The parable of the ugly chair – How to handle a sticky situation without offending anyone.

ugly chairOnce upon a time in a place far away there was a man who made a journey to see his friend in a distant city. The sojourner walked into the pastor’s office and could not help but see the chair off to one side. Behold, it was an ugly chair. It appeared to have suffered much at the hands of many for the upholstery had torn in many places and the seat had sagged in the middle. The arms were worn and apparently the soles of a thousand shoes had scuffed the finish right off the legs.

“Where did you get this treasure?” I asked my host.

“One of our parishioners brought it in and donated it to the church.”

“Some donation,” I suggested. A few more like that and you could have a low end thrift store. Why don’t you just throw it out?”

“I would,” he said. “But they are nice people and they mean well. If I immediately threw it out others would notice and they might not understand. Ugly chairs are worth more than they seem. The principle at play here is more than a chair. It has many layers. First, we must always be grateful for the contributions of others even if they might not be up to our standard or quite meet the needs of the moment. Second, others are watching to see how I handle this. I want to communicate to them that I appreciate everyone and welcome their investment in our organization. Third, everyone is important, even the givers of ugly chairs. Fourth, there is a way to deal with this without offending anyone.”

“And what, I pray you, would that be?”

The wise leader spoke. “First, I welcomed the gift and thanked the giver. Next I found a place of honor for the ugly chair right here in the main office. Indeed, after the passing of a short time, the chair found a new place to reside and it sits there now off to the side. While it had been front and center it is now part of the bigger picture and beginning to blend in by those who frequent this place. You saw it because you are not from here. Others who do frequent here have seen it so often they don’t see it anymore. In another short time the chair, having become part of the background, will find a new home in a less visited office. Then after the passing of more time it will decide it needs solitude and find refuge in a storage room. Eventually the chair will find a new home in another place entirely, perhaps take a journey to the great outdoors to reside. By then, no one will have noticed that the chair is not here. It will have served its purpose over time and we shall not be faulted for having been insensitive and ungrateful.”

“I think I see,” said the traveler. “not every issue, not every event, not every situation needs to be confronted directly nor dealt with immediately. Why create a crisis or an offence when no such crisis exists and an offence can be avoided.”

“Verily,” said the wise leader. “You have learned well.”

And so it was.

Leadership is not about who you are but about where you’re going

Self-importance seems to go hand in hand with titles. Ascending to a position of power and importance can readily go to one’s head. One leader revealed that within hours of being appointed to a new job, one where he was in charge, he received two phone calls from colleagues encouraging him to show his power, to let people know there was a new sheriff in town.

Admittedly it is a tempting thought. After all, you’ve worked hard, proven yourself, and paid the price for success. Then getting the place of power and authority, it seems a shame not to use it. However, I’ve found that

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN DOESN’T MEAN THAT YOU SHOULD.

If you have been reading The Practical Leader for long you may remember that post I wrote last year about restraint. Power brings with is many possibilities for good and for bad. Using power to demonstrate power is almost always counter-productive.

It is critical to remember that the object of power is not power nor the ability to use power unless it is qualified by purpose.

Just what is the motive behind and the intent ahead of the power we wield?

Methods might have to be changed or recharged to refocus the organization on its mission. The mission and vision of a company, if it has been well-considered before implementation, remains fixed and constant. The means to get there do not. Power, and your new position , is a great chance to refocus on the mission, remind everyone (yourself included) of the progress made, and refine methods you’re taking to get there.

Paradigms change, we have to as well. We start out using one map, a projected lay of the land and assumption about routes to be taken. But as our understanding changes with time and experience, so must our “maps.” Changes must be made, but they need to be logical (according to sound thinking and valid argument) and they must be reasonable (according to rational thought and trustworthy information and data). Anything less and confusion will result raising levels of anxiety in everyone working for you.  If they cannot see the reasons why changes are being made and if they cannot understand how they will fit in those changes, their sense of security will plummet.

