On a recent overseas trip I was wonderfully reminded of how well executed leadership can transform a run of the mill organisation into a world class operation. On the first day of a week-long engagement with a new client I asked where we were going to take lunch.
“That’s easy” was the swift response “we’ll go to Rita’s. It’s a little further away but it’s the best place in town.” Sure enough the food was excellent, the service prompt and all of the staff were totally focused on providing exactly what each customer wanted. They seemed to sense who was in a hurry, who wanted to relax and most importantly, in my case at least, who needed help with the local dishes on the menu.
As we journeyed back to the plant I noticed how many deli’s similar to Rita’s there were in town and also how busy Rita’s had been in comparison. Somehow these other places didn’t seem to be hitting the mark. I commented on this to my host who shared with me that most of the other places survived on seasonal holiday trade but all the locals wouldn’t dream of using anywhere else.
As the week progressed the lunchtime trip to Rita’s became a ritual. I was fascinated by how smoothly the operation was being run. The seamless relationship between the staff serving customers and the chefs in the kitchen; how each customer was treated as an individual, how telephone orders were routinely handled alongside the ebb and flow of the over the counter and sit down trade.
Towards the end of the week I found myself driving past Rita’s after an evening trip to the cinema and decided to drop in for a coffee. As usual the welcome was warm and friendly and the espresso was meticulously prepared even though the place was busy as always. A few minutes passed and things quietened down and I was engaged in conversation by a member of the staff.
After answering the normal enquiries about had I enjoyed my visit and would I be coming back I found myself telling her how much I had enjoyed my lunchtime visits to Rita’s and how impressed I was with how well it was being run.
“We all know how important each customer is and how we need to get it right throughout the day.” she explained. “The businessman dropping in for a quick coffee , couples meeting for a leisurely chat and bite to eat, school kids picking up something for their break are all equally important. We know how we need to operate as a team to ensure that they all go away happy. We change the menu everyday to keep things fresh – that’s down to the chefs but we make sure we share all the feedback we get from the customers”
“Fascinating” I said “you know I’d love to meet whoever is in charge.”
Even with my limited knowledge of the local language it was evident to me that my comment had caused some amusement amongst the staff within earshot.
“Well Rita still owns the place if that’s what you mean but she hasn’t worked here for several years. We basically run the place how she did all those years ago. We all know what to do and we all work together to get it done. Any decisions are made as we go along – who needs a leader? We are all leaders here”
As I sat looking into my second espresso I pondered the profound simplicity of this message. I doubt very much if Rita had ever heard of Mary Parker Follett* who enthused all those years ago that the essential work of a leader was to create more leaders – seems she just knew it was the right thing to do.
*The Creative Experience – Mary Parker Follett, 1924