Peppercomm founder & CEO Steve Cody, stand-up comic and chief comedy officer Clayton Fletcher, co-authors of "The ROI of LOL," say that humor and laughter are essential in the workplace and can drive effective leadership.

In our latest installment of the Taking the Lead video podcast, they discussed the need to infuse workplaces with laughter and humor, while sharing related leadership insights. Not surprisingly, we had many laughs while recording it. Here are excerpts from the full video interview:

You’ve just published the ROI of LOL. Having read it, I can tell you that it is the antepenultimate business book I’ll read this month. I read it on a Kindle fire, so it felt a little truncated. Despite that, I think it fully captures the Zeitgeist of today. (Those are references to points made in the book) That said, in a nutshell, what is the ROI of LOL?

Today's world craves workplace humor. It's about shifting mindsets, from "yes, but" to "yes, and," and embracing creativity and imagination. Without this shift, survival and growth become uncertain. One of my favorite quotes from "The ROI of LOL," is the balance between people and profits. Peppercomm serves as an excellent example of maintaining high spirits. Laughter and happiness reign, and prosperity follow. As a result, our post-pandemic turnover has been minimal.

In the public relations world, leaders often take themselves too seriously, which is a significant leadership issue. We're missing self-deprecating humor in our profession, and it's time for a change.

The book makes a compelling case for using humor in Sales-Business Development. But how can leaders use humor to drive something we all want today: A team of engaged employees-followers?

Let's discuss stand-up and improvisational comedy. Improv thrives on active listening, cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork. Whether it's Peppercomm employees or clients, it's about helping, listening, and engaging with one another. We use exercises like Yes-And, Last Word-First Word, inspired by Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City, to engage individuals of all ages effectively.

Many clients request improv training before serious business discussions to foster collaboration. We also explore empathetic leadership, drawing lessons from three comedy styles: stand-up, improv, and sketch. In stand-up, we learn about our unique humor and the importance of truth-telling. In improv, we build teamwork by using these skills collectively. Sketch comedy, loved by millennials and Gen Z, provides further leadership insights.

Steve: I’ve often quoted your story from 2008/09, when you had the perfect storm of three clients letting Peppercomm go (not due to anything it had/hadn’t done) but due to the economic downturn. You talked about getting your game face on, and never letting your teams see you sweat. Do you still stand by that advice?

I'm clear on this. During the last economic downturn, we discussed the importance of not showing fear to the team. Fear can be contagious, so I avoid projecting it. We've all weathered economic ups and downs, and I've been candid with my employees, especially during the pandemic. I openly shared uncertainties and committed to transparency, even when it meant discussing possible salary cuts or layoffs. Unlike some CEOs, who made false promises, we're upfront about our business performance, top and bottom line profits, and my own emotions.

Clayton, what was it like when you first met Steve Cody, and realized “This guy wants to hire me to be his comedy trainer and coach, and he clearly isn’t very funny!”?

Au contraire, Ken Jacobs. I'm the one who found Steve funny. He enrolled in a comedy class, and the final project was a five-minute set at a New York club. I happened to be the emcee that night. Unaware of his CEO status, I approached him after the show and simply said, "Hey, I thought you did pretty well. If you want to pursue comedy further, I can assist you in getting started." And that's how the Steve you see today came to be.

Steve, after many years as an independent firm, you sold Peppercomm to Ruder Finn. How did you use humor to get through any pitfalls of merging, and how do you use humor to lead up to your boss, one of our most downloaded Taking the Lead guests, RF CEO Kathy Bloomgarden?

Certainly, Kathy has been remarkably receptive to Peppercomm. Our approach is a unique departure from Ruder Finn's DNA, embracing a different, more contemporary zeitgeist. They've welcomed our novel ideas, unexpected opportunities, and the power of humor with open arms. I've personally trained most of their senior management team, and we're gearing up for a substantial training session involving 100 of their staff at the upcoming global retreat in October.

What truly sets Ruder Finn apart is its private ownership. Unlike publicly traded or holding company-owned firms, our conversation with Kathy flowed seamlessly, with no speed bumps in sight. It's a harmonious alignment that continues to amaze me. Remarkably, we haven't lost a single client or employee in the year and a half since joining forces with Ruder Finn. It's been a truly beautiful partnership.

When has using humor backfired as a leader, and how did you recover?

Absolutely. In our book, (which is available October 17) we delve into instances where humor didn't quite hit the mark. It's crucial to clarify that incorporating humor into the workplace isn't a universal fit. If a company's CEO and C-suite aren't inclined towards workplace humor, we don't advocate forcing it—it's not about fitting a square peg into a round hole. Our focus is on those who aspire to enhance their charisma, develop empathetic leadership skills, and embrace humor as a tool for improvement.

We share an example involving one of our executives, Rob Duda. After successfully performing stand-up comedy at a club, he attempted to inject humor into a pitch meeting. However, he quickly learned that what works on a Saturday night in a comedy club doesn't translate to a boardroom. While it resulted in a missed opportunity, Rob owned up to his mistake, and we all share a laugh about it today.

There have been instances at Peppercomm where I inadvertently made humorous remarks about individuals without their consent, leading to embarrassment in front of the entire management team. It was a valuable lesson in ensuring that everyone is in on the joke before sharing it, and I deeply regret any discomfort caused by my words.


Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.