Recently the Mintz + Hoke team traded strategy sessions and concept development responsibilities for a day building new houses with Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity. While hanging sheetrock isn’t part of our daily responsibility for client brands, it turns out that building homes in the community and marketing communications have more in common than I thought.
Here are five lessons that we came away with and something I hope business owners will consider when evaluating a company-wide volunteer opportunity.
Teamwork and problem solving
The conventional idea of teamwork here at the agency is rooted in what we do every day to launch brands and build market share. Our approach often includes a plan that’s executed by people who know their specific roles and mesh seamlessly in order to product success. Surprisingly, this same teamwork and integration kicked in when more than 50 of us showed up for a day’s volunteer labor. Our team of artists, copywriters, media planners, digital experts, PR professionals and more were able to apply our proven teamwork approach during our day at Enfield Street in Hartford.
Fortunately, Habitat for Humanity doesn’t expect its volunteers to show up fully trained for efficient construction. Their mission is to focus on positive benefits to the community – and also to their volunteers. The lesson we learned over the course of the day was that we could apply some of the same problem solving work we employ as teams in the office, even when we faced unfamiliar challenges. And that we could help solve problems by working together.
Most of us came to the Habitat project having done some kind of home repair. One or two actually worked in construction before, albeit a long time ago. But for most of us, the assignments we received that morning represented something quite new and different. Part of the appeal of Habitat for Humanity is that it gets people like us out of our comfort zones and encourages us to do tasks that may be completely unfamiliar.
So, one lesson we all learned was to have patience and be prepared to learn something new. We’ve all seen subdivisions that go up almost overnight thanks to construction-friendly design, materials and labor or watched home improvement shows on TV. But unlike reality TV, it takes time to build a house, especially the Habitat for Humanity method that relies on donations and a hefty dose of volunteer labor. What we do at Mintz + Hoke can be compared to building a house. As much as we would like everything we do to be both fast and perfect, we know that patience and an open mind are a vital part of the process.
Trust in your skills
The build was an unexpected opportunity to revisit and apply skills while also learning more about each other. Most of us didn’t know that one of our copywriters used to be a math teacher. Her skill with geometry was something we relied on when measuring and cutting lumber – and getting it right the first time. Our office manager’s persistent “can do” attitude is something we count on every day and it was instrumental when he volunteered to stand on the scaffolding and use the nail gun to attach the fascia board on the front porch.
The lesson we learned is that all of us bring skills from geometry, critical analysis and even humor to what we do every day. All of these skills have a direct relationship to the communications programs that we build. In our business the unexpected happens all the time. That’s when hidden skills make huge contributions.
Be inventive, but don’t try to reinvent
Habitat for Humanity provides on-site experts to guide the volunteers, but some of us had our own ideas for how to accomplish particular tasks. For example, when assigned to hang drywall on a ceiling over a stairwell, two members of our team worked with their Habitat team leader to devise scaffolding that was up in under five minutes – much faster that it would have taken to assemble a conventional platform. Contributions that brought new thinking to problems occurred throughout the day. But we also knew instinctively that it’s important to stay within our limitations. After all, when the headline on an ad falls flat, we can devise a new one that meets the mark. When a scaffold falls, it’s a lot more serious.
This is a lesson we must heed in every business relationship. We are often called on to help invent and implement new solutions, but we must remember that the urge to reinvent and tap experts for assistance are a true point of difference.
Keep your perspective
Our Habitat for Humanity project reminds us that we live in an ever-changing world. Buildings age, decay and are replaced. Neighborhoods evolve. One member of our team took a short walk down the street and around a corner to the house where her grandparents settled and where her father was born. It made her participation in the build even more fulfilling.
As for the homes themselves, our close involvement may seem like it ended when we packed up tools, swept floors, snapped a group photo and went back to our “regular” lives. And so, perspective is the most important lesson of our experience. Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity gave us the satisfaction of contributing to a noble cause, it also added to a perspective that will long outlast blisters and achy knees. Our one-day experience has reinforced the qualities that enable us to deliver great work for our clients every day. More important, it demonstrated that we are a great team and we’re better for the experience. I highly recommend getting involved with Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity.