Dave Stevens is Director of Global Events at Alation. He has over a decade of marketing and events management experience, including events for AT&T, Google, Linkedin, Microsoft, MTV, NASA, NASCAR/Nextel, Pfizer, Symantec, Verizon.
Incentive Trips. These two words provoke vastly different feelings from different people. Traditionally, incentive trips were exclusively for sales people and executives. They would go to an exotic locale, get a little bit of sun and celebrate their big wins. Incentive trips were a reward for being top sellers and leading the company. Simple enough.
But for the rest of the company — everyone not in sales or on the executive team — incentive trips can draw mixed feelings. Sure, sales people bring in revenue which effectively pays the bills and keeps the lights on, but sales wouldn’t be successful without the hardworking teams backing them up. From troubleshooting POCs and building new features to making sure contracts go through and top talent gets hired, a company succeeds or fails on the strength of the entire company — not just the sales and executive teams.
Sales people tend to be road warriors, and especially as companies grow, sales can feel more and more like a separate entity, operating independent of the work happening in the rest of the company. A regional sales manager rarely has the opportunity for a water cooler conversation with someone who writes code or works on product, and without that, camaraderie is hard to build. We know how important getting people face to face is to building a company’s culture. And yet, incentive trips do the opposite. Rather than bringing the company together, they make the sales team appear even more distant from the rest of the company.
That is why we decided to rethink incentive trips.
I manage events at Alation, a fast-growing enterprise data catalog company. I joined when the company was 55 people. At that point, values were as critical as job titles. We all did what needed to be done regardless of whether it was in our job description or not. Our values were critical, as they always kept us aligned no matter what the circumstances. By the time we started considering incentive trips, we were at the 125-person mark, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to the table as part of the conversation. Planning an incentive trip seemed like a no-brainer.
Yet, the idea of a traditional incentive trip — read: the sales and executive team at an exotic locale, getting sun and drinking to their big wins — just didn’t ring true to Alation’s culture. As the company rapidly grew, we had worked hard to maintain a collaborative culture. From running frequent employee surveys and weekly "Ask Me Anything"s to get employee feedback, to recognizing individuals who embody our company’s core values: moving the ball; listening like we’re wrong; building for the long term; and measuring ourselves through customer impact; a traditional incentive trip just didn’t align. Instead, we decided to open the incentive trip to top performers across all parts of the company.
We extended the model of our annual “Value Awards,” where everyone is encouraged to nominate their peers for exemplifying one of our company’s values. Nomination is open for a month and the results go to the executive team for final selections. It's like a “People’s Choice Awards” for fellow employees. This year we notified the company that the winners would be going on the incentive trip — and that changed everything. We had 97 submissions (for a company of just over 200 at this point). All the winners were people who had received multiple votes across multiple categories.
It’s easy to get people excited for a great trip, but were we successful in creating a more inclusive incentive trip process? For the makeup of the trip itself, we had a good mix. It was critical to the success of this first-time endeavor that there be minimal executive presence. Rather than have the entire executive team attend the trip, only two were invited. The end result was a trip that included two software engineers, a technical consultant, a sales engineer and a customer success manager.
Getting people to connect in person changes everything. When an engineer gets an out of the blue request from a salesperson in the midwest on an already busy day, that interaction can go very differently depending on whether there is a rapport established. Creating connections between these high-performing employees only builds a more solid foundation.
But Alation is a data company — so how could we track feedback and ROI on this event? While this was just the initial event, the survey results were promising. Since we were trying to build connections we asked a couple of questions around this objective.
1. Did you get to connect with a co-worker you didn’t know very well before? 100% said Yes.
2. If you “talked shop,” did you learn anything new about their role or day to day? If so, what?
THIS! SO MUCH THIS. Literally breaking down silo walls and bringing the team together. Most of the other responses were around people actively trying NOT to talk about work and just getting to know each other on a personal level.
Without getting too far into it, I think the best part was that regardless of whom I spoke with at the office, the following week EVERYONE was talking about the trip because everyone who came back from the trip was raving about it.
The goal of an incentive trip should be to thank the people who go above and beyond for the company, whether they are a salesperson, an executive, or in product development or HR or legal or any of the other functions that are critical to make a company successful.
It’s time to rethink incentive trips and open them to your entire company. Stop hurting your company’s culture and driving a wedge between sales and the rest of the company and instead, recognize hard work no matter what department that hard work is coming from.
I'm ending with this quote from our CEO, as he was the champion in getting this idea to the entire company: “I love that the company has gotten to a scale where we’re able to recognize some of the great people that turn their lives upside down to build the company for the long term. Great people achieve no matter where they are, but great teams build incredible outcomes. I’m gratified that we’re able to recognize the best contributions from every team.”