How community service helps build a great company

Radical Industrialists

How community service helps build a great company

It’s Tuesday afternoon of the Interface Americas annual sales meeting, the global CEO is packing boxes at a food bank, the Americas CEO is calling bingo at the senior center and the CIO is building a garden box. What could this possibly have to do with running a sustainable carpet company? We’d like to make the case that it’s one of the most important things we do to keep sustainability alive and well at Interface.

At Interface, we talk about sustainability all the time and people all over our organization have some direct connection to this mission, whether through manufacturing, marketing, supply chain or sales. But even if they have some idea of sustainability and how it relates to them and their everyday work, do they really feel sustainability? “Feel” is the key word, because motivation, engagement and finding your work meaningful do not come from intellectual understanding, but from emotional connection.

Spending a nearly a quarter of our annual two-day sales meeting building garden boxes in a community garden, reading to school kids, playing bingo with seniors, installing carpet at a children's home and stocking a food bank will not eliminate our environmental footprint, but it will provide more of an emotional connection to our mission than carbon offsets ever could.

Since 2005 it has become an annual rite to identify and engage local organizations in the city where we hold our sales meeting and to send out a crew of 250 volunteers to spend a half-day on the projects of their choice. Participating in this tradition reinforces the identity of Interface as a company that leaves the places where we work better than we found them, and the people we partner with inspired and fulfilled. We call them "Legacy Projects" for the positive impact we hope to leave.

In his very first speech on sustainability at Interface in 1994, Ray Anderson asked us to take on the challenge of becoming the first "restorative enterprise," and "do good for the earth, not just no harm." This has long since expanded to explicitly include "doing good" for the people and places we depend on to make our business successful.

You may well be asking, "How is this really any different from the kind of corporate community service that has existed for decades?" The first big difference is context. Legacy Projects would not have the same impact if they were a stand-alone event that everyone was expected to get excited about once a year. These projects give associates an opportunity to get their hands dirty (sometimes literally) demonstrating our sustainability commitment and the Power of One.

The other difference is how we conduct the projects and we are happy to share a few aspects of what has worked for us over the years in order to encourage other companies to develop their own high-impact service programs:

  • Everyone participates: To send the message that the company values these acts of service, even the top executives must serve and endure the backaches of garden labor or the public humiliation of being called out for mismanaging bingo at the senior center. Everyone likes to see the boss sweat a bit and it has helped Legacy Projects become an endless source of unforgettable stories that are now part of our shared company lore.
  • Go where we can make the biggest difference: Rather than outsourcing the organization of our service projects, as some companies do, or holding them in the hotel ballroom, we have found great value in designing the experiences ourselves and taking the time to make sure we are putting our people in areas where the need is greatest in the local community. We look to optimize our impact by finding partners that are part of a larger community effort that will endure long after we leave. The impact of these experiences goes both ways. By helping the homeless, low-income school kids, food banks and damaged landscapes in some small way, our people are reminded of how fortunate they are and are often inspired to take on more acts of service in their daily lives. The local groups are also the beneficiary of our sales culture, where even making a difference gets turned into an all-out competition, and the locals are continually amazed at how much we accomplish in a few hours.
  • Make it personal: We aim to create experiences that make an emotional connection with every associate who participates. Company volunteers are able to select their project to match their interests, and over the years we’ve intentionally offered diverse projects ranging from manual labor to quality time with senior citizens or kids. While the manual labor produces very tangible outcomes, quality time is equally valuable. As Tony Leverett, director of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood in San Antonio, put it: “There are senior citizens who are living a challenging life and now cherish time to socialize, and young children who are just beginning, looking for signs of hope to know they can succeed in life.” Many associates bond with members of the local community during the projects, as illustrated by spontaneous individual donations, such as $600 collected to fund a school field trip, and $500 collected to buy replacements for moldy books at a school library in the Bahamas.

Even our cynics and old-timers look forward to these projects. One measure of their popularity is the way they have expanded organically throughout our organization. From their beginnings at Americas sales meetings, Legacy Projects have spread to Interface sales meetings around the world and have been done with suppliers, dealers and customers as well. The latest expansion is our international collaboration with the U.S. Green Building Council's Center for Green Schools. As part of its first Green Apple Day of Service last fall, Interface sponsored and participated in 30 service projects at schools in seven countries.

As with the best corporate philanthropy, the Green Schools partnership serves two purposes: to further our sustainability mission by helping educate the next generation, and to build and deepen our relationships with customers in the education market. Community programs that also have some business benefit are the ones that tend to last, while well-meaning philanthropic programs with little connection to the business may not survive the next economic downturn.

Legacy Projects may at first seem unconnected to the business of making and selling carpet tiles, but we consider them a vital part of our ability to attract and retain talent. Working side by side to help strangers in need builds lasting connections between our associates, especially sales people and others who work in relative isolation from co-workers. This opportunity to collectively make a positive impact is now part of the glue that holds together a unique corporate culture built at the unlikely intersection of commercial carpet and environmentalism.

Image by Strejman via Shutterstock