Doing the dirty work

It was one of the most efficient crews I ever worked with, in one of the most unlikeliest of places: fast food.

Yup, I worked fast food as a teenager, as have many others. Where I did so is not relevant, as they are all pretty much the same, born from the same process attributed to Ray Kroc. It was an education, but only because of my age, as we all have to start somewhere. What stood out about the experience was not the job or the industry, but the general manager.

What was remarkable about him? He was always doing the dirty work.

Most of the time, when you see a general manager, it’s in connection with expected duties: inspecting the facility, handling a customer complaint, walking the property with the owner or an investor, and so on. If you see a general manager on the front-line for any extended period of time, it usually means a staff shortage.

Not so with this general manager. You always found him on the front line: taking orders, handling the drive-thru, on the grill, even prepping food and cleaning. His shirt and tie didn’t always survive the day’s work, and that was okay. His willingness to do the tasks that were beneath his job description was the secret sauce (sorry, bad pun) to his success and the success of the establishment.

The reasons are key to servant-leadership (and I’ll stick with the fast food analogy, minus the puns).  

You hear the complaints all the time, regardless of the organization. “Management doesn’t understand what I do.” “Management doesn’t know how hard my job is.” “Management doesn’t care about what I do.” The statements vary, but the theme is the same. Invariably, the response is the same from management: “yes, we do,” followed by some comparison to when they had to do the same job before advancing up the career ladder.

From what I’ve observed, the employee, not the manager, often proves to be right.

For starters, people don’t respect what you say nearly as much as what you do. If you talk about when you were once a lowly fry-cook, but are never seen doing it, your behavior not only doesn’t lend credit to what you say, but also creates an often thought but unspoken assumption: I’m too good for that now. This is where humility is so important. Fred knew it. The GM knew it, and every successful servant-leader I have ever seen knows it. I’m too good for that automatically debases the person assigned to the task. For a servant-leadership culture, such thoughts and feelings are poisonous.

A second point to make is a simple one. To build and maintain an efficient staff requires more that good management: it requires building relationships with your staff. I often shake my head when managers bemoan how difficult it is to build teamwork. Here’s an easy solution: take a portion of your workday and work alongside your staff. Viola! Teamwork is built! For those who say, “I don’t have time for that”, you’ll be surprised at how much time you gain when you have an efficient staff. How much time do you spend hiring and training? How much time could you save if you were not always busy hiring, training, and managing problems associated with constantly new staff?

Another point to make is job roles and functions change over time. Not drastically, and often not noticeably, but scope-creep is not just a strategic-planning buzzword: it happens at every level of an organization. You may remember what it was like to be a fry-cook, but what you may not see is how a 25% increase in sales has facilitated an untenable position, one that likely needs more help. Data crunched through information systems will only give you quantifiable knowledge. People are not easily quantified, and you’ll be reminded of this when your employee quits, and you have to expend resources to train another.

One last point is probably the most important one of all: servant-leadership is modeled more than it is taught. No matter how good of a teacher you are, there are likely a hundred and one situations that are not covered in the manual or during training, situations which require experience to handle. If you can’t model it, you either don’t really know it (of which your teaching will be no better) or you’re contemptuous towards doing so. Contemptuousness is selfish in origin, another quality that poisons servant-leadership culture.

Which brings us back to the general manager aforementioned. That GM was successful, even though he spent less time crunching numbers, filling out reports, and making schedules than most. How? He had the data most other GM’s missed because he spent part of each working day on the front-line collecting that data. His staff was well-trained because he was out there everyday, training, coaching and mentoring. Perhaps most importantly, they had a servant-leadership culture in which everyone served each other, because the GM modeled that to his crew everyday. It’s hard to rationalize a complaint about scrubbing floors when the GM does it.

The results? One of the most profitable restaurants among all of the franchisees in that market, and one of the most sought after GM’s among the franchisees.

All because he was still willing to mop a floor.

If you want to be a good servant-leader, you have to do the dirty work, and do it often.

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