“To create a great work culture, give back, then give back even more!” with Chris Meyer of GPJ

Give back, then give back even more! As an organization and as individuals, giving back is a must. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it further orients an organization around a positive grounding principle. At GPJ we are lucky enough to have the support of our parent organization, Project Worldwide as they […]

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Give back, then give back even more! As an organization and as individuals, giving back is a must. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it further orients an organization around a positive grounding principle. At GPJ we are lucky enough to have the support of our parent organization, Project Worldwide as they offer matching programs for our philanthropy efforts.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Meyer. Chris is the CEO of George P. Johnson (GPJ), the world’s leading experience marketing agency. He is passionate about the power of experiential as a core component to corporate marketing programs and leads a world-class team at GPJ, delivering award-winning physical and digital experiences for brands across the globe. Meyer joined GPJ in 2000 through the acquisition of Conference Planners, where he was CEO. Prior to becoming CEO at GPJ, he held several senior executive roles within the agency. He also held leadership positions with INXPO, where he was instrumental in the packaging and production of virtual events featuring both on-demand and live streaming content for use in marketing, corporate training and internal meetings. Since being named CEO of George P. Johnson in 2013, Meyer has spearheaded the revitalization of the105-year old agency, ensuring its recognition as the home of experiential marketing’s preeminent experts. What’s followed has been year-over-year revenue growth for GPJ, culminating in 2018 being its best yet. He brought GPJ to where it is today by infusing legacy client relationships such as FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), IBM, Nissan, Salesforce, and Cisco with fresh methods and insight, and forming new partnerships with companies like Google, Macy’s, LinkedIn, Workday, ServiceNow, and Rodan+Fields. The future is bright for GPJ, which has been named a best place to work by Event Marketer and Ad Age under Meyer’s leadership. But his focus extends beyond the agency’s1400+ employees. He devotes his spare time to guest lecturing at several universities, including his alma mater Cornell University — where he graduated from the School of Hotel Administration and CalPoly students studying Experience Management — on the interdisciplinary nature of experiential marketing. An avid traveler who loves snow skiing, boating, and adventure travel alongside his wife and two kids, his motto is that success isn’t owed to one person alone.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Yes, and thank you for having me! It’s an absolute pleasure to participate. My career path is unique in that it didn’t begin in the marketing industry. I actually started off in hospitality, earning my undergraduate degree at Cornell in hospitality management. I grew up working in restaurants, and I always found the service industry appealing. The way I saw it, a hospitality degree was just a business degree with an emphasis on service.

When I graduated, I went to work at Westin Hotels & Resorts in management training. Intent on exploring all avenues offered, I was drawn to the connectivity and human engagement aspects of the business. This became my passion.

I eventually landed in convention services, building relationships with people in the large event space. Hospitality is comprised of guest services and a keen understanding of peoples’ needs, desires and behaviors. I learned that the fundamentals of the service industry are at the core of any business operation, and when I had enough clients asking me to personally manage their events, I decided to launch a conference management company in Silicon Valley.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am very proud to say that at GPJ, we’re always working on a wide range of unique projects. The creativity, passion, and overall dedication by GPJ staff members is truly inspiring.

It’s difficult to pick just one project among so many, but typically my personal favorites are our ‘give back’ projects. For example, we have an ongoing internship program aimed at training the next generation of event marketers, and by working with universities across the country, we help develop talent in the experiential space. In fact, we’ll be announcing the launch of a brand-new program based on experiential marketing at a prestigious university in California in the very near future. To bring this to life we’ve invested in developing a physical laboratory space that offers hands-on training to students interested in a career in this field. Our mission is to bring together a network of professionals, academia, and young people in the space to ultimately redefine the future of our industry.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

For me, this is a rather simple answer: people do their best work personally and professionally when they feel happy and valued. As an executive, I understand the focus on business results, financials, and operations, but I believe that an unhappy workforce is a result of valuing the bottom line over the satisfaction of employees. Of course, both sides of the equation need to be solidified, but the priority should always be your people. First and foremost, a leader must ensure individuals and collective teams feel supported, resourced, and valued in order to achieve the most success.

There are a number of elements that build company culture, and once all the ingredients are in place, the finances and business will follow because happy people do their best work.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

If you take a step back and look at a company from a consumer’s standpoint — you’ll find that unhappy employees will not attract business. Further, they won’t inspire motivation and hard work from their peers. Contrarily, satisfied employees who enjoy coming to work and are proud of the work they’re supporting will undoubtedly achieve success and attract more business.

Our interactions as leaders, individuals, teams all impact the bottom line — when employee happiness is off-balance, the finances will be as well. A happy, engaged, and valued workforce is good for business!

