Chester Elton makes worker appreciation fun and profitable

It’s a status that many covet. But not all companies can be a best place to work for. And that’s Chester Elton’s shtick. He helps businesses create a workplace where people are proud to show up every day. Google, and Boston Consulting Group are the poster children on Fortune Magazine’s 100 best companies to work for list. However, you don’t have to have big budgets, free perks and assignments abroad to earn that accolade. Elton believes that establishing a high-performing culture will do the trick. Based on a simple premise — people want to be thanked — Elton has given worker appreciation a new oomph.

He co-founded with Adrian Gostick a company — aptly named — The Culture Works. Its mission: to help firms create a high-achieving environment, which is the subject of Elton’s next book, All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Results. Elton currently works out of

his home in Summit, N.J. The year-old company has a growing clientele, which includes American Express and the First Niagara Bank. Apart from consulting and training workers, Elton will continue his motivational speaking — evangelizing an engaging workplace — and writing activities with Gostick.

It helps that almost since the day he started working, Elton has loved what he does. His father was a great inspiration, jumping out of bed to go to work even before the alarm went off. And despite Elton’s jump from media sales to motivational speaking, writing and consulting, that has never changed. “My mission is to make work more enjoyable for everyone,” he says. His list of best sellers helps endorse his workplace guru status.

The Beginnings

After a stint selling media spots for TV in Detriot and New York City, Elton looked around for a career change. Enter, O.C. Tanner, a Salt Lake Citybased company in the rewards business. Elton sold service awards for Tanner — gold lapel pins — for companies to give to people on their five or 10 year anniversary. People liked the pins but wanted more. They wanted to be recognized for their achievements. O.C. Tanner expanded, dealing in performance recognition merchandise.

Elton showed some of the initiative and passion that he’s admired for. He pitched CEO Kent Murdock about writing a book on worker rewards and recognition. His idea: the book would establish the company’s leadership in the space, though he hadn’t expected to write it himself. He was, after all, in sales. But Murdock asked Elton to write the book. A year later, Murdock hired Gostick. And the rest is history. In fact, the first seven books were all written jointly by Gostick and Elton under the aegis of O.C. Tanner.

The way Elton tells it is some of his success stemmed from the downturn. Post-recession, it was no longer about just receiving a paycheck. People wanted to be involved, excited about what they were working on. “Companies had to engage people. Reward and recognition went from a nice to a must have,” he says.

Siobhan Smith agrees. The senior vice president of organizational development at First Niagara Bank engaged Elton’s firm to ensure that the bank’s culture would scale with its exponential growth. “We have already seen results. They have data that is credible and they tailor their model to make it meaningful for the relevant organization,” she says.

Engaged & Profitable

It also helped that businesses like Southwest Airlines, with its customer service mantra, became media darlings. The public saw that a fun, engaged workplace provided both high standards of excellence and profits. Apple and Zappos were the same breed — companies where employees relished their jobs, felt appreciated, made cool products and money. The nexus between good talent, engagement and the bottom line was made.

“We were the first to pop up and say here are surveys that reveal when you are in a higher recognition culture, you have better communication, higher levels of trust and accountability. This means getting higher return on equity,” chimes Elton. Tracing the dots between rewards, recognition and the bottom line put Elton and Gostick on the map. Backing the data with metrics enhanced their message.

Establishing a connection is what matters. And it cuts across all businesses, big or small. “The staffing industry can use rewards and recognition to connect the employee back to them. What better way to do it than have a series of notes stuck on their bulletin board,” says Elton. It’s not about grandiose gestures that cost a ton of money. The handwritten thank you note, a personal phone call in a Twitter/Facebook world tells the employee that he or she is appreciated. Recurrent actions are even better. “I am a big fan of the three month club. Gift baskets that show up at home not just in December but January and February too,” says Elton.

Gift baskets may not be the answer for all and sundry. Offices have multiple generations working side by side needing different causes and prizes. Companies have to know their employees well enough to discern how to motivate them. Given the times we live in, businesses can no longer afford to have unengaged workers. Dream workplaces don’t just happen. They have to be created. And that’s what Elton hopes to do — make your company a best place to work.