Finally, employ the power and privilege of your position to clarify and explain what’s being done and why. People of power have earned the right to be heard. Do not squander that right by remaining silent. With the power and the privilege comes the responsibility to treat others with the respect they deserve as individuals and valued participants in the company’s purpose. Explain, explain, explain. And don’t limit your explanation to one announcement, an email, or a notice put on a bulletin board. Keep explaining until everyone gets it.

Simply throwing your weight around puts the spotlight and focus on you which is precisely on the wrong place.  You, the leader, want to be the calalyst for action and advancement, not the point of reaction and resentment.

Leading from behind, what it is…and what it is not

theretheygoThis concept of leading from behind appears in the news fairly often. The term and the concept have found their most academic expression in an idea put forth by Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School. She claims it originated from reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography when he likened leaders who shepherd their flocks from behind. Hill’s concept is that of collaborative effort within teams who take responsibility for projects and goals.

Having spent many years working with Navajo leaders in the Southwestern United States I learned a little about shepherding. I’ve spent even more time working with leaders in a great many cultures and found that the dynamics and principles of effective leadership are universal.

I need to point out that Hill’s premise of “leading from behind” is more of an observation about certain specific and limited iterations of work group dynamics than it is a proven practice. She opines that the workplace of the future will be different, but no one can really say what or how.

The phrase “leading from behind” is not one used by Mandela but it has been kicked around in the media with both positive and negative intentions. Since this blog is focused on practical leadership, it is a worthwhile investment of our time to take a closer look.

All leadership gifts and their incarnation are active not passive. Banish from your thinking now that leading from behind can mean that you are missing in action. If anything other than chaos and tumult is to result someone somewhere has to lead. A clear and certain trumpet call musters the troops. A sure and steady voice gathers the attention of the workforce.

What it is:

It is deliberate not accidental. Even collaborative and inferred effort is done so calculatingly. The shepherd can let the sheep wander on their own only within parameters. There are dangers and there are opportunities. Effective leaders are not always hands on and predominant, but they are always there.

It is purposeful not incidental. I both laugh and cringe when I hear a leader claim to be involved when something happens that they had little or nothing to do with. Leading from behind means the leader has intent and ideas and has made both known even if they did so subtly.

It is collaborative and cooperative. One technique I use in workshops is to give an assignment, then break up the group into smaller clusters of three or four people. With assignment in hand, the clusters are told they have but a few minutes to complete the task. If there is a natural and confident leader, the group will come together, divide the job into smaller tasks, and then create the assigned work. If not, nothing productive happens. Discussion ensues, arguments arise, confusion reigns. Leading from behind may mean exercising influence indirectly but it does mean exercising influence.

It works best in times and places of non-crisis. If a child is running into the street and into traffic, it is not the time to convene a focus group to discuss the threats of playing in the street. It is the time for action. Leading from behind, as Hill describes it, works best in non-threatening, non-urgent conditions.

It is, at this point in time and evolution, more theoretical than it is practical. While some groups have enjoyed some success using indirect leadership methods in smaller work groups, there is someone of strength at the helm of the ship. It is unclear to me whether Hill advocates this method for the leadership of entire companies or whether she intends it for use in smaller units inside companies.

What it is not:

It is not rewriting the facts to make it look like something happened when it has not. This is a CYA (cover you’re a** for those readers outside the US) maneuver used by someone who should have been paying attention. Politicians do this all the time.

It is not ignoring a situation or neglecting one then claiming you are leading from behind. This is a face saving effort on the part of someone who is either reluctant to lead or out of ideas.

It is not passive. Even those who lead from behind lead. They do not do nothing and try to call it leadership. They are exercising influence deliberately and purposefully. An intent is fixed, a purpose is validated, and actions are thought through. One does not sit idly by and hope something good happens because effective leaders know that hope is not a valid strategy.

It is not an excuse for doing little or nothing while at the same time claiming to be leading. Neither laziness nor inattention are qualities found in an effective leader. Shepherds do not sleep while flocks wander about. They do not sit under a tree while the sheep stray off over the hill. Shepherds are constantly scanning for danger, remembering the need of the sheep for food and shelter, and direct the flock accordingly.

