We all start out wishing to do great things. With life's ups and downs, being great can be a formidable challenge. Whether you are a business hoping to serve your customers a wonderful meal, a professional trying to deliver a fantastic presentation or proposal, or even a student trying to get into a top tier school, you hope that your efforts have been worthwhile and that someone will notice.
You do not have to get far in life before figuring out that mistakes always seem to be noticed far more than efforts toward greatness. If you are manager, one of the first things you need to learn is not to assign the blame whenever you can but to take the blame sometimes even when the fault is not yours. One of my golden rules of management is that a mistake is not a mistake the first time around, it is a learning experience.
In essence if your team makes a mistake, you need to have broad enough shoulders to say that I did not prepare them well enough for this challenge.
If you are running a restaurant and a less than satisfactory meal gets delivered, where does the fault lie? The staff in the kitchen, the waiter/waitress, or the owner/manger?
We try to review a few restaurants each year before updating our Emerald Isle travel guide. Often we will take the risk of going someplace where we have been disappointed before but we have a hunch that the elements are there for a great meal and a very nice dining experience. More often than not, we end up disappointed a second time. We do not put bad reviews of restaurants in our travel guide. We just do not recommend places where we would not take friends.
Our last visit to this one restaurant started well but ended up reminding us why we quit recommending it a few years ago. We got to the restaurant at a little after the noon hour on a Monday. There was only one other couple having lunch. Things do get quiet in the area during winter so that is not an immediate red flag. There was a waitress and a cook but no manager. We both ordered subs and twenty minutes later, the waitress brought us our meals. My order was completely wrong. While the waitress offered to have the correct one made, we did not feel like waiting another twenty minutes and decided just to split my wife's sub. This is not a subway. We ended up paying close to $20 with tip for one sub, one soda, and a cup of water with our plate of rolls.
No other people had come into the restaurant while our order was being prepared. The owner of the restaurant did pull up outside in a car and the waitress went out and talked to her. We are a small community so I happened to know the owners because in a previous life I was a buyer's agent for the people who bought their home. The waitress spent most of her time in the kitchen talking to the cook. While we enjoyed our perfect plate of rolls they were not the meal we wanted.
So whose fault is it that I got the wrong meal? I blame the owner. Past experience leads me to doubt the restaurant has the proper procedures for making certain that the right food is ordered and gets back to the customers. The last time we visited the restaurant, I ordered exactly the same menu item also without any modifications and I also got another wrong meal. It was a different wrong meal but it was still not what I ordered. The waitress was certainly different and I suspect the cook was also different.
How could it have gone differently? The owner could have walked the twenty-five feet to the restaurant and checked on her customers and what was going on in the kitchen. A good owner might have stopped at the table to say hello and ask about what had been chosen for a meal and walked back into the kitchen to make certain that was what you were going to get. It would have taken less than ten minutes. That did not happen and they have lost a customer. We will not go back to the restaurant and we will not recommend them in our travel guide.
So how does this apply in other businesses? If I am a manger sitting in a corner office, I need to be involved just enough in the business to know what is happening and to make sure it meets my standards, but I need to do that without micro-managing everything. It is not an easy balance to achieve. Sometimes you can best achieve it by carrying the water buckets for your team.
One of the best examples that I can give you comes from my days as an Apple manager. Back in the mid-nineties I had a team of over twenty people working with me. We got frustrated with Apple corporate and their refusal to get our message out so we decided to do events in over twenty cities across the Southeast. Some of the events had three or four hundred people at them and we had to get equipment from our office in Reston, Virginia to cities all over the District of Columbia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. Some of it we shipped but it was expensive and challenging to get to the closely scheduled shows. Because I had a large Toyota Previa van, I took it upon myself to fill it with equipment and drive it to as many shows as possible. Often I loaded and unloaded the van myself, and even when I did not bring equipment and had to fly in, I helped with the setup the night before. I also developed one of the technical presentations and delivered it.
You could have asked anyone on the team if I knew what was happening in our business and they would have probably said yes. I was helping them with what some managers might have considered not their job. It gave me a way to find out what was going on and to see if something was not getting communicated to me. It worked well. Stepping out of your role and helping others do their job has immense benefits. If the restaurant owner had tried helping the waitress and figured out that wrong orders were coming out of the kitchen, things might have improved.
If you are student and have been encouraged to join the mass of students applying to Harvard or one of the other Ivy schools, how does this apply to you? You have been told you are great by a lot of people around you. Maybe you have had very few setbacks along the way. The first piece of news is that this is harder than you think it is and you are your own manager and probably in something of your own ivory tower.
The goal of getting into a top tier school sounds reasonable especially if you have great grades and scores, but the better goal is to get into the school that best fits what you want out of life. I know that when I was seventeen or eighteen that I could not define that but life has changed a lot in the last fifty years. The competition is tougher and there are a lot more people so you have to work harder and smarter. Look at yourself, understand your strengths and weaknesses and be prepared to explain why Harvard or Yale is the place that you want to go. Also if you get interviews, ask for feedback and impressions. You do not want to talk out of interview which was not good and think that you were great. I have seen it happen many times. Like the manager who has to get out of the corner office to really understand what is happening, you have to get out of your own bubble to get an honest appraisal of what college might work for you.
Being great boils down to taking almost nothing for granted. That includes what is supposed to be happening around you. Own the situation along with your success or failure in handling it. Take the needed steps to get better and closer to being great. Never forget that great is a relative thing. We each can achieve greatness in our own way.
You often hear that surrounding yourself with great people is a way to success. That only works if they are the right great people and you create an environment for them to help you achieve your goals and theirs. Sometimes a bunch of great people in a room can end up being like a Boy Scout troop without adult leadership- see Apple in the late eighties and early nineties for plenty of examples.