Sarah Robinson, Author of “Fierce Loyalty,” on the Benefits of Building Loyal Workplaces

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Sarah RobinsonThe perennially unassuming Sarah Robinson — an Amazon bestselling author — didn’t always see herself as an authority on community building. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have written “Fierce Loyalty: Unlocking the DNA of Wildly Successful Communities” if it hadn’t been for the persistent nudging from two of her good friends/colleagues, who also happened to work with writers.

“They always laughingly said, ‘You know, Sarah, you should write a book,’” Robinson explains. “And I always laughingly said, ‘About what?’ because I don’t know how to do anything spectacular.”

But Robinson’s friends insisted. They sat down and went over Robinson’s life together, looking to find the specific mastery they knew she had. “So we walked through everything I’ve ever done, and [my friend Janet] looked at me and said, ‘You know how to build fiercely loyal communities.’ And I kind of shrugged and said, ‘Well, yeah, doesn’t everybody know how to do that?’”

As Robinson’s friends rightfully pointed out, no, most of us have no clue how to do that — and when it comes to building and maintaining successful companies, a lot of us would kill for that knowledge.

An Expert, Despite Her Protests

It’s no wonder that Robinson is so good at fostering loyal communities: while speaking to her on the phone, I’m struck by the way she manages to be positively charming without ever coming off as self-conscious or insincere. She’s honest, she’s funny, and she clearly knows what she’s talking about, switching effortlessly between a warmly self-effacing sense of humor and casual confidence. One minute, she’s calling herself “the nerd in college who loved a good research paper,” and the next she’s citing all the ROIs of an engaged employee culture.

What I’m saying is: I don’t know where her unique brand of infectious charisma comes from, but I know that, if she were my boss, I’d have no problem staying engaged and invested.

Robinson demurs when I call her an “expert in loyalty” — “You’re very kind to call me that,” she says with a laugh — but one look at her book or her recent article series on building a loyal workplace confirms that there’s no other word for her. She’s an expert.

That’s partly because she’s been building small versions of loyal communities for as long as she can remember. “From the very beginning of my work career — and actually before my work career, even when I was in college — when I had something that I wanted to get done, I always got a group of people to help me do it, mainly because I’m lazy, and it was easier with more than me,” Robinson says.

But an inborn knack can only take you so far, and Robinson recognizes that her authority also stems from her time working in a residence hall system at St. Louis University, her first job after college. She was charged with changing the school’s commuter climate into more of a community. Given free reign to try whatever she wanted, Robinson was able to experiment with what works and what doesn’t when it comes to fostering connections between people.

You can see Robinson’s communal approach to work in the way that “Fierce Loyalty” came together. It was, after all, Robinson’s friends who helped pin down the book’s subject. Robinson also notes that, after researching companies with great brand communities, she went to discuss her thoughts and findings with Les McKeown, who she says “thinks in Venn diagrams.” (In keeping with Robinson’s modesty, she never once mentions that this is the same Les McKeown who wrote the bestselling business-growth guidebook “Predictable Success”. Where many would drop McKeown’s name for the instant credibility boost, Robinson fondly refers to him as “my friend Les.”) The conversation between McKeown and Robinson led to the Fierce Loyalty model that Robinson describes in her book.

After initially formulating the model with McKeown, Robinson went out to test it. “To me, there’s nothing worse than reading a business book where the model you’ve got — yeah, it worked in that company, but have you checked to see if it worked anywhere else?” she says. “I really wanted to vet it, and vet it hard.”

Robinson tested the model in every environment imaginable, ranging from mom-and-pop operations to Fortune 500 companies, and she found that it stood up. It’s this model that readers get from “Fierce Loyalty,” a brief, simple, actionable book that focuses on how to bring a loyal community to fruition. ”When people read it, they know what to go do,” Robinson says. “It’s not theoretical.”

The End of “Mad Men” Loyalty, and the Beginning of Something New

When Robinson was conducting research for “Fierce Loyalty,” she focused on researching companies with strong brand communities. Indeed, the book mainly focuses on “building and sustaining a fiercely loyal community of clients, customers and raving fans,” not on ensuring your employees are engaged and happy.

