The Power of Expectations

Last week I shared a story about leadership in tough times. A local restaurant owner got my attention with a handwritten letter he put in our takeout meal bag. The sincerity of his letter prompted me to write about two leadership behaviors that I believe are crucial – authenticity and vulnerability.

One of the comments left on the blog post made me realize that there is another really important lesson in this business owner’s leadership style – the power of expectations.

The comment read:

This comment was left by Han Tak, the individual who designed the online ordering system between the time that restaurants were closed on March 17 and March 28 when the online ordering launched.  Talk about leap of faith. He didn’t know how to do something, and Bernard trusted that he’d figure it out.

I love a good inspirational story, and I love it even more when it shows how innovative and persistent people can be when trusted to carry out a vision.  I suspect that Bernard had a vision that the “takeout ordering thing” could be a lot easier with online ordering.  So he asked someone with whom he already had a trusted relationship.

I spoke with Bernard about how he came to ask Han to build an online ordering site.  He said, “…in our first interview he told me about his background with Google, which gave him instant credibility. Not knowing much (or liking it) about social media, I felt I needed a dynamic person to handle that aspect of our business. He convinced me that when you do social media, you have to do it right. High quality video and photography are essential and after seeing one video from him, I was sold. We developed a really good relationship and seem to inspire one another.

Wow.  Now I know where all those awesome Facebook posts after the hurricanes when Caps was rebuilding came from.  I hadn’t thought about it until now, but seeing a business owner giving a virtual tour of all the new amenities after the hurricanes made me feel connected to the restaurant in ways I had never felt connected to a restaurant. Wise counsel, Han!

But let’s get back to leadership.  I titled this “The power of expectations” for a reason.  I think that people rise to the expectation.  When an expectation is low there isn’t too much to strive for.  But when someone expects the extraordinary, my experience is that people want very much to deliver.

After way too many years in corporate America where organizations focused only on technical skills and were often disappointed that the outcome was not what was expected, I came to believe that technical skills are only half the battle. Will and persistence take any execution a whole lot farther.

Oh, I can hear the contrarians out there saying, “Having experience at Google does not a technology expert make.” Quite true.  But it has been my experience that, once you know the basics of technology, it is creativity and innovation that propel the deliverable.

Bernard took a risk on Han, and Han was candid with Bernard about his abilities. I’m guessing that the “good relationship” they developed helped both say, “let’s figure it out.”

A good lesson here, perhaps.

It’s important to be clear about the outcome and clear on what it takes to succeed.  If your outcome requires a knowledge of rocket science, hire for technical qualifications.  But if you can, give someone a chance to show what they can learn and do.

March 2020 was an unprecedented time.  Bernard had a goal (which he put on Facebook) – to keep his full-time staff employed.  Faced with closing or trying a new business model, he chose to enter uncharted territory, trusting his own instincts and those with whom he had developed relationships to make it work.

He gave an opportunity to Han to learn something new and do something extraordinary.  The cool thing is that everyone else at the restaurant watched the process and joined in cheering Han on.  I know because when we picked up our Easter takeout brunch today, they told me so.  And it is obvious that everyone is in the spirit of making Caps the very best takeout restaurant in north Florida.  They were already among the best waterfront restaurants in north Florida, and now we all know why.

When I shared this draft with my husband, he reminded me of a pretty relevant and cool quote:

You can order this poster of the Calvin Coolidge quote on Etsy.

Leadership in “Tough Times”

You can find examples of leadership anywhere if you look. I found one in (almost) my backyard!

We live on a barrier island within walking distance of a lovely waterfront restaurant. Over the five years we have lived here, we have watched the complete devastation of the restaurant after Hurricane Matthew, the commitment to come back bigger and better, how they used the lessons they learned with Matthew to cope with Hurricane Irma, and now, COVID-19.

As an onlooker and customer, I have been impressed with their resilience, their communication to their customers and their resolve to come back strong every time. They have emerged as one of the top waterfront restaurants in north Florida.  Each time they come back they add little more pizzazz….a wine selection that rivals anything I’ve seen, seating where 90% (my personal estimate) of the diners can easily see the sun set over the Intracoastal Waterway, and a new welcome dock for diners arriving by boat.

They closed on March 17 because of COVID-19 and let their Facebook followers know in a heartfelt message about the difficulty of the decision.  Three days later they opened for take-out.  Someone on Facebook asked if they’d deliver to boats – the next day, their website announced boat delivery.

Since March 20 they’ve upped their game yet again, offering family-style meals and daily specials.  They prepared us a lovely dinner last night.  However I’m not intending to write about food, but rather about leadership.

When we opened our take-out bag, there was a hand-written letter folded inside the bag.  It read:

 

While their history and this letter showcase myriad excellent leadership principles, I’d like to focus on two – authenticity and vulnerability. In my experience, these are so powerful yet often leaders are hesitant to invoke that power.

