Workplace Switcheroo: CEOs swap jobs

“Trading places,” as a social experiment and story hook, is older than Eddie Murphy, older than Mark Twain, older even than Shakespeare.

But it’s likely no two CEOs had stepped into each others’ shoes before Kip Tindell and Maxine Clark gave it a go one February day.

Tindell, co-founder of the Missouri-based Container Store, hopped a plane from St. Louis to Dallas. That’s where Build-a-Bear Workshop, the company Clark founded, is headquartered. She, meanwhile, made the opposite trip, from Dallas to St. Louis.

Each reported for duty in the other’s workplace the next morning.

Now, if it were just a matter of swapping corner offices, the experiment wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch. But both were determined to occupy the front lines.

After a brief crash course, Tindell found himself manning what looked like a giant cotton-candy machine, except it was cotton batten blowing around in there. He held a limp puppet in one hand and tried to hose-pump it full of stuffing with the other – a process any kid who’s been to a Build-a-Bear birthday party is familiar with, but which Tindell, who has no kids and never even set foot in a Build a Bear store, hadn’t seen. So he had to fake it with his first customer, a two-year-old girl who seemed unimpressed, and kept deliberately dropping things on the floor.

Clark, meanwhile, donned a red apron and quickly found herself trying to talk a customer through a tricky bit of social engineering: was it even appropriate to send a box of cupcakes to her boss?

None of this was Clark’s idea. Or Tindell’s. It was hatched by editors at Fortune magazine, who plucked the executives from the magazine’s “best companies to work for” list — in this case two retail firms that otherwise couldn’t have been more different. Clark and Tindell were all-in. They figured they could learn something. Outside your bailiwick, that’s where the real growth happens, right?

Tindell quickly learned that, for all its gooey, heart-based values, Build-a-Bear was ferociously bottom-line driven. Some seriously advanced sales tactics were in play. Like: you don’t ask if customers if they’d like to visit the “Dress Me” station (where they’re upsold accessories); you physically walk them over there. “Strive for five,” goes the sales mantra. Meaning: try to sell customers five extra doo-dads — maybe a t-shirt or a hair bow or a little gadget that plays a lullaby when you squeeze a paw. And those “birth certificates”? The family address and email are on them. That’s invaluable marketing information. Tindell wondered why he hadn’t thought of some of this stuff.

Over in St. Louis, Clark, was scaling a similarly steep learning curve. A half-billion-dollar firm that sells … empty boxes? Oh yeah. Clark was actually a big fan of the Container Store. She calls it “a hardware store for women.” There’s a staggering amount of inventory—more than 10,000 individual products. Employees get 240 hours of training to burn all that merch into their brain. In-house, the vibe was pretty touchy feely for a “hardware store.” There were a lot of meetings. Employees gave each other tummy rubs by way of little sticky-notes they leave on each other’s lockers. It was like high school without the bullying. You connected with your customers through social media. You vied for the title of “Most Organized Employee” by posting pictures of your tidy basement or closet on Facebook and urging customers to vote for you. Marketing-wise, this was the ropes course. Clark took notes.

It was a genius bit of cross-pollination. The two CEOs wondered if they might somehow join forces. Maybe he’d put her bears in his displays, or she’d ship her bears in his boxes.

And of course, Fortune made out like a thief from the buzz.

“What better way to ‘think different’ than to think like somebody else, to wear someone else’s hat?” Jean-Marie Dru, chairman of TBWA, asked in the Harvard Business Review, which heaped praise on the experiment.

It makes you wonder what other ideas are just waiting to be sandwiched together, what other Big Days are poised to be born from the shotgun marriages of different mindsets?

Good things come from the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table, as the surrealists said.

Or strangers thrown together on an airplane or in a golfing foursome.

We can learn from anyone, right?

And we should.

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