But Robinson noticed that people kept asking her the same question: this is really good — will it work internally? As we all know, organizations need more than just strong brand communities these days; they need loyal workplace communities as well. “When you’ve got really good talent, it’s tough to keep them,” Robinson agrees.

But how do we build loyal workplace communities in the modern business landscape, when traditional notions of company loyalty no longer seem to apply? “There’s the old-school loyal, like ‘Mad Men’ loyal, where you’re the company man, and you’re loyal from the day you graduate until the day you retire,” Robinson says. “There’s that image of a loyal workplace, but I don’t think that works in our contemporary society.”

She’s right: “Mad Men loyalty” is gone, with the average employee spending only 4.4 years in a given job. Millennials are planning to stick around for even less time, with 91 percent of them reporting that they expect to stay at each job for fewer than three years.

Responding to the need for a “Fierce Loyalty” model in the workplace, Robinson has taken to translating her community-building expertise to the office in a series of articles on her blog. She offers a new vision of workplace loyalty, one in which loyalty means being a happy, highly engaged worker. These loyal workers are engaged with not only their work, but also their coworkers and superiors, creating an entire community of loyal people. In a loyal workplace, employees are invested in the success of the whole company, not just their personal successes.

“When I think of a loyal workplace, Zappos is the one that comes to mind … just because everybody knows it, and it’s the one most people are familiar with,” Robinson says. “I’ve been to their headquarters, and I’ve seen how they work, and to me, what workplace loyalty looks like in our current work environment is a place where people love to come to work. They love being there. They love going the extra mile.”

Robinson sees all of the hallmarks of workplace loyalty in Zappos’s culture, noting particularly how the company empowers its employees  by giving them the freedom to work creatively and according to their own preferences. And Zappos employees are on record about the company’s commitment to building an undeniably strong workplace culture.

Over and over again, in describing what loyal workplaces are like in contemporary business, Robinson keeps coming back to the idea that loyal employees are happy employees. “I know that sounds unquantifiable, but I don’t think it’s unquantifiable. I think it has everything to do with everything,” she says. “I don’t know about you, but I do my best work when I’m happy in my work. I turn out my best products, I give my best, I go the extra mile, when I’m happy in the work that I’m doing.”

In a way, then, employee happiness is quantifiable in a company’s bottom line. When people are part of a loyal workplace, they do their best work. When they do their best work, they turn out better products and provide better services for their company, which generally means higher profits. “It think [better work] is the ROI [of workplace loyalty],” Robinson says, “because it’s a lot of work to create a fiercely loyal workplace. If it were easy, everybody would have one.”

Recruiting in the Loyal Workplace

It’s almost cliché these days to point out that a strong workplace culture draws in high-level talent. But to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, while clichés may seem lame on the surface, they often express great truths. And it is a great truth of sourcing that engaging cultures attract top-tier candidates.

Similarly, workplace culture can make it easier to retain the high-level talent you already have, thereby warding off the excessive expenses of employee turnover, which manifest themselves in both monetary and less tangible ways.

But the loyal workplace brings another perk that recruiters may not immediately see: better employee referrals. “If you have a loyal workplace … [employees] are talking to their peers about how much they love working there,” Robinson says. “They’re doing the recruiting for you.”

Robinson rightfully calls the HR-department-sifting-through-resumés method “the most painful way to fill a position ever.” It’s time consuming and terribly limited: you’re only getting resumés from people who have seen your ads, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the kind of applicants you want.

However, the loyal workplace bypasses this ineffective system, as Robinson explains:

“It’s much better if I love my job, and I’m in the graphic design department, which probably means I have graphic design friends, and I say, ‘You’re not gonna believe this job that’s opening, you should apply. Actually, I’m going to call Sally in HR. Because I eat lunch with her, because I’m in a fiercely loyal workplace and I have a relationship with this person, I’m going to call Sally in HR and tell her that you’re going to be calling.”

Best of all, the loyal workplace not only brings in talent through employee referrals, but it also comes with a built-in screening mechanism of sorts: “If I’m working in the graphic design department, and my department’s awesome, and I love it, I’m also not gonna tell some friend of mine who’s lame to apply for the job,” says Robinson.

In other words: engaged, happy employees in a fiercely loyal workplace will do everything they can to ensure the continued existence of that strong culture, from recruiting highly qualified candidates for you to screening out the candidates who won’t cut it.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of