It cannot take the place of strategic thinking and strategic planning. In their book “Transforming Health Care Leadership” authors Michael Maccoby, Clifford L. Norman, C. Jane Norman, and Richard Margolies devote 140 pages to explaining and illustrating strategic intelligence and what it means for leaders. I won’t even attempt to cover their research here but they’ve identified four key components worth noting here – foresight, visioning, partnering, and motivating. Hill seems to focus on partnering and motivating. I suggest that if there is no one to exercise foresight and define vision, then just about anything can…and will happen. And I don’t mean that in a positive sense. I mean that in its implications of catastrophe.

In short, one can lead from behind only if one knows what lies ahead and what it will take to get there.

Respect – 4 things you should Never do and 1 thing you should

respectWhen I was last in Africa, I found a book in the library of the home in which I resided about the early days of safari hunting. The industry is tightly regulated these days and was, to a certain degree, even in the early part of the twentieth century. The hunters and guides were a hardy and courageous lot. Those early safari guides learned early on what it took to survive. No hunt was ever the effort of a single person. An orchestrated team event kept guide and guest alive and made the hunt successful.

In one story the guide was driving back to camp after a hunt. He drove the truck while his client sat inside with him. In the back rode the men who helped out. As they neared home, the driver/guide looked in the rearview window to see one of the men in the back throwing things off the truck into the brush by the road.

Immediately discerning what was going on, he stopped the truck and confronted the man. There was no emergency necessitating the jettisoning of cargo. The man was stealing stuff, throwing it over so he could return later and retrieve it.

The guide berated the fellow, made him backtrack and retrieve all the jettisoned cargo. Then he fired the man on the spot, paid him his earned wages, and sent him away.

Getting back into the cab of the truck, he made but one remark about the incident to his client. “If you don’t do that, neither he nor the others will respect you.”

What did he mean when he said if you don’t do “that”?

Did he mean the harshness of his rebuke or the dressing down that he gave the man?

No.

He meant that if you don’t enforce and reinforce that which is right and proper, if you don’t back up your position of responsibility with decisive and firm action, if you don’t say what you mean and mean what you say, those who work for you and with you will lose their respect for you.

To respect someone is to hold them, their position, their responsibilities, and their word in high regard. It is to appreciate the value in who they are, what they do, and what they say.

If you lose someone’s respect, you’ve lost your ability to lead because others no longer believe that your word really means anything. It has no or diminished value. And if your word has little value, your ability to advance your vision is seriously compromised if not completely neutralized.

So then, how do you maintain the respect of others? Here are four things you should never do.

  1. Speak before thinking. Words spoken in haste will almost certainly be regretted. What you say must carry with it your commitment to back it up with action, either positive in the case of promises or negatively as in the case cited above.
  2. Never draw a red line in the dirt, sand, or on paper that you are not 100% committed to backing up. The minute, the very minute someone violates the red line and you do nothing about it, the respect heretofore granted to you drains away. And it is not only your enemies that lose respect. Your friends do, too.
  3. Play favorites, letting some get away with what brings to others either discipline or dismissal. This is a certain path to disrespect because others learn that you don’t mean what you say.
  4. Waffle or wobble. Don’t change rules in the middle of the game. Effective leaders are in the game for the duration, not momentary advantage. Changing rules causes uncertainty to rise in the ranks and communicates to them that a very cautious stance is the right way to go. This point ties in with #1. Think before speaking and think through what you are about to pronounce as the rule. There are often unintended and unforeseen consequences which may force a change. Think of your role as a chess player would and see possible moves farther on.

And one thing you should do…

When you are wrong, admit it. It is not a sign of weakness. It is an indicator of honesty and humility.

 

Impediments to Progress – Monumental Inertia

inertiaAs the twentieth century began, navies in only a half-dozen countries were experimenting with a new type of watercraft – the submarine. Invented in its most recent and most useable form by Irish immigrant and schoolteacher John Philip Holland, most traditional navy officers didn’t like submarines, did not understand how submarines could be deployed or used, and did not want them.

