Mitchell & Whale: Cultivating a Winning Team

Field of Dreams business culture

If you build it, they will come.

This slight twist on the ethereal whisper from Kevin Costner’s 1989 film, Field of Dreams, may be useful counsel for employers hoping to field a winning team from a new generation of talent.

Like Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, some may be asking: Build what? For who?

Adam Mitchell, president of Mitchell & Whale Insurance Brokers (M&W), believes it’s all about building an environment that encourages employees to have some fun while they achieve personal and company objectives. How much fun? Let’s just say it would not be unusual for a Nerf gun fight to break out at this Whitby, Ontario office—in celebration of a goal met or as an impromptu stress-reliever for a hard-working team.


The trajectory of a typical career has changed. Gone are the days of the eager graduate jumping into a company training program to learn a job, climb the ladder, and retire thirty-five years later with a gold watch and a rich pension.

In today’s drive-through job market, a résumé is more apt to reflect a patchwork of gigs punctuated by corporate impulse or employee aspiration—long careers of reciprocal loyalty replaced by transitory instalments of utility.

Is the new reality a by-product of a less sensitive employer? Or is it just sound business practice in the shared interest of corporate stability, competitiveness, and long-term viability? Is this a reflection of an impetuous generation’s impatience? Or is it the logical progression for an ambitious cohort taking charge of their own careers?

In spite of a perfidious tendency toward disposable personnel and portable careers, respectively, winning employers still need people who bring value to the organization and the stars will gravitate to organizations that reconcile professional fealty with personal priority.
If you build the right playing field, talent will come.


Leadership Culture

Talented candidates evaluate all aspects of an employment opportunity. Compensation and benefits, meaningful and challenging work, and career opportunity are fundamental factors, but another measure for millennials in the early stages of a career—and for some battle-battered boomers winding one down—involves more subtle qualities of a job that enrich the experience and ‘bulletproof’ its occupant.

Considering the average employee spends half her waking hours at work, conditions and attitudes make a difference. The leadership culture and management disposition can be integral to the sustainability of a job’s appeal.
At age thirty-two—and with a philosophy supplemented by a perspective from the leading wave of the cohort—Adam Mitchell knows something about the motivations and intrinsic attributes of millennials. As a third-generation owner of the rapidly-growing, family-run operation established by his grandfather in 1948, Mitchell oversees a 35-person operation with sixty percent, south of age thirty-seven.
It’s no coincidence that fifty percent of M&W’s clientele fits into the 17-40 age bracket with the most repeated profile, the 27-year-old male. “When you employ millennials, talk like millennials, and understand millennials, you end up having millennials as clients,” says Mitchell.


The M&W approach to leadership is best captured in the comments of people who work there—or “teammates” as they are referred to by management—but Mitchell’s explanation of that reference may offer some insight:

Every team needs a captain, and centers, and scorers, and muckers, says Mitchell. It doesn’t really work if you have six left-wingers. You need the whole team playing well in order to win. I find the ‘teammate’ reference more respectful of the idea that everybody’s doing something of value, whether you’re a revenue generator, or not—the revenue generators won’t succeed without the nots.

This article looks at leadership culture under three headings: Productive Tension; Facilitating Passion, and Complementary Conditions.


Productive Tension

There’s a critical line between healthy tension and debilitating stress that is sometimes lost in the shadows of intermittent corporate myopia. Reasonable stretch targets in business make perfect sense for optimal results and employee engagement. Ambitious employees trapped in a job without challenge are at serious risk of being driven to distraction. But unreachable bars or demoralizing conditions are deathblows to employee commitment and operational productivity.

A recent story by Erica Johnson, co-host of CBC’s news segment, Go Public, reported on severely stressed employees from the big five Canadian banks. Under intense pressure to increase sales, through what they believed to be heavy-handed and deceptive sales tactics, employees spoke of the stresses of having to trick and even lie to customers to sell products and meet targets being monitored weekly, daily, and in some cases, hourly.

