Strategic and Ideation are my top two CliftonStrengths. Not by a little, by a lot.
What those Strengths describe is my constant, passionate search for relevance, a unique ability to see connections among the complex, enable clarity by eliminating the unnecessary, and master the simplicity of perspective.
I share the following story with great reverence in that it was my introduction to one of the Service Industry’s most intimate, and Sacred Truths:
The only perspective that really matters is that of your guest . . . or customer, client, visitor, patient, user, etc.
Mother Nature serves as the catalyst for change, charging a magnificent pine tree with the role of muse for our learning journey through perspective. Please note that a deep, emotional connection can be achieved whether the opportunity represents proactive vision or responsive action.
Many times, the application of one may eliminate the need for the other . . .
Build a Deck, and They Will Sun
The summers of my youth were spent in a constant, unwavering orbit around our Country Club pool, an oasis of enjoyment and social development for the months of May through September each year.
Beyond the standard cement deck, the pool area featured a beautiful, bunkered berm encircling the perimeter. A large, majestic pine tree stood at the shallow end of the pool as a refuge for those unappreciative of the heavenly Arizona sunshine.
One winter, that tree was struck by lightning. The force of the strike cracked off the top of the tree, which landed in the pool, extending the entire length, like a big shoe in a shoebox. Faced with the cost of removing the damaged tree and making repairs to the pool area, city leaders decided to just close the pool.
Enter Mom, a beautiful woman with a wonderfully bohemian spirit, who sensed without that pool, the children of Naco would have nothing to do for the summer. She somehow convinced the City Council to lease us the pool for a nominal fee. In exchange, we agreed to maintain its operation from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
“We” of course, meant “me” since Mom worked a full-time job. The city had a crew reduce the damaged tree to a stump and made the necessary repairs to the pool.
The rest was up to us.
Fast-forward to the week before Memorial Day, and things were progressing nicely. The only concern was the area around the tree stump. Over time, roots from the enormous trunk had cracked the cement, creating not only an eyesore, but a tripping hazard.
Mom stopped by after work, and I shared my concerns. Her eyes lit up, a certain and all-to-distant gaze that signaled something curious was about to happen.
“You know what would be wonderful in that spot?” she said, not bothering to glance at my hesitant expression, “A wooden deck. People would just love a deck there, don’t you think?”
Now, I was only 17, but had seen my share of projects completed around our home. I was fully aware of the time and effort involved, not to mention the cost, to secure quality craftsmanship. We had none of those, most importantly the cost.
Again, I shared my concerns.
“Oh honey, where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said with a wink and a smile. I knew the moment she uttered ‘Oh, honey’ that our destiny was already set.
The next day, a gentleman named Circles showed up at the pool.
This is one of the benefits of living in a small town, in the middle of the desert. You can meet people named “Circles”. Based on his age, slightly questionable hygiene and affable demeanor, I figured that Circles was either (a) the naked baby seen running around in the photos of the Woodstock Music Festival, or (b) was conceived at Woodstock or a similar event of the time.
“Hey man, your mom says to build you a deck.”
Circles then brought out his measuring tape and marked off a 12-foot square, sufficient to cover the damaged cement. Once he determined actual cutting would be limited to fitting the area around the tree stump, he packed up his things, said “All right!” and left.
The next day, everything was delivered from Bisbee Lumber. Circles built the frame and nailed . . . not screwed or bolted . . . nailed the boards in place. In 48 hours, we transitioned from having an unsightly area of jagged cement to sporting an unsightly area covered by 12-foot sections of 2-inch by 4-inch pieces of wood.
With only a day left before we opened, there was no time to sand, seal, or stain the deck. As much as I tried to avoid it, the only thing I saw when I looked at that deck was one big splinter.
Mom stopped by to view the finished product: “Oh Tim, people are going to love it!”
They Put in a Deck!
Suddenly it was the Friday and we opened for business as scheduled.
“Hey look, they put in a deck!” was the first comment I heard that morning, as a family rushed to stake their claim on our bare-wood masterpiece. In fact, everyone went to the deck until it was completely full. Then people began to spiral out from the deck like ripples in a pond, ignoring the beautiful berm until necessity forced them there.
This pattern continued all summer. The deck was the place to be. If parents arrived too late, the space would be taken, and their children severely disappointed.
We’re not talking pool chair angst in Vegas or anything, but you could sense the let down if the deck was full. Even the tree stump became a throne of sorts, groups of little ones clamoring to sit on the six-inch elevation, like Simba in the Lion King.
A Mother’s Perspective
Mom’s prophecy had come true.
That deck was new and unique, albeit far from a masterpiece. She knew it didn’t have to be. People appreciated that we offered them something different, a break from the norm.
No one seemed to care about the flaws. Instead they embraced the spirit in which the project was intended, that it had come from the heart, with their enjoyment the first and most important investment.
I had learned an incredibly valuable lesson in perspective:
When you Serve from the heart, you See value through the eyes of your guest
Carrying It Forward
The lesson from that wooden pool deck has been a guidepost through every phase of my career. While I have sustained respect for the vision of my guests, we’ve not always seen eye-to-eye. You have to work at maintaining the proper perspective, to truly understand what matters most to your guest. Everything is subject to change, and your ability to respond to those changes can make all of the difference.
But life is meant for learning . . . the following are a few random thoughts collected along my journey:
Brilliance on a Plate
There were times as a restaurant owner, and then as a Pastry Chef, when had I created something that in my opinion was pure magic. Heaven on a plate, technical brilliance personified, an explosion of pure magnificence with every bite.
The guest’s reaction? “Um, its okay.”
Sometimes intuition can be “iffy” and will land you slightly off mark. My advice is to remain fluid, welcome the opportunity as feedback. Use it to refine your efforts and make necessary adjustments that better align with the expectations of your guest.
Creating Luxury without the Lux
I had the good fortune of working with The Ritz-Carlton for several years. As the world’s most recognized Luxury Brand, there is a tremendous amount of energy invested in seeking feedback from global luxury travelers.
They learned, from the source, that what matters most, what creates enormous value and loyalty in the eyes of those guests are the things that cost the least. Small, personal, heartfelt gestures communicate that you see, think, and feel from another’s perspective.
Not meant to be a contradiction, but it doesn’t cost a lot to make someone feel like a million bucks.
It must simply come from the heart.
Leaders Open Your Eyes, Too
If our discussion centers on service in support of others, then reference to a leader’s responsibility is tap dead center.
Everything we have discussed today can be applied to creating and maintaining engagement with those looking to you for guidance. Most importantly, discovering what matters most to your team is as simple as asking each team member: What Matters Most to You?
This is one question that must truly come from the heart. Especially in the chaos we’re experiencing today. It should come as no surprise, with our remote relationships, if what may be most important is hearing the sound of your leader’s voice . . . reassuring, calming, resilient, providing direction that may not have been necessary in a 1:1 setting.
Remember, things change.
What Else Can I Do?
I carry this question with me into every service or performance scenario. Success is a never-ending quest to create something unique, to separate from the norm, from the expected.
We have established that a great place to begin is seeing a circumstance from another’s perspective. Once you have exhausted those possibilities, perhaps it is time to turn the lens back to you. Ask yourself, given the opportunity, what would I appreciate most in the current situation?
Many times, your most valuable input would never originate from your guest. That is why they trust you, as their service professional (or leader), to think on their behalf. Think creatively, embrace innovation, remember that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
It worked for us when lightning struck gold.