Closing Time (#150)

Let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to be a great leader and kind to others when things are going well.  When sales are doubling or your company has raised millions of dollars, being positive, doing the right thing and keeping the troops motivated doesn’t take a lot of skill or effort.

It’s when adversity hits that you see people’s true colors and how they perform under pressure. How they act when their backs are up against the wall and there are no good options is often the truest reflection of a person’s character.

For me, this is the real test of leadership. I have lost respect for many leaders in my career after seeing them turn from Jekyll to Hyde after even a little pressure was applied.

One of the greatest leaders of our generation is Danny Meyer, the founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group. USHP owns and operates such restaurants as Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Union Square Cafe. Meyer is also the founder of Shake Shack.

Known for his team-based, customer-centric approach, Meyer builds successful businesses because he truly cares about his employees. The training required even to wait tables at his restaurants is unprecedented.  He’s also pioneered a guiding principal called “Enlightened Hospitality,” an approach that prioritizes employees first and foremost so they can deliver an amazing experience for guests.

Back in 2006, Meyer published his first book, Setting the Table. On the very first page he wrote, “So far, I haven’t had the experience of closing any of [my restaurants], and I pray I never will.”

Four years later, he made the difficult decision to close his first restaurant, Tabla, as it was unprofitable.

In an industry where this news would usually be communicated to suppliers and employees on a padlocked door when they showed up to work or for a delivery, Meyer chose to take a different path.

He provided three months’ notice, early and transparent communication to all stakeholders, and career support for his employees. Years later, many of those people have successful careers within his company and beyond.

And he’s about to do it again, having announced earlier this year that the North End Grill will close at the end of 2018. He transparently communicated the restaurant’s closing a good nine months before its official close date, giving his employees and stakeholders time to adjust. He also committed to helping each of his employees transfer to a new job.

In discussing the decision in a powerful LinkedIn post, Meyer wrote:

“When reality dictates closing, we have a choice: to do so in secrecy and shame, or instead, with dignity, integrity, and pride. Uplifting outcomes (some of which can take time to reveal themselves) usually ensue from taking the latter path: your team grows tighter and stronger from weathering adversity. It’s actually a painful, but incredible learning experience. You build trust with guests, suppliers, investors and all stakeholders by upholding your values during difficult times. And you benefit from the introspection needed to reflect upon and learn from what went wrong. It’s a lesson every entrepreneur can practice with failures big and small”

How you deal with adversity is ultimately the greatest test of your character and leadership; it’s clear that Danny Meyer is both a stand-up human and leader. Rather than being a barrier to his success, his generosity and care for his people is the reason for it.


Quote of The Week

“Transparency, honesty, kindness, good stewardship, even humor, work in businesses at all times.”

John Gerzema




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Art of Brevity (#148)

Last week was the deadline to turn in the draft of my next book, Outperform, which will be released next Fall and features the principles of capacity building in Friday Forward.

Before submitting it, I was asked to cut about 1/3 of the content to get it to the targeted length. A key tip from my editor was to eliminate parts that were not as valuable for the reader. I thought this was going to be a much harder process but discovered that it forced me to make points more succinctly, which made it better. I worked harder so the reader won’t have to.

I then thought about how often this dynamic comes up in our communication. We struggle to get to the point, either because we haven’t taken the time to be clear or maybe or we don’t want to be clear.

Years ago, when I was directly managing affiliate programs, I would reach out to someone I suspected of engaging in fraudulent activity for an explanation of their tactics. They would often respond with a long, vague e-mail filled with marketing jargon. I would then ask for a simple screen shot of their methods and get no reply.

To this day, I remain wary of people who can’t get to the point quickly. It’s not that they are up to no good (as in the example above), it’s just a poor first impression and weakens the message.

A great framework for communicating clearly and succinctly is to focus on three core elements: What, Why and How, in that order.

  1. What do you want from someone; what do you want to share?
  2. Why does/should it matter to the recipient?
  3. How can they help or benefit by what you are telling them?

While some believe that starting with the “why” is important, it’s critical to first establish the “what” to capture your audiences’ attention in the first few seconds.

The why comes into play after that. Yet, interestingly, so many fail to address it. For example:

People regularly reach out to me to offer their company’s services to our clients. They establish the “what” (sell their stuff to our clients) and even the “how” (they want me to introduce them to our clients), but they fail to address the “why” of how doing this would benefit me or our company.

