Real Leaders

Leadership Lessons From a Mediocre Restaurant

It was the Fourth of July week. Two of our granddaughters were off at camp; the third was in Spain playing in a soccer tournament with her mom along as a chaperone. So, my son brought his black labrador, Bella, to our river house for a couple of days.

When our son decided to float the river (a five-hour trip), we chaperoned Bella. When we opened the screen door to let Bella run free, she was super happy; when we closed her up on the screened porch, she went to sleep. It reminded me of some front-line employees.  

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Leaders provide guidance in many different ways. Some train and resource employees to make smart decisions and then give them the authority to make judgments on behalf of customers. Empowered ignorance is anarchy. When employees encounter an exception, they are encouraged to work to understand the customer’s ultimate goal and pursue a solution that respects the customer’s desire and honors the organization’s need for discipline. When they make an error, their hiccup becomes a coachable moment. “Running free” ensures they are super happy. Just ask an employee at Zappos, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, or a Nordstrom store.

Guidance can also come in the form of many, many rules. Little supervision is required if your leadership job is to enforce the regulations. Little thinking is needed by employees if their job is merely to follow procedures and enforce the rules. Customers hear, “I am sorry, but it is against our policy” or “I am not authorized to allow you to do that.”  Or, they just hear a lot of “no’s” without any explanation of the rationale for their negative response.

My wife and I were planning a 102nd birthday party for my mother for 25-30 members of the immediate family. When she celebrated her 100th, the local newspaper gave it great coverage as she took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the small town where she lives. On previous birthday celebrations, this restaurant had been very accommodating in handling special requests. But, they brought in a new manager—one who apparently likes rules.

It all started with: “Can we have her very favorite food—fried chicken—on the buffet?”  The sales manager quickly said, “No, we cannot guarantee we will have fried chicken that day.” Then, we asked, “Can the children order from the kids’ menu rather than go through the buffet?” Answer: “No, your entire party must choose between buffet and menus.” Then, “Can we have ice cream with her birthday cake?” Answer: “You will have to preorder it through us, and the minimum order is 48 cups for $60. And, you will have to pay for it in advance?”  

Are you noticing a pattern? But wait, there is more. We asked, “Can we bring our own ice cream with the cake we are bringing?” Answer: “No, you cannot bring in ice cream.” We asked, “Can we move the tables a bit closer together in the restaurant so we will all be able to sit near one another?” Answer: “No, you are not allowed to move the tables at all.” Oh, yes, one more: “May we bring small birthday decorations for the tables?” Answer: “No decorations are allowed in the restaurant.” All rule announcements were delivered with firmness and indifference, like the sales manager’s soul had gone to sleep.  

We elected to talk to the sales manager’s boss. He informed us if we would guarantee $350 in revenue, we could do the buffet and let children order from the kid’s menu. We agreed. “And,” he added, “Since you are guaranteeing our minimum break-even revenue, we will make sure there is fried chicken on the buffet.”  But, we lost on our plea for ice cream, table moving, and birthday decorations on the table tops.  

Leadership is defined as influencing others to achieve essential goals. He was not influencing, he was merely rule-reading. The role model he established influenced his sales manager to be a rule-reader as well. There was no attempt to provide explanations thus opening the door for negotiation or problem-solving. He likely was convinced he ran a disciplined restaurant. And, it was just that—disciplined, not delightful.  

Employees are not simple creatures like Bella. Being gated makes Bella get bored and just go to sleep. With gated employees, their source of empathy, compassion, and caretaking takes a nap. It’s as if their soul was left in the parking lot before they clocked into work.  

And, the price? My wife concluded they were working very hard to go out of business. “This must be someone’s hobby business being used as a tax write-off and the owner is ready to let it go.” Want to take a guess how many friends and family have heard this “Rules ‘R Us” story? 

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