were particularly excited by the idea that they could choose their attitude. “That’s not something the company can do for you,” she says. “It’s something you have to choose for yourself. To reinforce that idea, we had people design a piece of artwork—it’s called an autogram—that represented their attitude. We had 250 people thinking about the attitude they wanted to bring to work with them. Some of them were still talking about it weeks later.”

Since then, the agency has focused on two elements of the Fish! philosophy: play—symbolized by the number of fish signs and paintings that have appeared around the office in recent months; and make their day, which has caused people to focus on providing a level of service that delights rather than merely satisfying clients.

“You hear people talking about it all the time,” says Swaysland. “‘Let’s make their day.’ It’s hard to measure the impact of a program like this in isolation, but we have had feedback from clients who know that we’re using the Fish! philosophy and want to learn more.”

Fish!, by Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen, is published by Hyperion.

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