How a Stuffed Giraffe Changed an Organization

At the Fall 2013 ELP, Susan Clarke told us a story of how a highly accessorized giraffe helped her lead a cultural change in her organization. Here is her fantastic story on the benefits of play at work: 

“About 10 years ago, I was looking for ways to drive cultural change. Specifically, I wanted to create a culture where employees felt free to ‘stick their necks out’ to do the right thing. We purchased a 4’ stuffed giraffe, named her Bea A. Leader, and began a circulating award recognizing folks for driving value and showing integrity on the job. Each winner was publicly announced, with details of their winning actions. My thinking was that it might increase the behaviors that we were acknowledging. Bea became very popular and circulated for years, gaining some form of personal memento with each winner (my favorite is the MOM tattoo on her hind quarters, made with a Sharpie…irreverent but personal).”

“When you are in compliance, you have to be engaging…and engaged. Stuffed animals help,” says Susan. When asked if Bea did indeed help foster a culture of “sticking necks out,” Susan says she had members of large functional teams call out gaps in the processes their team owned. “This is an uncomfortable space in an organization that works in silos and hasn’t historically valued continuous improvement. Their examples helped create a safe place for candid discussions regarding process.”

“My belief is that people naturally want to perform well and many begin to identify with their roles or the processes they manage. Driving change in these environments is hard, because change feels threatening and personal. Finding a fun way to reward the team for positive change, while reinforcing their value, made change more palatable.”

Things took a darker turn when the beloved Bea went missing. Here is one of many e-mail chains detailing the incident:

Sent from Susan to her team on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 8:39 AM

Subject: All Points Bulletin – Giraffe Gone Missing!

Hi Team,

We are searching for a missing team member and need your help. The HCC Giraffe has mysteriously disappeared from Haileys cubicle, which is rather inconvenient as she was due to be delivered to a new recipient today. This is a sad situation, as we had hoped to give a colleague some great (and well deserved) recognition today.

If you know where she is, please return her to HCC as soon as possible. I would like to avoid the cost of printing custom milk cartons. We wont pay ransom, but we also wont punish or grill the perpetrator for detailsseems like a reasonable trade. 

I cannot promise, however, to refrain from pointing out the irony of stealing an award given for going above and beyond to do the right thing. Just sayin.



From team member on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 8:41 AM:

I would consider dredging the koi pond with divers.

Then this from another team member on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 8:43 AM:






In the world of comedic improvisation, actors create impromptu, fully-formed plays by practicing the golden rule of “Yes… and.” Susan displayed improvisational leadership by accepting added twists, turns, and tattoos to the game she established, allowing it to become an act of collaborative invention. When a leader engages a team to become co-creators, rather than followers, they become what David Logan has termed, “Tribal Leaders.” These leaders move individuals from an “I’m great” to a “We’re great” mentality, creating the most effective teams.

Bea’s abduction was later–after many similarly toned e-mail chains, replete with wild rumors and pointed allegations–revealed to have been an abduction by the VP of Sales and hidden in the office of the Medical Director. Susan says, “I interpreted it all as positive engagement.”

Susan is now at a new company, but has brought her signature leadership brand. See her recent announcement:

Dear Team,

I am happy to introduce the HCC Elephant Award, a new way of recognizing and celebrating colleagues that imagine and deploy compliant solutions to support business objectives. You will see this award, in the form of a large stuffed elephant, residing with the most recent winner. When a new colleague is recognized, she will migrate to that individuals work location and will remain until the next winner is announced. Sadly, she brings no cash with her, just well-deserved accolades.

“This organization focused on sinus treatments, so we moved from a giraffe to an elephant, but used the same approach. I have given her out once but, soon after the first winner announcement went out, I heard a roar of applause from the Clinical Dept. overhead. Funny how little it takes to motivate and connect people,” said Susan.

“I am hoping for the same positive effect in this new organization.”

We wish the Elephant a fantastic run as a change leader in Susan’s new company, and that she remains safe from potential office pranksters and poachers. Bea is still at work at Susan’s former company- pink boa and all.



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