Torpedoes had been the weakest component of submarine warfare until the technicians at Vickers, Limited, a British firm, came up with a revolutionary improvement. For the first time a long-range torpedo with a large warhead that could travel at a high rate of speed.

But there were a few who could see well into the future and imagine how submarines could expand a navy’s fighting capacity. Those visionaries were persistent and vocal to the point they convinced the U.S. Navy to build a torpedo factory an Newport, Rhode Island.

As the factory became a major component of the area’s economy the predictable began to happen. Creativity and productivity slowed to a trickle. Any attempts to change things resulted in forceful and high-level pushback. Unproductive or insubordinate employees could not be fired because politicians always intervened. Inertia, monumental inertia set in. Once it did only minor refinements resulted.

Some may object that this example is typical of government contracted work and bureaucracy. But sadly it is not. Consider the following:

Thomas Watson, president of IBM, in 1943, said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

In 1946, Darryl Zanuck, executive at 20th Century Fox, said “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse,” a spectacularly wrong prediction by Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com made in 1995.

All of the above are indicators of monumental inertia, of leaders wanting things to stay as they are. “Monumental” has more than one meaning. It means gigantic, huge, bigger than big. It also means an honored tribute, a reverence and respect for and a sense of duty and responsibility towards.

 Why?

  1. We fall in love with the past. We know it. We understand it. We like it…a lot. We’re comfortable in it. We’ve learned how to manage it and become apprehensive about embarking into the seas of change.
  2. We tend not to see flaws, inadequacies, or obsolescence…and resent those who point them out. Like living in the same house for a long time, when you decide to sell, the real estate agent will see things that the buyer will see but that the seller doesn’t. Often, perhaps almost all of the time, the resident (that’s us) have lived with a house for so long we do not notice how it is showing its age and history. The same principle applies in business and organizational leadership. Methods, processes, thinking patterns, and systems may have served us well but objects of veneration they are not. It is very, very easy to build monument to the past and validate our work by our faithfulness to what was.
  3. We think that being busy is as good as being productive. Activity is not progress. It’s activity. Busyness is not business. Yet maintaining a full schedule is often substituted for maintaining a productive schedule. Review everything all the time to make certain the movement is forward not circular.
  4. The choices we make either lock the past onto the future or they change the future. Nothing happens until someone decides to do something and makes that decision by thinking differently than she did yesterday. Changes happen because changes are made.

Here’s what to do with inertia-induced thinking:

  1. While we may be able to control and throttle back progress and productivity within a small context, we can do nothing about controlling either in the rest of the world. It seems symptomatic of leaders who believe they can stop the earth from rotating, cause the tides to cease, or reverse the inevitable march to tomorrow. We can’t and should never embrace the thought…not even for a moment. To do nothing is to entertain the delusion that things outside our control will remain the same. They won’t.
  2. It’s better keep up than to try and catch up. In 2012, Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers embarked on a brave new program to become tech friendly and tech savvy. After listening to and examining their proposals and their timeline it became obvious to everyone but them that even if they were to enact every proposal on schedule they would be even with today five years from now making them five years behind even as they “caught up.” They assumed that tech would remain the same. FYI, one of their more user-friendly proposals was to install credit card readers at each service desk throughout the store, eliminating the need for customers to make their purchases through the checkout counters at the front. Their schedule called for the card readers to be operational by September, 2012. I was in a Lowe’s store last week (March, 2015). The card readers still don’t work. What’s new today is obsolete tomorrow. It you’re going to overcome inertia and plunge ahead, plan to plunge far ahead. Don’t be timid about it.
  3. Pushback is inevitable so expect it. Change is seldom easy for most workers. Humans like space they can control because it gives us a sense of security. Inertia reinforces that feeling. Movement makes control less, well, controllable. A car is simple to control when it is standing still. But when it’s moving it becomes more difficult. There are more things to attend to, more dangers to be aware of. People like control and pushback when they lose it.
  4. It will require more effort to get going than it will to keep going. Inertia is strongest at the start. Once the ball starts rolling, centrifugal force begins to assist our efforts. The dynamic forces of possibility and probability overcome the resistant forces of fear and comfort. Once we get into it, we actually do begin to enjoy the ride.

