Friday 14 August 2009

How are the mighty fallen

We are sometimes asked what is the single most important thing an organisation can do to make sure that the service they deliver to consumers is as good as possible.

The answer is quite simple. Get a manager who cares.

An organisation can spend all it wants on training, it can hire the most talented staff, it can buy enormously expensive equipment but if the CEO doesn’t give a damn then the service will suck. Simple as that.

The trouble is that so many organisations think it’s more complicated than that. They think they should develop fancy mission statements, have endless policies and procedures, go on vastly expensive seminars and workshops and basically throw staggering quantities of cash away if they want things to improve. I’m not saying that these things can’t help at all but they should come later. They should also only be seen as tools, not solutions themselves.

I can think of a very large organisation that has invested truly epic amounts of money on engaging consultants, setting customer service standards, measuring their current levels of customer satisfaction and publicising them but in fact very little has changed. The reason? The person at the top, the person responsible for making the improvements that they so desperately need doesn’t really care. She’s just going along with it because the people above her put it in her job description. Her heart isn’t actually in it.

However, I can think of another organisation whose CEO recently departed for a better job (no, we shouldn’t be surprised and no, I won’t tell you who it was but some of you can no doubt guess) who DID care. This particular CEO was actually the opposite of the stereotypical CEO or MD. Unlike some business leaders who seem to think that leadership is demonstrated by shouting a lot, being a huge “personality” and having a fan club of pretty young girls follow you around all over town, this CEO was surprising. He was fairly quiet, thoughtful and almost reserved. In meetings he would be the one sitting there thinking about what you were saying, giving it serious consideration and then making a remarkably intelligent comment. Critically though, he cared, he really did. That care filtered down the organisation and everyone knew that he was watching. The employees who showed a similar level of care were rewarded, those who didn’t suffered a less pleasant fate.

It was only once people understood what this CEO expected that they engaged consultants, went on expensive training programs and attended the occasional ridiculously expensive seminar by some visiting “guru” or worse still the guru’s son. By the time you’re reading this we will have been visited by the Prince of Wales of Business, the son of Stephen Covey, the imaginatively named, errr… Stephen Covey. OK, he’s actually called Stephen M R Covey and he follows in his father’s footsteps. His Dad of course wrote that business classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Who Have Too Much Time at Airports”. Covey Junior has inherited the family business of travelling the world telling us the blindingly obvious for vast amounts of money and as you read this he’s no doubt counting his money from the seminar he attended at the GICC last Thursday.

I saw another example of the impact of leadership (or more precisely the lack of it) a few days ago. My kids were going to the cinema but needing feeding beforehand. Our restaurant of choice at Riverwalk was so busy there wasn’t even standing room. Despite going for a walk to kill some time the place was simply too busy to serve us so we decided to go downstairs to another establishment, a place we had always respected and enjoyed. With the restaurant upstairs full to bursting it was a surprise to find it’s rival downstairs barely a third full. Then we discovered why.

The service was crap. Not just by their previously high standards, I mean crap by anyone’s standards. They mucked up the food, missed certain items and, worst of all, I mean the crime of the century, they forgot my second glass of wine.

So where was the manager you may ask? Oh he was there. Not the owner / manager I knew, a new guy. Flouncing around in dark glasses and with a stylish beard he appeared to be doing precisely nothing. Did he come and see us when our order went wrong? Did he come and see us when the food was sub-standard? Did he come running with my second glass of wine? No, he didn’t.

“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!” See, even a heathen knows a few good quotes. The tragedy is that this failing restaurant previously set such high standards, it was the example we always used of how good things could be. But what happened? Did the franchise change in nature? Was there a food-poisoning outbreak? Did they have all their staff arrested for being illegal immigrants? No, the problem was that the management took their eye off the ball.

Once there was no REAL management everything started to slip away. I know sometimes I can be a bit too literal but I think it’s worth asking where the word “manage” and hence “management” comes from. It comes from the Latin world “manus” which means “hand”. Management is literally “hands-on”. A manager isn’t just the guy who sits behind a desk doing the accounts, filing the tax returns and spending the profits. A manager must have his or her hands on the business every day, otherwise he’s just a waste of space.

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