In close to 1,000 emails, current and past employees from the five banks described symptoms of anxiety and depression and told of being shamed and bullied by management for not meeting targets.

But there are more sources of excessive stress for employees than unsavory marketing initiatives: it can be found under the weight of irreconcilable expectations—where leaders, several layers removed from the work, impose balance sheet targets at odds with the capacity to achieve them; it rises to fill the void where training, support, feedback, or recognition is supposed to be; and it can reach a piercing crescendo in conditions of inequity, unfairness, disrespect, discrimination, and other workplace injustices.


Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light

Madeleine L’Engle

The perspective gained when employees experience poor work conditions can be a powerful force for the employer who eases their pain with a positive alternative.

It’s a distinction recognized by Morgan, a four-year member of the Mitchell & Whale sales team. I have found that stress is handled differently than other workplaces I have been in, she says. In previous jobs, any stress or issues you have over a certain file or client, you were more-or-less expected to handle it on your own.

Natasha, a Sales Broker with the firm, agrees. M&W is a huge advocate of work-life balance, she says. There are times, for everyone, when things just become too much…management is usually able to recognize when stressors become too much…a lot of places I have previously worked have not been so open and friendly…

And employee appreciation of management’s sensitivity seems to only strengthen the resolve to meet targets and expectations. We all know what our job entails and it is up to us to be able to produce, explains Natasha. We know what is expected and we know when exceptions can be made.

Facilitating Passion

The impact of word and deed in leadership is profound. Things said or unsaid, decisions made, policy established, promises kept or broken, examples set. Passionate participation, flaccid acquiescence, and seeking alternative employment are predictable outcomes directly linked to management practices.

For Allison, an Account Manager with M&W, meaningful interaction is important: It’s an atmosphere where you can feel comfortable to voice your concerns. she says. Quality seems to be valued as much or more than quantity and we always have training opportunities available and metrics that show us how we’re doing as a team.

Sales Associate, Ginny, appreciates the standard of support: The open-door policy and resources to help you, differ from many companies. I have worked in environments that don’t care for their employee’s opinion and simply expect you to figure it out, she says. At M&W the atmosphere is fast-paced and competitive in a positive way. There is always someone to pick you up when you’re down, and remind you that ‘you got this.’

There is perhaps no more important managerial contribution than timely feedback to a reporting employee. Our management team is the first to throw you a high-five when you have conquered something difficult or hit your goals, says Ginny.

We get regular opportunities to discuss our progress with managers and receive feedback, notes Allison, and if someone has a major win, or really ‘wows’ a client, we all hear about it so they can get the credit they deserve.


Complementary Conditions

After decades of inflexible work schedules for employees stuffed into disheveled business suits on account of lengthy commutes to inconvenient office locations, savvy business leaders are warming to an idea M&W had a long time ago: It’s not the hours clocked, space occupied, or clothing worn that’s important—it’s the successful completion of the job’s expectations.

At the M&W office—where you are apt to hear contemporary music playing lightly in the background as you pass employees working their files, and their core, from the northern pole of a pilates ball—they have this crazy notion that employees can have fun at work.

Morgan—who has occasionally brought her kids to the office or worked from home, in a pinch—describes it this way: The team environment at M&W is amazing and very important to me. We work hard and play hard together. It makes coming into work fun while getting the job done and having happy clients. There is no rule that you have to be in your seat from 9-to-5 without social interaction. It’s a fun, happy, friendly environment that makes us able to kick-ass on getting our clients’ needs met.

The environment will make or break a job for me, Ginny adds. We have a social committee that plans events every month, or so, to enjoy each other’s company. They typically include food, some friendly competition, and hilarious memories.

Natasha offered her take on the value of the team environment. As I see it, if we work together we get further together. ‘One Team, One Dream’ is what I like to call this…I am so appreciative to be able to have this experience of working with such an amazing team and company. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy working in one place.


Whether it’s in a cornfield in Iowa or an office building in the city, going the distance to carve out an appealing playing field may just draw the attention of a new crop of legendary performers.

Comments are closed.