If a leader has not overcome inertia personally, professionally, and practically, s/he is not really leading. S/he is managing. Leadership is always movement and progress. Management is always monitoring and process.

 

The perfect storm that can shipwreck even the most promising career – 6 things you need to know today

perfectstormIt is everyone’s dream – a corner office, a commensurate salary, respect and recognition from your peers. Leadership has its privileges, if not immediately at least eventually. From the first experiences of being a leader, which most people do not readily identify as such, until one’s name becomes synonymous with the term, persons in whom the gift of leadership resides are on a path to greater dimensions of significance. You get better at what you do and it shows.

The manifestation of truly superlative leadership is filled with nuance. Taken by themselves the nuances are almost imperceptible but in a package they point to someone great and something significant.

But there is a perfect storm that will almost certainly shipwreck even the most promising career. It is the convergence of Too Much, Too Soon, Too Easy.

Happily most of us will not experience it but enough do that it warrants our attention. And who among us wouldn’t prefer an even shorter, less rocky path to success? We see those for whom success comes early in their career, to whom larger amounts of money flows, unto whom higher accolades gather…and a tinge of envy, perhaps even resentment speaks in a small voice inside our heads.

But having lived long enough to be looking a life from the far side, I can assure you that the ones to be pitied and fearful for are not those of you who struggle in the path for success. It is those who got too much too soon too easily.

Surprisingly, thoroughbred horses, those who perform the best on the track are not coddled. They are subjected to strenuous conditioning, hard and at times harsh treatment designed to bring out the horse’s strengths and strengthen his weaknesses.

It is counterintuitive to what we might prefer to think. I know it is counterintuitive to what I would want.

But we must ask…and answer why. There are six reasons. Here they are:

  1. Effective and superlative leadership comes from those who understand that leadership and power is not about steel held in their hands but about the steel in their hearts. Leadership is the ability to possess and draw upon moral courage and whose values are rooted within moral fortitude. There is often an easy way in juxtaposition to the right way. It demands steel in the heart to make those kinds of decisions…steel that has been forged in the fires of adversity, struggle, and growth.
  2. People who’ve come by too much too soon too easily tend to become hard-hearted and hard-nosed whereas those whose growth into leadership has come from a series of successful, moral, and courageous encounters with the exigencies of life tend to be neither. Their strength is that of character formed over time and under pressure. Insensitivity is the direct result of ignorance of or disregard for the struggles of others.
  3. We all have feet of clay but those who have come by position and power easily seem to lose awareness of it. The consequential blindness manifests itself in arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, and hubris. An intolerance for the failing and feelings of others results.
  4. Those who have had life and its privileges handed to them tend to expect that life and others owe them something. Those of that ilk tend to demand respect while the character made manifest in those who have earned it command respect. The difference is subtle but significant.
  5. Having experienced pain firsthand, we are well-prepared to tackle painful things and tackle them first. Superlative leaders are not pain avoidance people. They are pain conquering people. There are fun things to do and there are necessary things to do. Those whose path to power has come easily tend to avoid or postpone difficult decisions. They invent all manner of rationalized reasons but show me a person in a position of leadership who cannot make decisions readily or whose habit is to postpone making difficult ones as long as possible and I will show you a person who was given the position. They did not earn it.
  6. Coming to reign by virtue of pain prepares us to rule, govern, lead, and guide from a place of mercy and understanding. It makes us human, creates an approachable atmosphere, and prepares us to motivate rather than manipulate. You’re probably familiar with the old exercise and fitness mantra – no pain no gain. Well, it’s true in our field as well. You see, the pain which we experience as we are growing into leadership and influence spawns another mantra – no pain no reign. (Of course, I mean “reign” in the sense of sitting in a place of responsibility and power not mere privilege and esteem).

