Eva is my favorite waitress at my favorite restaurant where I sometimes meet my favorite colleagues for business dinners. I know I can trust Eva for consistent, attentive, and quiet service. But it was the night when everything fell apart that my regard for Eva’s work ethic was tested. That night might have been a turning point after which any loyal customer would have been hesitant to return. Instead, based on Eva’s leadership and resourcefulness it made an even more loyal customer of me.
The rare night of a million small glitches does happen, even in a stellar restaurant. And, I understand that problems are part of any business. But, as I sat with my guests, I observed over their shoulders quite a scene unfolding in the hallway and at the server stations. The bustle was chaotic. Servers were bumping into each other. Unseated customers were huddled and watchful in full view. A suspicious smoke was frothing from the kitchen. A plate was overturned on the way to a table. Another plate was broken on the floor. There were a variety of signs that this was truly a night of service infamy.
Yet, my dining experience was notably unaffected. Eva was one of only a few servers working, and she had picked up some large parties. She was in constant motion but managed to exude calm. She checked each plate for each course before stepping into the dining room. More than a few times she returned to the kitchen for adjustments. She arrived at every table focused on the people there, and nowhere else. One of my guests commented on her easy efficiency; she knew where everything was and was able to maneuver through the chaos without a single embarrassing incident.
I noticed that Eva, aside from her own tables, was also helping her neighboring servers. This largesse is a bit unusual for servers, who can tend to be protective about tips. Yet, Eva juggled her own tables, keeping them at ease through their meals, while reaching out to help others. She was making it her business to preserve the signature atmosphere of the restaurant. It occurred to me that she was deriving a sense of personal accomplishment by doing so. Upon further investigation I discovered three contributing factors to Eva’s success that every leader can implement in his or her own organization:
1. INVEST IN POTENTIAL.
In many ways, Eva embodies the attributes of an ideal employee. You may even have some plan in place for fostering a working environment where people like Eva can thrive. But that’s not enough anymore. Instead, create individual leaders and innovators by drawing everyone’s potential out of them. Investing in potential is done one person at a time. You may have your doubts. Or, you may believe there is just not enough return on investing in a cultural transformation in your workplace. Most likely, however, you have tried to find and keep top-notch staff—and failed too often, especially when it relates to younger talent. While salary is indeed a key indicator in companies with a stable talent base, so is culture. That culture is built one person at a time with every individual realizing that leadership sees their talent, their value, and their contribution.
2. TEACH SYSTEMS THINKING.
Eva was fluent in the working system behind the restaurant dining room. That was how she succeeded with the steps she took and choices she made. She offset shortfalls in the kitchen staff by anticipating what to check and fixing what was needed. She was free to supplement efforts of other servers helping save time and gain confidence. In return, Eva gained substantial personal satisfaction. If my tip was any indicator, she also saw benefit from direct incentive. The restaurant’s stellar training in its systems revealed its worth that evening as well. Eva’s training enabled her to expedite a flawless dinner service despite mayhem in the background. It’s much the same everywhere. The more people understand the total system the more they can contribute beyond narrow confines. The more the systems are devised to let employees contribute, they will. The more opportunities they have to shine, the more they will shine.
3. PUT CHANGE IN MOTION.
Eva exemplifies a leader in motion who connects with her organization’s mission and fellow co-workers. She is an example of why it is important to set goals that are bold, achievable, and provide a big picture to guide everyone in the total system. But, many business improvement initiatives, which are needed to adapt and compete, vie for attention. Many are shelved for want of resources. How do you prioritize? What do you trade off? Do you even have a reliable approach to prioritizing and choosing tradeoffs? Ask yourself: How can I identify the lowest-cost changes and strategic adjustments to create the biggest payoff for the greatest number of people? The way ahead is to access, expand, unite, and put in motion the total system of individuals who define your enterprise.
Which brings us back to Eva, who understands the full system around her enough to deliver impeccable service and to make sure someone—namely she—is willing to assume responsibility for bolstering up the inevitable shortfalls in others’ work. Eva doesn’t do this because of the strategic plan or because someone tells her to do it. She does it because she seizes opportunities in a well-planned setting that permit her to make rapid decisions that sometimes save the day, or in this case, my evening.