A #1 Top Ranked Leader Shares His Secret To Success

What do the best leaders do that the rest of us don’t?

I discovered the answer to that question for one top leader this past Tuesday.

I was in the executive conference room at the headquarters of a large food-service company. With me, scattered around the gigantic table, were four of their 100 District Managers, as well as their CLO (Chief Learning Officer).

Last Tuesday was a “discovery” day: a chance for me to interview this sample group and really get to know them:  their day-to-day world, what it’s like leading their people, working in their business, navigating their challenges, and living in their culture.

This discovery work was preparation for the two days of workshops I’ll be leading in June for their annual District Manager conference.   That conference will include the 100 District Mangers (DMs), their bosses, the entire home office staff (a total of 200 people.)

Like many organizations, this company is intensely metric-focused. Each DM knows how they rank – daily – on a “hot list” (a battery of performance measures) against their peers.  Some of these metrics include:  revenue per store, customer satisfaction, drive through wait times, employee retention, etc.

Matt was one of the four DMs I was with on Tuesday.  Out of all 100 DMs, Matt has ranked as the #1 top performing DM two years running.

It wasn’t always this way.  Matt’s been with the company 23 years.  When he started, he was in the bottom half.  He’s worked his way up as he’s learned from his successes and failures.

I asked Matt:

What do you do now as a leader that helped you to become #1?  Something that your peers in the middle and bottom of the pack aren’t doing?  Matt replied:Every single DM has got a lot to do.  Each one is managing 8-10 stores.  With all these numbers, it’s easy to focus on what’s not measuring up, and be in constant fix-it task mode.

That’s what I did when I started, I’d hustle from store to store in task mode.  I’d come in and look for what was broken and instantly try to fix it.  I thought that was my job as “the big boss”.What I’ve learned is that is that people don’t appreciate me breathing down their necks. They don’t want a fixer: they want a leader.

Matt continued:

I’ve been doing this a long time.  Over the years I’ve realized that the key to making the numbers is to stop focusing on the numbers.  My job is to focus on the people–because it’s the people who make the numbers.  If I help the people–and that help looks different for each one of them–the numbers will take care of themselves.  Leadership is all about  relationship.

So what’s key for me are my one-on-ones.  I schedule one-on-one meetings with my store managers two times a month.  I also have once a month meetings with the assistant managers. The meetings are a place for them to check in with me and tell me what’s going on, what’s bothering them, what they want.  The biggest thing I’ve learned to do in those meetings is to shut up and listen.

When I first started out, I used to walk past people on the restaurant floor, and I didn’t really pay attention to them.  I just saw them as worker bees.  Then, when they’d up and quit, I had no idea why.  I was totally clueless.  They might have been really upset or unhappy, and I would have completely missed it.

Now, in addition to the one-on-ones, I also look for training opportunities.  I know how hungry these folks are to grow, and I want to feed that hunger.   That’s a big part of my focus–I’m constantly looking to develop the bench strength in the stores.  One-on-ones look different for different people.  For some people, one-on-ones are much more about training and coaching–giving and improving a basic set of skills.  For others, it’s more of a mentoring relationship.  Some of my managers have gone on to become DMs themselves.

The key to all of it is making people your priority.  If  you do that, not only will your results improve, your life will get a whole lot less stressful. These last two years when I’ve ranked #1 have been the most fun I’ve had so far in my career.   I’ve got a confession to make.  When I started, I thought I had to be Mr. Hard Charger, talk tough.  Never, never once in a million years did I ever think I could do it this way.  Matt’s words come from more than two decades of experience.  The way he described the power of relationship reminds me of something General Colin Powell once wrote:

The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

What techniques do you use to build strong relationships with those  you lead?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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