Even a brief examination of professional sports reveals manifold tragedies in the lives of young athletes whose sudden rise to fame and fortune brought upon them pressures, responsibilities, and unseen consequences. Lottery winners have much the same tragic result. If I may, let me encourage you that the path to the success you want…and deserve…may seem unfairly challenging, but it is not. The only leadership worth having, the only position worth occupying, the only privileges wholesomely enjoyed are those we’ve earned.

 

Simple solution

 

RubeGoldbergOne thing you can do that will make your associates appreciate you even more.

I spent 30 years as a trainer and consultant talking my way through life assisting other leaders do their jobs even more effectively. Then, wanting a career change, I took an avocation and made it a vocation. I opened and ran a millwork business which became the third largest in the Caribbean by the time I sold it.

Running a woodworking business is, in principle, the same as any other business. All leadership is problem-solving. It faces the challenge of taking a customer‘s problem or an employee’s dilemma and finding a solution.

Our ability to do so in a timely and efficient manner that satisfies all the constituents is at the heart of effective leadership. There are, therefore, some cardinal principles. Here’s the first one:

Great leaders simplify the complex. They take what is complicated and make it simple. They make sense out of confusion and they bring order out of chaos.

Mediocre leaders don’t.

Michelangelo said that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Why?

  • The more complicated a plan is, the more likely it is to fail.
  • The more complex a directive is the greater the chance that someone will get it wrong.
  • The more components that are required to be found and assembled, the more maintenance it will take to keep it running.
  • The higher the complexity, the greater the cost.

Much of what complicates life is often unnecessary. Many of us, in the midst of the challenges of juggling career, relationships, commitments, and kids long for what?

A simpler life.

So, wanna be a great leader?  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

 

Using Authority, Capitalizing on Power

vintage woodshopI was in my first year of junior high school. That means the ripe age of 12. I had enrolled in woodshop as one of my permitted elective courses and very excited about learning how to make things.

I don’t really remember the first project we were given to work on. But I do remember the first piece of lumber I had to cut. Skinny and short for my age, I selected a hand saw from the storage rack and a board from the storage bin. Laying it out on the bench, I measured and drew a line.

With saw in one hand, holding the board with the other, I clumsily drew the teeth across the edge. Making a pile of sawdust I cut through the board. But try as I could, I could not keep the saw on the line. As the waste piece fell off, my project board had a crooked edge both across the grain and vertically.

The shop teacher came over, picked up the piece, and laid it back down. “Well,” he said, “I’ve seen better.” Then he walked off. Not more discussion. No instruction. Nothing.

Now, no doubt he was accurate and truthful.  Doubtless he had seen better.

But was that really the point?

Leadership confronts opportunities like this often, usually many times a day. Someone makes an attempt but somehow someway falls short. And leaders really, really need to remember how significantly what they say and how they respond will impact the person.

You can use your authority or capitalize on your power.

That instructor way back in junior high used his authority. He made an accurate and truthful pronouncement that passed judgment on both me and the work I had completed.

But it fixed nothing. I already knew it was not a good cut. How could it have been anything else? I had not used a handsaw before. I had been given no instruction. I tackled the job with as much enthusiasm as I could muster and focused my efforts. To be told that he had seen better remedied not one thing except to let me know that he possessed knowledge that I needed but he was not going to share it and that I had failed to live up to the rest of the human race.

Just about all of us have heard of Douglas McGregor’s X & Y theories of management. X being directive and authoritative. Y being indirect and informative. Well, there is a third not spoken of much but one under which we have all suffered. That is the SOB style, the one used by my shop teacher, is probably more widely in use than we would hope.

The use of authority, as I’ve illustrated, usually makes the one using authority feel better while making the one upon whom it was used feel worse. He could have used his considerable power (defined as the influence one has upon others) to instruct, to place things in perspective (“No problem, this is your first cut and I’ll show you how to make cuts the right way” or something like that), and to move the class along towards its implied goals of developing woodworking skills in young students.

The office of a leader is filled with nuances. There is advice and direction and then there is inspiration and motivation. There is that which is accurate and there is that which is helpful. It is not impossible to be, say, and do both at the same time.

