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Our Habitat Build: Five Lessons Revisited

Once again the Mintz + Hoke team traded strategy sessions and concept development responsibilities for a day building new houses with Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity. While landscaping, painting and using a chop saw aren’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 we thought.

For anyone considering a company-wide volunteer event with Habitat for Humanity, our agency President Ron Perine offers the five lessons we learned.

Working together overcomes a lack of expertise
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 40 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 in New Britain, Connecticut.

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.

Have patience
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 abilities
The build was an unexpected opportunity to revisit and apply skills while also learning more about each other. Most of us knew that one of our media team members had a “can do” attitude that we count on every day. It was instrumental when we encountered a huge rock that required a pickaxe and lots of sweat equity to unearth before we could plant some bushes. Several of us took turns digging, chipping and encouraging each other. Then, when what seemed like a massive boulder was pulled from the hole, everyone cheered and made plans for bringing it back to the office.

The lesson we learned is that all of us bring skills, from strength and critical analysis – and even a good dose of 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.

Believe in the team
Any individual standing in front of three houses and seeing a huge dumpster full of topsoil unloaded to be spread, along with rocks and dry dirt would think it was an unsurmountable task. Multiply that by 40 plus volunteers and it became a simple matter of picking up rakes, wheelbarrows, shovels and making a plan. Together we moved a mountain (of dirt) and made the yards ready for grass seed.

Even small teams are stronger than individuals. One example: Working together, Digital Technology Lead Mike Perry and our Creative Director Grant Sanders were able to compensate for each other’s lack of abilities. Mike was able to read the tape measure when Grant’s eyesight was failing him, and Grant was able to serve as an immovable buttress while Mike adjusted the brackets on a sliding closet door. Teamwork!

The lesson we learned? No matter how good you are, if you’re playing solo you’ll always lose out to a team.

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. We’re looking forward to seeing if the topsoil we spread will soon hold grass and if the front porches on the three homes we worked on will be as welcoming as we envision.

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.

This post from agency President Ron Perine originally appeared after our first Habitat for Humanity build in May 2015 and has been updated with new lessons. When he’s not building for Habitat for Humanity, he’s building morale around the offices of 40 Tower Lane.

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