They are focused on their own agenda, not on creating value for others. And this is why they often don’t get a reply from me.

Take time to get your message clear before sharing it – and don’t mistake length or volume for quality. Sometimes the most effective messages are the briefest (e.g. “Just do it”).

And there you have it. The shortest Friday Forward of 2018 using the What, Why, How framework.


Quote of The Week

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Mark Twain



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Respectful Disagreement (#141)

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographical book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, author and American historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, tells the story of President Lincoln’s decision to fill his cabinet with political adversaries, namely the men who ran against him in the contentious 1860 election.

Lincoln’s explanation for this decision was that the country needed the strongest, most capable men to lead it; collectively, these men could offer that. From Lincoln’s perspective, just because they had been bitter rivals during the election didn’t justify depriving the country of their talents and leadership.

His determination was both unprecedented and reflective of Lincoln’s own advanced leadership and high-degree of self-confidence.

Fast forward to 2018 and this approach to policy-building and leading a nation could not be more divergent.

Sadly, many political “leaders” and populists have embraced an autocratic, “with me or against me” approach, demanding blind support. They surround themselves with “yes men” and “yes women” who tell them what they want to hear and reinforce their existing positions and beliefs.

Interestingly, today’s most successful and admired business leaders do just the opposite.

They are more approachable than any other time in history, recognizing the growing ineffectiveness of the command-and-control leadership style. They are far more transparent than their predecessors were, typically operate in an open-book style, and welcome feedback and criticism provided by their employees, clients, peers and partners.  And the very best understand how to harness those insights to stay ahead and create new solutions and products.

In other words, they want to get it right, not always be right.

Ray Dalio, legendary investor, founder of Bridgewater Associates and author of the one of the most invaluable leadership books, Principles, writes about the importance of building a team that is comfortable with conflict and challenging each other. He also addresses the danger of confirmation bias born from surrounding ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear.

Dalio believes that “the greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true.”

One of his principles for life and business is called “believability-weighted decision making.” This approach seeks to get all ideas on the table, but at the same time, give more weight to people who have demonstrated repeated knowledge or authority on a subject at hand.

Like Lincoln, the best leaders triangulate their view with believable people who are willing to disagree and challenge their closely-held assumptions and beliefs. They do this because they want to significantly raise the probability of the best outcome or decision.

The late senator, John McCain, personified this principle in both his personal, professional and political life. Some could argue that he channeled Lincoln posthumously by asking three of his political adversaries – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden—to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.

Bush and Obama both defeated McCain in his two attempts to be president; Joe Biden was a long-time political adversary of McCain’s in the Senate and also one of his closest friends.

If you are building a team anywhere in your life or business, ask yourself, “Am I looking to surround myself with the ‘most capable’ men and women? Or am I looking for an echo chamber?”

The answer to these two questions could ultimately determine your legacy.


Quote of the Week

“Exemplary leaders reward dissent. They encourage it. They understand that, whatever momentary discomfort they experience as a result of being told they might be wrong, it is more than offset by the fact that the information will help them make better decisions.”

Warren Bennis



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Trust But Verify (#138)

On November 1, 2017, just six months after “opening,” a popular and mysterious new restaurant called “The Shed” became the #1 rated restaurant in London on TripAdvisor.

Potential customers, enamored by the reviews and captivating pictures of the restaurant’s “mood- driven” food menu, were calling nonstop for reservations. People were devastated when they were told that the restaurant was booked for months.

Potential vendors were mailing samples and free gifts. PR firms were calling and offering their services. Customers unable to get a reservation were casing the neighborhood seeking information about this mysterious restaurant.

Straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit, “The Shed” was not only an enigma, it was literally a backyard shed. This audacious experiment was the brainchild of Oobah Butler, a freelance writer for Vice UK and a previous writer of fake reviews on TripAdvisor (restaurant owners would pay him £10 to write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there).

Butler thought up and executed the idea; a test to see what people were really willing to believe.

The menu, which lacked specifics, proposed to serve food according to one’s mood. The amazing pictures shown of the food, however, rarely contained food.  A great example is this delectable looking chocolate dessert made from a sponge covered in black paint and shaving cream.

The truly crazy part is that not all the reviews were fake. Towards the end, people desperate to show their friends that they had made it into this exclusive “appointment-only restaurant” actually wrote stellar reviews of an experience they never had.