No one is suggesting that standards be lowered or eliminated and no one is suggesting that incompetence be sanctioned. I am suggesting, however, that life and death is in the power of the tongue. We as leaders can either make things better or worse. And it depends on what we say, when it is said, and how we say it.

It does matter…and they will remember.

Lessons in leadership and excellence from the managers of Parrot Key

 

parrot_key_grill_fortmyersbeach-0106Christmas in southwest Florida is the beginning of tourist season. While much of the rest of the country shovels snow, we enjoy moderate temperatures and sunny skies. On Friday evening, my wife and I decided to try out Parrot Key, an upper scale seafood eatery in a tropical Caribbean theme down at the beach..

At our table by the window we overlooked the marina and made our selection. Since we’d not been there before, and since we were not in any hurry, we took our time. The server came back to our table a few times, answered whatever questions we had, and made us feel like were her only customers.

The food was marvelous, the service attentive and proactive, and the setting lovely. Parrot Key is not a short drive from our house, but we will go back. As we finished the meal, we asked to see the manager. When the manager arrived a few minutes later, we congratulated her on a finely run restaurant and on the skill and competence of the server.

Since then I’ve thought about the experience and identified these lessons in leadership that I believe you will find enlightening, reassuring, and helpful.

  1. Experiences that turn out well for our customers is not accidental. It is the result of hiring the right people, careful training, detail-oriented management, and follow-through. It is obvious at Parrot Key that they do all four and do them well. I’ve been in a lot of beach joints in my life, love seafood and love the sea, but so many beach joints trade on their locale and on the fast turnover of a steady stream of tourists. Not many treat their customers like they needed them to come back. Parrot Key does.
  2. Exceptional service comes from people who can anticipate what is going to be needed and then make sure they supply it. In this case, Parrot key’s managers have done two things well. They have selected the right personnel who possess that oh-so-rare quality of foresight made manifest by a respect for the people they work for. I taught my children a secret when they began to enter the workforce. That secret is that they need to be able to intuit the anxiety index of their boss and make sure they never provoke it. Leaders need to do the same for those who work for them – anticipate what their employees will need, discern what makes them anxious, and do what we must to keep things calm. This means that the people who work with us look to us for certain things. We can do a great deal to even out the highs and lows of the job by thinking ahead. The Parrot Key people have obviously done that.
  3. Developing capable people means we as trainers, leaders, and managers know what those we train are going to need to know and when they are going to need to know it. We would like to hire people who already know that but hardly anyone does nor will they. Indeed, the essence of effective leadership is in the success e have in developing capable people under us. When we spoke with Parrot Key’s manager and complimented her on the service given us the manager said that they had made a good choice. Indeed, they had. I don’t know what method they use to select people but it works well. Hiring people is always a risk but it need not be a shot in the dark. Effective leaders develop methods of hiring, hone their people-picking skills over time, and learn to make good choices. Then, we make sure that the essentials are covered based on the requirements of the job and the values of the company. Effective restaurant managers understand that they are doing more than selling food. They understand that they are providing a certain dining experience that must meet the expectations of customers and satisfy the implied and expressed specifications of the company. Fast-food people must take and fulfill orders quickly. Dining establishments like Parrot Key have a different nature.
  4. It’s trite, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. Too many times we tend to look at averages. We tend to measure our business over a series of experiences. I’ll go back to Parrot Key, I’ve not been back to the others and don’t intend to. I visited a new car dealership nearby during one of the sales campaigns and was accosted, indeed almost assaulted by a sales person who came on so strongly that I had to fight him off. I have never been back, and were he the only car dealer in Florida, I would walk to Georgia to buy a car. We need to be committed to providing a stellar experience the very first time. Parrot Key made a good one.
  5. It is never enough to do one thing very well. We need to do many things better than our competitors. Success and excellence is the result of little touches, small steps that outpace others. That sets us apart and, more importantly, keeps us ahead.

Self-examination is sometimes difficult. So, why not consider an unrelated setting, like a Parrot Key? The principles that make for exceptional business are universal. You can make the application to your peculiar setting.