On a recent sojourn, I had time between flights, so I joined the throngs of fellow travelers who had taken up residence in one of those oversized rocking chairs. As I sat working – and rocking – I observed the airport’s massive food court, which featured an amalgam of fast casual and upscale restaurants.
One of the restaurants, in particular, seemed to have the magic formula to attracting throngs of hungry travelers – despite the fact that it was a well-known fast casual concept with thousands of units around the world.
Though it was abuzz with activity, the employees were doing a great job of keeping up with the pace. Napkins were perfectly lined up; the counter was spotless; and the employees genuinely were smiling. Everything seemed tidy and welcoming. When customers approached, they received a greeting that far exceeded the expected for such an establishment. Even from a distance, you could see the employees smiling, the customers smiling, exchanging a few pleasantries, wishing each other to have a great day.
I looked around at the other restaurants. Not bad -- but not quite spotless. Employees were leaning against the counter, looking a bit bored. The customers and employees seemed to just be engaged in a “transaction,” not an “interaction,” or dare I say, “experience.” When the managers appeared at these restaurants, the employees stiffened up a bit, as if they were being inspected.
Wondering why I was seeing these two different pictures, I continued to observe the interactions throughout the food court. After some time, it became clear why the one restaurant – we will call this Restaurant A -- was better than the others. The difference-maker, in my view? They had an onsite manager who demonstrated what Jim Collins calls “Level 5” leadership. For those familiar with Collins’ book, you might argue that he was writing about Level 5 CEOs. So why would the actions of this local store manager, in a chain with thousands of stores, be relevant to me?
Well, let’s drill deeper, and look at some of the characteristics of Level 5 leaders cited by Collins:
Though the stakes were lower for the Restaurant A manager than your typical CEO, these characteristics clearly were on display in that food court. Supervisor A oozed the natural effectiveness of the Level 5 leader. Was the supervisor hiding out in the office behind the restaurant doing paperwork? No, he was not. He was making the rounds, picking up a piece of trash on the floor (and doing it themselves, not ordering an employee to come over and pick it up), warmly engaging employees and customers, focusing on employees and customers -- making the interaction about them, not about themself. Supervisor A clearly had high standards.
When chairs were out of place, he directed and helped the employees to get them organized. When the staff was preparing for the midday rush, the manager was front and center -- getting food cooking in the kitchen and cleaning some tables before the onslaught of the crowd – all the while exuding an industrious but easy-going style. When the crowd abated, he asked employees about their day, and even asked one about a sick relative.
And when the pace picked up, he jumped in with the team. Together they “dialed it up” and kept the cleanliness, friendliness, and genuine hospitality at a high level, despite the need to keep the food moving in the frenzy of the lunch hour, with planes departing and arriving.
The customers responded as you expected. They too smiled, and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
My question to you? If all of this can happen at a fast casual chain in an airport food court -- where most customers are simply looking for a quick and effortless transaction -- don’t you think you could make it happen in your business? Are you truly a Level 5 leader? Are you humble and modest? Are you self-confident enough to position your employees for success? Do you have an “unwavering resolve” to deliver the absolute best offering, to the delight of your customers? Do you jump in with the team instead of leading from behind, and give full credit for others?
It’s easy, at times, to hide behind the very real realities of limited time, and the need to tackle myriad other mission-critical priorities. Working on budgets, finalizing the quarterly sales plan, dealing with new product rollouts – all demand your focus and energies. But Level 5 demands more than that. Supervisor A stands as a model for all of us. If they can demonstrate the kind of confident Level 5 leadership in that fast-paced, gritty, deliver-the-food-now environment, then surely we can all be Level 5 leaders in our own business roles.
And if we do, as Jim Collins observed in his research on leadership effectiveness, we will grow our companies faster than we can possibly imagine.