When you’re traveling, conversations with interesting people happen. And those conversations lead to real-time issues and challenges. For me those conversations are market research. It gives me an inside peek at what most people wouldn’t say in their place of business; and in turn, sparks my thought process on how to help leaders work through those challenges.
However, one conversation really stumped me. I felt badly for the young manager seated next to me on the plane as he expressed his frustration. I sat there thinking, “Why would an owner of a business do something so foolish?” If you had been seated with us, this is what you would have heard the young man saying: (the specifics have been slightly changed and there will be no names as a courtesy)
“The company is 8 years old and we’ve had some great success. In fact, we outgrew our first location because the very first customers were so thrilled with our services they kept coming back and bringing their friends. The word got out and we almost tripled our clientele and revenues in the first two years. I was there in the beginning and he (the owner) promoted me to manager as we began to take on new staff.”
“The momentum was really exciting and every week offered a new challenge as we kept growing. But in the last 2 years, we started experiencing some embarrassing customer service issues because we couldn’t meet the expectations and the growth didn’t just level off, we’ve started to lose good customers. I think that’s when I noticed two big problems. First, the owner wouldn’t listen to some of the ideas our staff and leaders were offering to help improve our services. Secondly, whenever any of us would ask him what vision he had for the next phase of the business - he’d just say we’d find out when we got there.”
My seat mate shrugged his shoulders and continued.
“My best staff members have quietly left the company over the last couple of years. And that’s not the worst of it!
“He finally has a plan and it’s a disaster. He has decided that the core of our business - the very essence of what our customers need and buy - is no longer “sexy” and he’s eliminating those services one by one, replacing them with products that very few people want. What’s frustrating is that customers and staff members don't get it! It’s not what they’ve signed up for and they have no say. We’re just dismissed with an attitude of ‘you’ll eventually understand and agree, or you’ll leave because it’s not for you - and that’s o.k.’”
My travel companion wrapped it up with a perfect metaphor:
“It’s about as crazy as an ice-cream shop owner capturing a large market share of local business and happy customers; then deciding after 8 years of success that they want to turn it into a Spinach Salad Only Restaurant. No more ice cream, just spinach. And their expectation is that all the ice-cream customers are going to be happy with the changes! It’s going to fail. Instead of trying to convert the ice-cream shop, it would be better to sell it as is, get out of the way and spin off into a new venture.”
He stopped talking. Looked at me and asked, “So what do you think?”
I smiled and said, “It’s impressive that you’ve stayed with it this long. Sadly, your assessment sounds like it is right on target. I’m guessing you’ve already updated your resume’. Without knowing all the details, it sounds like you could go open an ice cream shop and do very well. I think I’d buy ice-cream from you any day!”
How would you have answered that young leader?
Here are a couple of questions that maybe we should be thinking about:
- Are we listening to our best people and giving consideration to their insights and concerns?
- Do you have a vision for your company and can you express it in a way that still excites your team members?
Let me know your thoughts. Safe travels!
~ Steven Iwersen, CSP