Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 105: May 2008)
Techniques for balance:
A couple of weeks ago I entertained 12 people in a top restaurant in Naples, Florida. The place was filled to the gills on a Thursday, inside and outside, on two levels. They must have done three turnovers. The staff were moving like the Road Runner on speed.
We occupied two tables, in the realm of our waiter, Mike, whose domain included at least four other tables that I could see. These were wealthy people scattered about, accustomed to superb and immediate service. It was a daunting assignment.
Yet, astoundingly, Mike took his time, explained every dish on the menu—not just the specials, not just his favorites—every dish on the menu down to the sides, sauces, and soup. No condiment went undescribed, no garnish was ignored.
He fetched drinks, took our wine order, served the food (assisted by his own coterie of support personnel) and generally led us through dinner the way Toscanini led the orchestra through Beethoven's Fifth. It was a virtuoso performance, and the coda was Mike personally securing two minivan taxis for us, escorting us downstairs, and shaking hands before he closed the cab doors.
He received a $300 tip which he thought was generous and I thought was one of my better investments in the current economy.
You can't teach what Mike has, which is sheer zeal and talent for the job. You can teach the skills of taking orders, choosing wines, and coordinating help among tables, but you cannot teach enthusiasm and rapport. These are behaviors which had better be resident in the performers. That's why I've always advised clients to hire enthusiasm and teach the content of their business, not to hire content experts who aren't naturally enthusiastic, thinking either they can be taught enthusiasm or the content expertise will suffice.
I never does. If you don't believe that, just call the cable company or cell phone provider customer support line. Or listen to the announcement on American Airlines when they tell you, "We know you had your choice of carriers and are happy you have chosen us" after desultory and inattentive cabin service. They can read the words but they can't manifest the meaning.
Enthusiasm is infectious. Are you the kind of person whom others want to be around because you generate excitement and interest, no matter what your job or your calling? After working with you, would I want to work with you again, let alone give the equivalent of a $300 tip?
I'm going back to that restaurant. The food was outstanding, but I know a lot of places like that; the setting was lovely, though I've been to a lot of places like that. I'm going back and asking for Mike's station. I want others to enjoy the great time.
I was sitting on the floor of the Buffalo Airport one evening, near a gate that purported to house a plane bound for Providence. It was two hours late arriving in a rather horrific snowstorm, and had taken over an hour to "turnaround." However, the gate agent informed us that takeoffs and landings were severely restricted and that the flight could well be cancelled.
He was awaiting the pilot. I was awaiting trouble. I didn't see how on earth I'd get to a hotel at that hour even if I could find one available and acceptable somewhere near the Buffalo Airport. My spot on the carpet was beginning to look like a time share.
Suddenly, the pilot strode through the crowd and up to the podium. And I mean "strode" in the truly heroic sense. He needed only a trailing scarf and goggles to channel Eddie Rickenbocker or The Red Baron. We all leaned forward to hear the exchange as the pilot grabbed a wad of printouts from the gate agent and said, without looking at any of them, "Why aren't we boarded?"
The agent stated the obvious, what with floor-to-ceiling windows behind him revealing driving, horizontal snow that obliterated the 737 sitting 20 yards away in the gloom.
"Is the airport open?!" exclaimed this very representation of The Right Stuff.
"Yes," admitted the agent, "technically."
"Good enough!" yelled the pilot, whirled around and said, for all the world like a World War I battalion commander, "Follow me!"
And we did, rising to a grateful chorus of accolades and "Bravos," as the gate agent scrambled to collect boarding passes amidst the inchoate assembly.
We took off without incident, transcended the clouds, and had an uneventful trip to Providence, on what I learned was the last flight out of the airport in Buffalo that night. The pilot's confidence and calm nature encouraged and emboldened every one of us. He got us home.
I would have followed that guy anywhere. He had the confidence and character that stirs the blood.
Are there people who would follow you anywhere? Whenever I look over my shoulder and find people behind me, I feel a renewed sense or responsibility and urgency. Leaders aren't afraid of the elements.
When things look challenging, true leaders are in their element.
I attended a meeting with a new client to begin a project. I was introduced to a woman whom I had not previously met, and the two of use found ourselves in the conference room awaiting the rest of the participants.
I took my key rings our of my pocket as I often do and placed them on the table beside my pad. The alarms for the house and the car remotes make them far too bulky and I didn't have a briefcase with me. The woman glanced over and saw my name on my key ring and noted that her cousin spelled his name the same way I spell mine (my own family was poor and could only afford one "L.")
She passed me an agenda and my cuff emerged from my jacket with my initials embroidered on my bespoke shirt. "And what does the 'J' stand for?" she politely inquired, glancing down.
A few seconds later she said, "Is that your car out there in the visitor's space, with 'AJW' on the plates, as well?"
"Yes, I admitted," sensing trouble coming. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I'm no psychologist," she replied, "but it does strike me that you're in mortal fear of forgetting who you are."
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