At Edmunds.com’s Santa Monica headquarters during the last week in July, it was anything but business as usual. Almost all of the car buying site’s 550 employees were away from their desks, spending part of each day in seminars on topics like leadership, hiring, and time management—and the rest practicing yoga or martial arts, taking guitar lessons, or skateboarding in the park across the street.
“We had traditional summer camp-themed things like color wars, a talent show, and even s’mores,” says CEO Avi Steinlauf. “But our ‘camp’ also addressed different areas of career development that employees had told us were important to them.”
Guest speakers like Greg Brandeau, former CTO at Disney and senior vice president of technology at Pixar, gave standing room-only presentations, and Edmunds.com executives talked about their own careers and answered questions from employees in town hall-style “fireside chats.” But there was still plenty of room in the schedule for learning how to rock climb, or do standup comedy, or play ping pong—all of which were taught by employees who had volunteered ahead of time.
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“This sounded a little crazy to me, when I first heard about it,” says Amanda Shumack, who developed and now manages Edmunds.com’s mobile apps. “I had never heard of a company doing anything like this.” Besides several classroom sessions and Bandeau’s speech on innovation, which she says was “amazing,” Shumack signed up for hip-hop dance lessons and a beginners’ skateboarding class, and learned how to do macramé. She also won the camp talent show with what Steinlauf calls a “jaw-dropping” act with LED-lighted hula hoops.
The idea for an employee summer camp came from Steinlauf’s own adolescence. He went to summer camp in Lake Como, Pa., over 30 years ago. There he met Seth Berkowitz, and the two kept in touch right up until the late 1990s, when Steinlauf recruited Berkowitz, who had become a corporate attorney, to be Edmund.com’s president.
Trying to imagine a career-development program that wouldn’t put employees to sleep, the pair came up with the camp idea, which “turned out to be even more popular than I expected,” Steinlauf says. “I was pleasantly surprised at how involved and engaged people were.”
Not every employer can, or wants to, hold a summer camp, but Steinlauf believes any company that really tries can probably think of some way to get people enthused about learning. “Don’t be afraid of having fun and helping people develop professionally at the same time,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with having a good time.”
His employees apparently agree, and some are already talking about next year. “I’m going to sign up for even more training sessions next summer,” says Shumack. “And I think I’ll volunteer to teach a hula hoop class.”