Spend a few moments searching and you’ll find plenty of examples of “Careers” pages and job listings that claim, “You will love working here!”
Sounds great — but how can they know that? How can they know how the way you like to work, what values are important to you, what sense of purpose and mission you embrace… without knowing you, how will they know you will love working there?
“You can’t try to be all things to all people, whether your customers or your employees,” says Tough Mudder founder and CEO Will Dean, the author of the just released (and excellent) It Takes a Tribe: Building the Tough Mudder Movement. “I openly say there are people who love working at Tough Mudder, and there are those who have hated it.
“Anyone who tells you that they’re a great place to work, without knowing something about you, is lying to you. Culture has nothing to do with beer in the fridge or foosball tables. Culture is how people behave when their boss isn’t looking.
“Your organization and its values must mirror your brand. In our case those values are teamwork and camaraderie. Some people love our atmosphere and work environment; others prefer a different work environment.
“And that’s okay. Our goal isn’t to be all things to all people; our goal is to be the right things for our team.”
That approach clearly works. Since 2010 over 3 million people have participated in a Tough Mudder, a combination mud run, obstacle course, and endurance challenge. Individual events regularly attract over 10,000 people who complete courses between 10 to 12 miles long that include obstacles with names like Everest, Birth Canal, Electroshock Therapy, Just the Tip, and Fire In Your Hole.
The Tough Mudder brand stands for something. In fact, approximately 20,000 people have literally branded themselves with a Tough Mudder tattoo.
One factor in the Tough Mudder success story is inherent in the company’s mission. As Will writes in It Takes a Tribe, participating in a Tough Mudder event offers a release for “adults who spend half their lives sitting in a grey carpeted cubicle staring at a screen, or stuck in traffic, or who measure their weekdays in back-to-back meetings and PowerPoint.”
But a larger factor is the nature of the Tough Mudder tribe. Every business hopes to build a sense of community and brand loyalty; the Tough Mudder tribe is a prime as the definition of a community. What could be seen as a one-off, bucket list experience is anything but; more than 50% of Mudders return to run more events, in large part because of the communal experience.
“Life is all about overcoming obstacles,” Will says, “and quite often you as an individual who has to get over those obstacles… but the truth is, you don’t do most things in life on your own. I certainly didn’t build Tough Mudder all on my own. I’m at best a fraction of the equation. The rest is a combination of our people and Mudders themselves.”
From Will’s point of view, obstacles and challenges create the perfect opportunity to define yourself, to become different than everyone else — and every other business.
“All businesses go through the same set of challenges,” Will says, “even though at the time they feel specific to you. But if you take a step back, everyone that ever did anything worthwhile had the exact same experience. Maybe there were different operational problems, different investors… but the basic challenges are the same. That’s why it’s so important to see challenges and obstacles as a way to define yourself as different from the others.”
Overcoming challenges is almost always impossible to do on your own, though, and creating an environment where employees freely seek help is consistent with the external Tough Mudder brand.
“The vast majority of challenges you face,” Will says, “you need help from others. Admitting weakness, admitting that you’re scared, admitting that you need help… those things are absolutely key.
“Everyone talks about the importance of being willing to fail, but more importantly it’s being willing to have enough humility to recognize ahead of time that you don’t know all the answers, that you do need other people’s help.”
Of course, admitting you need help makes you vulnerable, a feeling many people try to avoid.
“If you ask how they’re doing,” Will says, “most entrepreneurs will say, ‘Things are great,’ or, ‘We’re crushing it,” and maybe for 1 percent of businesses, that’s true. The rest of us are dealing with headwinds, with stresses, with balancing everything in life… I have a lot of respect for people who say, ‘Well, things are going okay. We do have some challenges, though. I’m worried about (this).’
“Too many people try to create not just an ‘Instagram version’ of their lives, but also their businesses. But that can make life really lonely. That isolates you inside this artificial bubble of perfection you’ve created. It’s okay not to be perfect. No one is perfect. When you’re willing to admit that, and then ask for help… that’s when you can start to do great things.”
Not surprisingly, that’s what happens at Tough Mudder events. Many of the participants walk away more willing to ask for help and actually enjoying the experience of asking for — and providing — help.
“We have men and women who have been helped up Everest,” Will says, “and later they’ll reach out to customer service and say, ‘I’m trying to get in touch with a guy named Dave who helped me up Everest at about 10.30 a.m. He’s the man I’m going to marry. Please email everyone from the event named Dave and tell them Rachel would love to get together.’
“That sounds funny, but it does say something about the experience. “Tough Mudder makes you vulnerable. Maybe 1% of participants can make it up Everest on their own. The rest need help: They run and reach for the outstretched hand of a stranger who they hope will catch them and haul them up. Making yourself vulnerable is absolutely key to achieving the obstacle.”
If you want to build a community, if you want to build a tribe, if you want to create hyper-engaged users that define themselves at least in part by your brand, you have to stand for something.
Internally and externally, Tough Mudder stands for teamwork and camaraderie. At a Tough Mudder event the fundamental value is teamwork: Accomplishing hard things together.
Some people don’t like the teamwork aspect of the events, and to Will, that’s okay. Tough Mudder isn’t trying to be all things to all customers, just like it doesn’t try to be all things to all employees.
Companies that sustain success over the long term are almost always purpose-driven, and the people who work in those organizations believe deeply in what they do. Tough Mudder isn’t curing cancer, but they do feel they’re making the world a slightly better place by helping people lead more active lives and connect with each other.
Want to build a company the right people will love to work for?
Defining your purpose and your values, and standing by your purpose and values, is a great way to start.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.