Being authentic

In my experience, leaders often stumble when delivering bad news. It’s difficult and uncomfortable and we’re taught as children, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything.”

The problem with avoiding addressing bad news is that others can’t help but see the bad situation in front of them. Without leaders addressing it, others are left to wonder if the leader even sees it. That damages trust. If a leader can’t (or won’t) see it, she cannot be helpful at a time when help is needed.

The de Raads’ letter was authentic. They shared their challenges, goals and their commitment to their employees.  To me that says they saw what was coming with the pandemic, set their priorities, and established a goal.  And they shared this with their customers so that their customers could recognize how valuable it was to simply purchase a take-out meal.

Being authentic doesn’t mean saying the sky is falling. It is more about letting others know you see it and you are doing something. That builds trust.

Being vulnerable

Showing vulnerability is difficult for some. Those in leadership positions want to be competent, and vulnerability may appear to conflict with competence. It doesn’t.

Allowing oneself to show vulnerability means starting down a path of learning and growth. In a past article I told the story of a leader who thought being vulnerable meant allowing himself to cry in front of his team.  Instead it made the team terribly uncomfortable and they lost confidence in his ability to be strong.

As a customer, I love seeing that my input to the restaurant is valued, but it takes vulnerability to ask for it.  The de Raads put themselves out there sharing how they were in a learning curve on a whole new business model.  I suspect it’s energizing for the employees to know that they’re a valued part of developing this new business model.

Vulnerability is not weakness it is strength.  It says that I know where my strengths are, what my weaknesses may be and that I am wise enough to know that there are blind spots I need help seeing. Vulnerability means that I acknowledge I may not know, but I want to learn.

Being vulnerable enables others to “know” and teach; to add value.

Don’t underestimate others

The lack of authenticity and vulnerability in leaders may mean they want to “know” and be right or it may mean they don’t have confidence in others.

Underestimating others, whether customers or employees, doesn’t make a leader look strong. A leader who thinks he can sugar coat a message is doing a real disservice to others and to herself. She is underestimating those listening and making herself look ignorant.

In times of crisis, we need leadership strength. We need leaders who can and will deliver the blunt facts, while plotting the course for learning how to be better.

I love leadership lessons from everyday life.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s dinnertime at Caps on the Water! Thank you Vivian and Bernard for letting me share your letter and your story!

Culture is more than words

It has been a while since I’ve been moved to write and share my thoughts.  Today, Kickstarter got my attention.  Here’re my thoughts…

When I think of Tech companies, I think of pool tables, sofas, cool and edgy interior, trendy snack bars…but perhaps my thinking is dated.

Kickstarter just announced that their company voted to unionize 46-37. While collective bargaining has been around a long time, healthcare, education, manufacturing, communications and service industries seem to get the most activity. Not Tech.

Apparently, there is a storm brewing that should get the attention of any organization that doesn’t focus on their organizational culture, regardless of industry.  Those who probably never gave a thought to what could happen when employees are disgruntled may need a wake-up call.

Google started an anti-union campaign last fall, diversity has become a concern in the hallowed halls of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, and it seems that the “fun stuff” – the creative and innovative work of technology has been challenged as Tech companies become more embroiled in investor relations, politics and government influence.

That a Tech company has become unionized is a big deal, a reminder that employees who feel taken advantage of do have a way to be heard.  Maybe it’s time to revisit the importance of culture.

Values

When employees’ values conflict with the organization’s values there is a culture clash. Sometimes it really is a clash; other times it might be a misunderstanding.

What can an organization do?  First, state the organizations values clearly and succinctly.  Then, make organizational decisions within the context of those values.

Communication

Employees are smart. When leadership communicates, employees may hear the words.  But you can bet they will watch the actions.  Take values for instance.

When an organization says they value innovation but establishes rigid procedures and limits resources, the employees see reality – rigidity and limited resources.  They start to compare what they hear with what they see and recognize the disconnect. The bigger the disconnect, the more intense the cynicism.

Authenticity

Organizations have the right to be themselves.  They also have the responsibility to communicate who they are authentically and believably.

Telling employees there is no problem when it’s obvious there is, is silly. Today’s media picks up problems in a nanosecond, and employees are tuned in. Addressing the problem and the actions to resolve the problem (and then following through) lead to trust. If trust is a value, authenticity is the way there.

How do you know?

If you must ask that question, you have a problem.  Organizations that ask their employees and act on that information know when their values are clear and communicated authentically.  I don’t mean doing an annual survey then putting the results in the drawer.

I mean have regular conversations, asking questions and listening to the answer.  When leadership doesn’t spend time on the front lines, they have no clue what is really happening. While employees are doing their work is the time to ask how things are going.  You don’t see the real work with only a Town Hall meeting once a month.

Today’s environment is growing hostile. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, political polarity and anger are a breeding ground for discontent. Perhaps those who are disgruntled will read about the unionization of Kickstarter with interest.