Waiting Tables, and Other Smart Things That Wise Leaders Do

When the hedge fund Starboard Value took over the board of Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, Starboard’s CEO and Chairman Jeff Smith got to work.

He waited tables and worked in the kitchen.

All of Starboard’s new directors sitting on Darden’s board were required to do the same. They not only worked side by side with front line employees, but they also asked Darden employees for their ideas, inquired about the challenges they faced, and then took their responses seriously.

Starboard Value’s leadership team displayed the wisdom and respect that employees treasure in their leaders.

The new board members demonstrated to employees they realized that, despite their tremendous intelligence and business savvy, they could not know the day-to-day realities and requirements of front line employees’ work. They understood that without direct contact, they could not truly appreciate the challenges employees faced or the customer experience they delivered.

The new board showed that they understood and respected the invaluable insights that front line employees can provide when asked.

When you “seek to understand” the employee experience

When leaders sincerely seek to understand the front line employee experience, they communicate:

  1. We are wise enough to recognize you know things and see things that we can’t because of our position.”
  2. We care how our decisions impact you, so we want to have a clearer understanding of your day-to-day work experience.
  3. Because we value you as a professional and as a person, we want your input.”

By getting in the trenches with employees, Darden’s new board members were able to see and hear things that helped shape their strategy:

“We felt we could not make the decisions without knowing what was happening in the restaurants,” noted Starboard Value’s CEO and Chairman Jeff Smith.

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Their genuine interest in what employees had to say led to a significant contribution to their menu refresh: two new sandwiches made with the Olive Garden’s famous breadsticks. This idea came from a store manager who shared with the chain’s executive chef that using breadsticks as buns was something his staff did when they were making their own meals.

It’s not just about gathering intel

The benefit gained from soliciting employee input is not limited to improving strategy. Getting in the trenches with employees didn’t just provide Darden’s new board members with insights that shaped their strategy and execution.

Doing this also facilitated important relationship and trust building with employees. Because of The Speed of Trust factor, described by Steven M.R. Covey, this investment will no doubt help them execute the new strategy more quickly and effectively.

Putting this into action

Whether you are formulating a new strategic initiative or simply seeking to boost employee engagement and productivity, here’s how you can borrow from Starboard Value’s Olive Garden turn-around strategy:

  • Have each senior leader spend time working side-by-side with customer-facing employees.
  • Notice the challenges they face in doing their daily jobs and consider how you can make it easier for them to perform with excellence.
  • Bring your innate curiosity to the experience. Ask lots of questions, including “What do we do that gets in the way of your delighting our customers?”
  • Share your findings with employees, let them know what you will implement and why, and what you won’t and why.
  • Appreciate and celebrate employees for showing initiative, providing extra value, and contributing to your company’s success.
  • Implement.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the only way this will make a difference, is if you do all six steps, and not stop at Step No. 3. Omitting Steps 4-6 will only breed cynicism and greater disengagement.

If you do all six steps well, it could be a game-changer.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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