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Why Job Applicants Sent This Fitness Event Company Chocolate Molds of Their Feet

When you're getting 5,000 resumes a month, how do you make sure recruits embody your company culture?

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Excerpted from IT TAKES A TRIBE: Building the Tough Mudder Movement by Will Dean, published on Sept. 12, 2017 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Will Dean.

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The first chocolate feet arrived in the Tough Mudder office in 2012. We had grown fast, from three events in the first year to 14 the next, and then to 35. There were articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Suddenly everyone wanted to work for us. We needed to hire 100 new people in 2012, but we were getting 5,000 resumes a month. Some people were extremely persistent. A strange trend started in which intern hopefuls would send us giant shoes, some of them muddy from our events, with a note that said: "Now I have my foot in the door ... " And then somehow that evolved into people sending cast molds of their foot made from chocolate. We got maybe half a dozen chocolate feet.

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There were also bags of cookies and homemade cakes, which the guys who worked in the warehouse would share. I felt obliged to point out a few times that this was food from strangers, sent in the mail. And that we had one or two enemies at the time. In the end, we had to ban eating food that came with resumes.

There was a form of flattery in this phenomenon, but it also presented us with another challenge: How could we grow fast and stay true to our values? All startup businesses stand and fall by virtue of who they hire, but I believed assembling the right core team was more crucial to us than to most. If we were to create and nurture a tribal culture, we would need to find and employ people who took it to heart. If we were serious about our pledge to Mudders, we had to live up to those values in everything we did.

It was straightforward enough to begin with. Our first recruits -- alerted by ads on Craigslist -- remember being grilled by my Tough Mudder co-founder Guy Livingstone and me in a closet-size room that doubled as a storage space in the warehouse in Brooklyn, New York that served as the original Tough Mudder headquarters. The opening questions were generally: Do you have a computer? And do you have access to a car? But, after that our queries became more rigorous.

One of the reasons that we were getting so many applications (and chocolate feet) was that we offered a get-out-of-jail card to people who had gone from the self-starting freedom of student life to the 360-degree micromanagement of the corporate world. Jesse Bull, who joined us after the third event, and is still with us, was typical. He was a seriously creative English literature major who had started out trying to make documentaries before finding himself in a job at Barclays investment bank to impress or appease his then-girlfriend. After the financial crash, he ended up in the wreckage of Lehman Brothers, desperately looking for an escape route to something he could believe in.

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When we interviewed Bull, we were, happily, able to point to one possible belief system on a poster on the wall -- a prototype credo that Livingstone and I had written, which was an attempt to translate the Mudder pledge recited at the start line of events into a set of principles or a philosophy that we could apply to the business. We made the credo into a poster and stuck one on every wall of the of office. Much of it had been adapted from the Toyota mantra of kaizen, or the principle of continuous improvement. Some of it was drawn from my experience at the Foreign Service. Some of it just felt about right. The 10 points were these:

  1. Have fun.
  2. Push boundaries.
  3. Take responsibility.
  4. Ask why.
  5. Be honest.
  6. Embrace change.
  7. Accept only the best.
  8. Focus on the long term.
  9. Look out for each other.
  10. Enjoy the journey.

I don't know what recruits like Bull made of it in his interview -- they were applying to work on mud runs and being presented with the 10 commandments -- but along with the rest of the people we hired, he was soon left in no doubt that we meant every word.

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We knew that if we were to sell our values to the wider Tough Mudder tribe -- those ideas of cooperation and continual self-improvement and collective energy -- they had to be embodied in our people. Authenticity wasn't an aspiration for us; it had to be a reality. In an effort to reinforce our instincts at interviews, we took each new employee on for eight weeks as a paid intern before committing to a full-time contract. There were only two jobs in the first year or so: business analyst and event planner. Those eight weeks of induction were designed as a total immersion in the culture, with a series of mentoring sessions and appraisals, plenty of hands-on responsibility at events -- all designed to see if there was a fit on both sides. At the end of the eight weeks there was what we called a "cultural interview" -- which led to lots of Chairman Mao jokes -- designed to test how fully the intern had internalized the culture, and thus understood the values.

If that sounds cultish, I'm unapologetic. When organizations talk about creating an innovative business culture, a lot of people focus on the external symbols. The ping-pong and foosball tables in the office, the team-building Thursday beers after work, the company ski weekends and the anything-goes dress code. At Tough Mudder headquarters we have all those things. But, they are marginal to what we are really about. A culture is built up over months and years of good practice, questioning and improvement. Of doing things the right way and having anyone who comes into the group or participates in an event recognize what that means. Culture is all the things that happen in an organization when the boss isn't looking.

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