No doubt, many psychologists have had a field day with this story, examining why it is that we want things we can’t have or that other people covet.

From Butler’s perspective, he was trying to raise awareness of the current climate of misinformation and society’s willingness to believe “absolute bullshit.”

Fake news and “alternative facts” seems to be ever-present these days. Without delving into the political implications of this phenomenon, I think it’s important to realize that we’re all getting more and more of our news and information via the internet through distributed and social media sites.

While traditional news/information sources are often held accountable and liable for their reporting and fact-checking, those stringent standards don’t seem to apply to social media and review sites. As such, it’s become significantly easier for anyone to pick up a metaphorical megaphone and spread misinformation in a way that is extremely compelling and believable.

Because of this, it’s imperative that we stop and ask ourselves, where are we relying on the judgement of others, especially those that we have never met, versus our own eyes, ears and intuition?

While we certainly don’t want to live in a world where we are cynical of everything, it’s critically important that we don’t abdicate our judgment or decision-making. Isn’t it worth taking a few seconds to fact-check and consider the source before repeating, sending or retweeting something in haste?

One of my favorite sayings is, “Trust but verify,” a statement that I think is more relevant today than ever.

If a fake restaurant – serving frozen, microwaveable meals on its opening night and planting 90 percent of its guest with actors— is able to become the number one dining establishment in one of the top food cities in the world…what else might we be believing that is not true?

If you want to read more about the fascinating story of the “The Shed,” check out this article by Oobah Butler explaining the entire timeline of his experiment.


Quote of the Week

“No one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly.”

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son


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Emergency Maneuvers (#121)

Last week, Southwest Flight 1380 made a heroic landing in Philadelphia after one of its engines exploded midflight and a fan blade punctured the cabin, causing a sudden drop in pressure.

Captain Tammie Jo Shults has been heavily praised for her heroic actions to get the plane down to an altitude where passengers could breathe and then land with one engine, avoiding what could have been an even bigger catastrophe. Captain Shults was one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots and has been described as extraordinarily cool under pressure and impossible to rattle.

Pilots engage in some of the most rigorous training of any profession. They constantly prepare for disastrous situations and practice maneuvers that are unlikely to occur, such as landing a plane with one engine.  While most of us will never face these situations, there is a core principle that pilots are taught for handling emergencies that we could all learn from: the ANC protocol.

The ANC protocol stands for Aviate, Navigate and Communicate, in that order.

Aviate – Maintain control of the aircraft
Navigate – Know where you are and where you intend to go
Communicate – Let someone know your plans and needs

The reasons why passengers often don’t know what’s going on right away in an emergency is that it’s not the most important thing. Communication comes after gaining firm control over the situation (Aviate) and figuring out what needs to be done in order to course correct (Navigate).

There have been several corporate “emergencies” recently, most notably with Facebook and Starbucks, where executives have had to respond in real time to an evolving situation. Facebook in particular did not have a handle on the Cambridge Analytica situation before they started communicating. Starbucks fared much better.

The same cannot be said for passengers on Flight 1380, 80 percent of whom were wearing their oxygen masks incorrectly. They were too busy taking selfies and videos of the drama and trying to communicate with loved ones that they failed to follow basic safety instructions, putting their lives in danger.

Johnson & Johnson set the gold standard for how a company should manage a crisis. In 1982, cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules killed seven people in the Chicago area. J&J, led by then CEO, James Burke, took full responsibility for the tragic situation, even though their product had been tampered with.

They focused on getting the facts and controlling the situation. They also made the decision to voluntarily recall 100% of their products—despite being told it was not necessary. It was one of the first major product recalls in the U.S.

J&J also communicated frequently with affected stakeholders and rolled out new tamper-proof packaging (a market first) within six weeks. By creating trust, Tylenol’s market share recovered significantly, going from almost zero right after the crisis to a new high within a year, a rebound that surprised many experts who had emphatically declared the brand dead.

While business and community leaders can learn much from ANC and Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol situation, there’s a lot to be said for the quality of a person during a crisis.

Captain Shults is rightly being lauded for her heroic maneuvers in landing the plane. She was skilled, stoic, calm and focused during a terrifying crisis. She was also compassionate. After the flight landed, passengers remarked on how she addressed them individually to make sure they were alright. This was, hopefully, their lasting memory of an unimaginably scary experience.

Quote of the Week

“Truly superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations where they might have to use their superior skills.”


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