Pike Place Fish Market- As Close to the Heart of Engagement as You’ll Ever Get!


When I created The Heart of Engagement, I was looking for a metaphor to express my passion for distinguishing factors that contribute to establishing intentionally engaging work environments. From the very start, I have assumed that there is no real “heart” of engagement, I thought of the title mainly as a way to designate a direction for an inquiry, not necessarily a destination. Recently I had an experience that has made me reconsider my own assumption; maybe there really is a heart! It happened in of all places the Tai Tung Chinese Restaurant on King Street in Seattle. I wish you could have been there!

Last Thursday evening at the invitation of my friend and colleague Jim Bergquist I attended a staff meeting for everyone who works at his most well known client, the Pike Place Fish Market, a group of around twenty. The market is located in Seattle, though I am sure that fact hardly needs mentioning since it is after all “World Famous.” Jim , who has been consulting with the market’s owner, John Yokoyama, as well as the rest of the staff since 1986 had met with me over lunch that day and happened to mention that I’d be welcome to attend and I jumped at the opportunity. {Certainly hundreds of thousands of people have watched the fishmongers toss the fish over the past twenty years but I imagine the number of outsiders who have sat in on a staff meeting is pretty small.}

I knew of Jim Bergquist more than I knew him when I arrived in Anacortes in late 2006. Some years past, about twenty or so I guess, Jim and I had been volunteers for The Hunger Project. I had read about his work with Pike Place Fish in ‘Catch: A Fishmongers Guide to Greatness and we had both started our consulting practices around the same time. So now, we live about three miles apart and are able to get together on a regular basis. The Pike Place Fish Market is a frequent topic of our conversations, mainly because I am so interested in what took a near bankrupt fish market to a twenty-year run of successes and made it a brand highly recognized in the world of organizational development.

What I saw last Thursday evening came pretty close to answering for me why the truly standout companies are not afraid to share their secrets. Like Toyota, Pike Place Fish Market has been openly sharing the philosophy that led to its sustained success for years and after all this time has very few imitators. Why? I cannot be sure I have the  answer but from my recent experience I certainly now have an informed opinion. It turns out that the folks at Pike Place Fish operate from a central purpose, a commitment to “World Peace and Prosperity for Everyone.” Yea buddy, that is what I said. Nearly every one of the staff members present was wearing either a hoodie or a cap with this purpose prominently stated someplace on the garment and as each staff member shared something that evening it wasn’t more than a minute or two before someone else tied that contribution back to their purpose. As I write this, I have a good idea how it sounds and I can tell you that I have never witnessed anything more authentic in my life. The experience was humbling and inspiring.

The folks at Pike Place Fish Market, with the help of Jim Bergquist, figured out a long time ago that their daily work had to be about something larger than just making money, c’mon, it is fish they are selling! You get the fish in the morning, you stack them up, you sell them, and you go home at night and then do it again the next day. How long can you do that and stay inspired? The guys at Pike Place Fish have figured out how to do it consistently for over twenty years and John Yokoyama  told me Thursday evening that this team is their best ever and they are definitely at the top of their game.

What struck me part way through the meeting was that this was not a special event; they do this every two weeks, without fail, and have been for over twenty years. Jim Bergquist has been a regular contributor for these twenty years and is clearly a revered part of their tradition. The folks at Pike Place Fish do not need Jim Bergquist, they want him there, he is an integral part of their team and philosophy and a source of objectivity when they get tangled up in their shorts, and they do!

As a professional catalyst I couldn’t have been more validated by my experience last Thursday evening. And, like I said, it is clearer for me now that the very best have nothing much to fear from the rest of the companies out there, even in their own industries. Honestly, what makes the Pike Place Fish Market rare is that the owner and employees are up to something a lot more naturally engaging than making money, and not that many companies see the possibility in that.




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