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Management by walking around. This is a principle from Tom Peters that underscores the importance of being present with your employees, understanding what teams are working on day-to-day, and what ongoing client needs are. Leading from afar will create challenges with regard to trust and transparency among staff and clients alike. People often ask me why I travel so much, and my answer is simply that I need to be present for all of our employees and our clients in some capacity — which means visiting different offices, speaking to employees, and offering to support them across the organization. It’s incredibly important to me that the people of GPJ know I am there, not just a voice guiding from a distance.
  2. Listen — truly listen. It seems obvious, but sometimes there’s no better way to support employees than giving them the comfort of knowing that their goals and concerns are being heard. We’ve implemented multiple forums to ensure that employees’ voices are being elevated across various levels of our organization, including GPJ’s newly implemented Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) focused on supporting employees at every touchpoint and providing a forum through which to be heard. Employee run groups like “GPJ Women” and “The House of GPJ (LGBTQIA)” were the first to launch and we can’t wait for more.
  3. Ensure a shared vision. When you’re working at a large organization, it’s easy for company values to get muddled or for news to fly under the radar. Everyone within an organization needs to understand the mission, strategy and paths to success — it’s imperative they feel informed of where it’s heading in order to work collaboratively toward a common goal. At GPJ, we have a number of practices in place to communicate organizational updates and milestones, including town halls, all-office emails, and internal social channels, to name a few. I personally spearhead each town hall to connect directly with everyone, make sure employees are on the same page, and that everyone feels the lines of communication are always open.
  4. Don’t run from a challenge, face it head on. We work in a cutting edge, trendsetting industry, running both massive and small-scale events. Within that, there are plenty of challenges. The hallmark of a successful team is working together to solve these challenges in the most effective way to create solutions. Rather than running from things that scare us or might be exceptionally difficult, it’s essential to know that through collaboration, we can achieve the results that we want. If it’s not hard, it’s probably been done!
  5. Give back, then give back even more! As an organization and as individuals, giving back is a must. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it further orients an organization around a positive grounding principle. At GPJ we are lucky enough to have the support of our parent organization, Project Worldwide as they offer matching programs for our philanthropy efforts.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We’re living through vast societal changes that have implications far and wide, and now more than ever, business leaders have an increased responsibility to drive social change. Employees rely upon leaders to motivate others and act with empathy, while simultaneously heightening every strategic goal.

In today’s world, younger generations are entering the workforce looking for companies that will represent them in a positive way and give back to society — profitability is secondary. It is up to the leaders to build an ecosystem where support, communication, equality, diversity and philanthropy is the norm. The “ethics ante” is up, way up, and quite frankly it’s the best thing that could have happened to our global society. It’s inspiring to see this continuing to be a priority for young people — the historical drivers of social change — and our response as an industry should facilitate these values to drive the larger society as a whole.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I pride myself on being a communicative and accessible leader. When you run a complex logistics operation, hierarchy is important for accomplishing tasks, but approachability is even more crucial. There are basic table stakes for many CEOs — bottom lines, operations, checking off boxes — and a lot of leaders stop there. The operations and logistics are the easy part for me, it’s everything else that defines who I am as a leader. To me, it’s relationships and people that are paramount. Because of my focus on the people that make up GPJ, I’ve developed the ability within our organization to walk into a room and detect situational or cultural challenges and/or advantages. With this style I’m always able to have my finger on the pulse and can tell right away what’s going well and what’s not. Effective leaders have a sixth sense of sorts — a sense for talent, opportunity and roadblocks — and must drive course correction with an instinct to know how and where to spend your time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am deeply grateful that while at Cornell, I had the opportunity to take a course collaboratively taught by Ken Blanchard, a very successful author and leadership expert known by many as The One Minute Manager®, and Tom Peters a business management guru best known for authoring In Search of Excellence. Both Ken and Tom have had a profound influence on my career and I carry their lessons on business, managing others, and being an effective leader with me to this day.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Bringing goodness to the world involves understanding the world. Not just by reading about it, but by experiencing the vast array of cultures, people and locations that make up our world, both domestic and abroad. Having a passion for people and understanding behaviors and desires, I decided to take a six-month sabbatical in 2005 to travel the world with my family. It has always been important to me that my children have the opportunity to grow up as global citizens, understanding both the unique and shared challenges that people around the world face. The more we know about one another, the smaller our differences become.

GPJ is a global enterprise with more than 1,400 employees across many countries, so it’s important that I take this approach to our business as well. Learning about cultures around the world has provided invaluable insight to inform the decisions I make, the way I engage, and the overarching role that I play as CEO of GPJ. It’s at the epicenter of our giveback programs, our ongoing outreach across the organization and constant encouragement for employees to share their voice and participate freely, without hesitation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As mentioned above, while attending Cornell, I had the pleasure of taking a course taught by Ken Blanchard and Tom Peters. I’ll never forget this quote from Ken, “People who feel good about themselves produce good results.”

This quote has served as a cornerstone philosophy for who I am as a leader today. It defines my dedicated focus on the people behind our operation who drive the results that are so sought after, and the inspiration behind building a culture that uplifts employees first and foremost, ensuring our commitment to impeccable service won’t be compromised.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We’re living in a 24/7 news cycle, inundated at every touchpoint by the increasingly polarizing state of American daily life and politics. It feels as if we are continuously hit with bad news and at some point, that starts to take a toll on people.

With this in mind, I would start a “good news” movement — essentially an actual Good News Network with the goal of ensuring people are reminded of all the positive and inspiring things taking place day after day around the world. I feel confident that this would help level out the abundance of negative news we’re constantly fed and hopefully inspire others to bring about those moments of beauty in their own lives every day.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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