Does Your Business Need a Popcorn Manager?

When we hired individuals with developmental disabilities to fill nontraditional work roles, our team learned lessons in understanding and purpose that made us stronger as a company.

learn more about Matthew Gonnering

By Matthew Gonnering


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In May of 2015, Andrew joined our team at Widen as popcorn manager. We bought a commercial popcorn maker and hired Andrew to make popcorn each afternoon. He came to us from Community Support Network (CSN), a nonprofit that helps people with developmental disabilities participate in the Madison, Wisc., community.

Some of Andrew's peers, unable to join Widen due to their disabilities, made coasters like the ones at Brazilian steakhouses: red on one side, green on the other. We gave one to each employee. Andrew tallies the reds and greens to know who wants popcorn and how much to make. He is a Widen employee and earns hourly wages for his work.

If, as Peter Drucker claimed, "The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer," how can I justify Andrew's job? If "The purpose of business is to maximize profitability for shareholders," as I was taught 20 years ago in business school, again, Andrew should not be an employee. The two most popular paradigms of business disqualify one of the most impactful roles our company ever has created.

"Shareholder value" as business strategy has been scrutinized heavily. Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO who originally lionized the concept, called it "the dumbest idea in the world" in 2009. Drucker's statement, however, has been taken for granted.

What is a CEO's true mission?

Businesses can create and keep customers at the expense of their own employees and communities, or even at the expense of customers. Over the course of history, brothels, sweatshops and other establishments have made moral compromises to create and keep customers. Alone, Drucker's statement imposes no accountability on businesses.

If Drucker's idea is good but insufficient, what might strengthen it?

I've argued that championing what the ancient Greeks called "eudaimonia" -- happiness, health, and prosperity -- should be a CEO's mission. As Chief Eudaimonia Officer, the CEO should strive to help employees, partners, community and customers attain that state of being. To do so, CEOs should inspire advancements across six dimensions of wellness: social, emotional, spiritual, occupational, intellectual and physical. The idea is not mutually exclusive with creating customers and shareholder value.

Spreading eudaimonia begins with one bold action that moves multiple dimensions of wellness. I learned that from Andrew. He came aboard shortly after I met Deb Dove, CSN's executive director. I was convinced that hiring CSN members would be an important service to our community. When I announced the news to our team, the email message received more positive responses than any other email I have ever sent.

Andrew was the first of several CSN hires. Michael, Kristina, Rob and Justin joined us soon after. Along with popcorn-making and delivery, the team took over cleaning responsibilities and straightening up rooms. Later, when Andrew shared his love for growing things, he joined the team that purchases and takes care of all our beautiful plants. Kristina was our 100th employee, and we celebrated her hire with cupcakes, streamers and beach balls.

Related: 6 Ways to Foster More Happiness in the Workplace

How do we embrace differences?

So what happened when we welcomed our CSN team members? First, on a fundamental level, we socially integrated people into the workforce who normally are assisted in isolation. Work created a sense of purpose, community and responsibility that was absent in their lives.

Second, our team began to cultivate a rare form of empathy. Rob empties trash cans daily around the office, and he sometimes does it loudly. He gives elbow bumps to coworkers as he goes about the task. He calls people "Momma" or "Hunk." Extra-special colleagues get a "yo, yo, yo, yo!" We know Rob isn't trying to be disruptive or offensive, and therefore we don't perceive it that way. We have context for why Rob shows affection the way he does.

It's an important differentiator. People struggle to react in positive or inclusive ways when context is missing. Do we ever consider that people might have a good but unseen reason for their actions? Maybe that driver cut you off in traffic because she's responding to a family emergency. Perhaps an acquaintance responded emotionally to something you said because he's struggling with finances. Or maybe your coworkers left an empty coffee pot without brewing the next one because they didn't want to be late for a customer call. We blindly judge by ignoring the unknown, yet we rarely seek to comprehend the why. Rob teaches us to be more understanding and accepting.

Third, we've learned deeper gratitude for one another. Andrew, our popcorn manager, loves gaming. He talks about Xbox all the time with another Widen employee who shares his passion for video games. We'd like to believe the nexus of our social life belongs outside the office. Yet we all spend at least eight hours a day together in the same building.

Andrew's thirst for connection teaches us to be more grateful for our colleagues. It reminds us we are not political competitors or rivals. We are people bound by the same Creator, not numerals in an equation about maximizing profitability. People we assume to be different from ourselves are more like us than not.

Related: A Little Empathy Makes Good Leaders Great

Where do we find purpose in our work?

I can imagine a consultant telling me, "This is wasteful. How does your popcorn manager help you create and keep customers? How is that activity helping you maximize shareholder value? You're a business, not a social venture!"

Here's my response: The purpose of business is deeper than that. Yes, those are important economic activities, but we also have a duty to one another. In his 1961 encyclical, "Mother and Teacher," Pope John XXIII reminded us of the important connection between our economic desires and human dignity. "The dignity of the human person," he said, "realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured."

Working with CSN spreads eudaimonia and thereby honors the dignity of human beings. We create emotional, spiritual, social and occupational wellness by building this bridge into our community. At Widen, this fosters empathy, camaraderie and moral consciousness -- all of which are traits a customer should prefer in a content technology vendor.

I would remind the consultant that Peter Drucker also said, "The purpose of an organization is to enable common men to do uncommon things."

Related: 3 Steps (and the Reasons) to Prioritize 'Purpose' in Your Business

Uncommon things (such as spreading eudaimonia) achieve uncommon financial performance. Here's a good example: In one study, companies certified by WorldBlu, a firm that teaches organizational democracy, "…saw an average cumulative revenue growth rate over a three-year period that was 6.7 times greater than that of the S&P 500 companies."

So if you must justify eudaimonia with financial results, there you have it. But I'd prefer CEOs to give back because they choose a higher responsibility than the numbers in their financial statements.

You can't create eudaimonia by tackling every dimension of wellness all at once. Start with one thing. You'll be amazed at what happens when you reject "maximizing profitability" and hire a popcorn manager.

Matthew Gonnering

CEO of Widen

Matthew Gonnering is the CEO of Widen Enterprises, a Madison, Wisc,-based digital media solutions provider. 

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