I’m the president of what I like to call a 24-year-old startup. It was launched in 1992 as a printed catalog out of the guest bedroom of our CEO and founder, Ed Kushins. Since then, we’ve evolved from one of the first online social networks into the leading home sharing company. We have a highly loyal community of more than 65,000 members in over 150 countries, supported by a team — our “family” — spread across 20-plus countries.
Dispersed as we are, ensuring alignment across our organization is a challenge. Despite advances, technology alone will likely never be enough to ensure adequate communication. And so, for nearly a decade, every July we hold our HomeExchange Summit, bringing our entire team and their families together for a week. Over the years we’ve met in Canada, Italy, France, Portugal and the US. While this annual meeting is not our only meet-up (we have many smaller team meetings), our Summit is the only event of its kind, with over 100+ people attending.
Among other things, our annual Summit allows for:
- Face time. Team members who lack regular contact with team leaders and executives, and rightly or wrongly feel undervalued, make up for lost time.
- Morale boosting. Our Summit is a chance to see and feel how unique we are.
- Time out of the usual routine. An organization that plays together, stays together.
- Mingling of families. Many of our team spend more time with us than they do their own families. We are, in essence, an extension of their families. The more we can share life experiences, the more we can understand and meet everyone’s needs. This is the chance for families to see that we’re the real deal.
- Alignment. The HomeExchange vision is unique. But for many, words aren’t enough; when we get together, everyone “knows it when they see it.” For new team members, this is the best opportunity we have to get them fully on board.
- Cross-functional problem solving. Many of our biggest challenges have been solved by team members from different disciplines looking at them through new lenses.
- Recognizing superstars. Each year, we celebrate our top contributors in a variety of categories, e.g., our “Ambassador of the Brand” award was received by a staff member who put herself in the line opposing a proposed change to our business model (that we ultimately abandoned).
- Travel. We are, after all, in the travel industry and everyone at our company loves to hit the road. What better way to reward everyone?
- Recruiting. Yes, many Summits have resulted in the hiring of family members and invited guests!
A Productive Change of Pace
For most of the year, nearly everyone at our company works remotely, supported by a highly flat hierarchy and structured around project-based teams. This allows for work from the road as we encourage people to see and experience the world. As a result, we’re highly dependent on email, chat and videoconferencing tools like Skype, to stay connected and even monitor our organizational “health.”
TinyPulse is a web service that helps us stay in tune with our staff, using industry benchmarks, including a “happiness” score. (Fortunately, we score off the charts for that!) We also use a project management tool called Trello to track our work, including product development.
But our HomeExchange Summit is unique in that it offers us a chance to break from routine and gather in person.
Historically, the Summit was filled with “top-down” presentations from each working group. We realized that this was highly unproductive because it failed to engage all of our team, many of whom had great ideas but didn’t have the best opportunity to share. It didn’t facilitate the type of team interaction and communication we sought.
Now we break into cross-functional teams, many of the members having never worked with each other before. We identify one or two areas for the company to innovate, such as how we provide opportunities for our site’s non-paying members to see the strength of our community.
Around our problem solving efforts, we plan activities: hikes (we call them TED-walks), canoeing, wine tasting, etc. through which teams bond, even as they try to solve big company challenges. While we “press pause” on much of our company work during our annual Summit, it is often our most productive week of the year. The flow of creativity and the ideas generated set the tone for many months to come.
Why Family Matters
Family members are invited to all of our activities, so it’s never a surprise when they help find creative solutions. There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes! Also, by seeing how passionate we all are about our mission, family members become much more understanding during periods of hard work. A few months back I walked into my kids’ playroom and they were pretending to be my partners at work! We’ve watched children from many cultures grow up in this environment. And now they’re poised to be the next generation of leaders.
Inevitably, every year leading up to our Summit, someone asks whether the expense of such a meeting is warranted; we cover food and accommodation for everyone, as well as airfare for the team. And every year we reconfirm how critical the meeting has become… to our mission, our culture and our bottom line.
We are all too aware that even if a project has a leader with Van Gogh’s genius and a team of other world class artists, a Skype call will never allow for the art to flourish. Having built an organization across languages and cultures, we know that ideas are communicated in different ways and that they’re explanation and dissemination is best handled through in-person meetings. But, most importantly, this is the main opportunity each year to ensure everyone on the HomeExchange team is aligned in the belief that sharing travel changes lives.
If you’re going to be in Cadiz Spain this July 17-22, stop by and meet our team!
By Jim Pickell.