How Fares the Genius with a Thousand Helpers?

I return once again to the profound and proven wisdom of Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  In his study of immensely successful publicly-traded companies and what made them great, he contrasted their performance to comparison companies – those of the same approximate size and markets in the same industries that did not achieve or sustain greatness.  Collins’ findings are all the more compelling because they are based on empirical evidence, not management theory or untested hypotheses.

Among his many findings (see the article The Book Every Hospitality Manager Should Read on the HRI website) was the prevalence of Level 5 Leadership in the good to great companies.  Many of the comparison enterprises, in contrast, followed a “genius with a thousand helpers” model.  These companies attained success, in some cases spectacular, based on the unique gifts and will power of the organization’s leader, but in the end were not able to sustain that success when the leader moved on.

The same pattern is often seen in small organizations such as private clubs where a new general manager is hired to make dramatic improvements or to turn the club around.  Because of the ever-present time factors and impatience of the Board and members, the leader by force of will implements the necessary changes but without investing the time to strengthen the subordinate management team.  While progress is made, the foundation had not been laid for long-term success.

When the “turnaround specialist” is hired away to a more prestigious position based on his or her accomplishments or when boredom sets in after the major initiatives are accomplished, the organization is left with a weak management team that depended too much on the genius’ direction and forceful personality instead of developing their own management disciplines and leadership abilities.  The end result for the club is an inability to consolidate their gains and an inevitable slide back into mediocrity and inconsistency.

In some situations the Board and membership inadvertently create the limiting environment where only the genius with many helpers model can be used by mandating such low compensation and benefits packages for the club’s department heads that a strong team cannot be built and maintained.  In other instances there is a failure of the General Manager to establish clear expectations and hold subordinates accountable for their performance that gives rise to this fatally flawed management model.

So what is a club Board or General Manager to do?

First:  In selecting a new general manager the Board should focus on a candidate that can produce long-term gains by building a disciplined organization and developing his or her subordinates.  As a member of the search committee, I would focus on the specifics of how to go about doing this and dig for satisfactory answers.  Facile responses and evasions, no matter eloquent or smooth, would disqualify any candidate.

Second:  As a potential general manager I would develop an explicit game plan to develop the necessary organizational building blocks for success (see The Quest for Remarkable Service for an example).  In interviews with search committees or headhunters I would explain in detail what is necessary, how I would proceed with implementation, and provide sample timelines with explicit deliverables or measures to chart and monitor progress.  Finally, I would ensure the search committee understands the requisite and realistic time and resources necessary to implement the plan.

For an incumbent general manager intent upon organizational turn around or renewal, I would use the same criteria to “sell” my plan to the Board.

Third:  Once hired or the plan approved, I would interview each department head in depth to ascertain background, experience, skill set, leadership abilities, and management disciplines for their position.  Then I would lay out in some detail my expectations (see What I Expect from My Club Management Team) for these key managers and establish a written work plan (see Expectations, Work Planning & Performance Reviews) with measurable accountabilities, timelines, milestones, and deliverables.  Over time I would hold them ever more strictly accountable for their performance.

Fourth:  I would expend significant effort in training, coaching (see Coaching Your Way to Excellence), and mentoring my subordinate managers.  The overall purpose of this is to identify who has the necessary desire to learn, will to succeed, enthusiasm for change, and work ethic.  Those that don’t demonstrate this level of interest and commitment should be encouraged to move on.

At the same time, I’d stress the need for all department heads to develop their assistants who show promise for greater responsibility and contribution.  The time and effort spent in developing the organizational depth of talent will yield both immediate and long term results.  For those departments without promising assistants, I would question the hiring rationale and methods of the department head.

Fifth:  Begin implementing the necessary management disciplines to better organize the operation.  See 10 Disciplines that Will Transform Your Operation for an overview of these.  Implementation will take time and a particular club’s needs will impact the priority of effort, but with steady focus, turn by turn of the flywheel, the club will achieve the breakthrough that will fundamentally transform the operation and achieve levels of quality, service, and success that, in retrospect, might have seemed unattainable.

In Good to Great Collins tells the story of Henry Singleton who, with single minded determination, founded and built Teledyne Corporation into a Fortune 500 company in five years based on his undeniable genius and drive.  Yet when he stepped away from the day-to-day management of the company, it began to fall apart.  Within 10 years without his guiding hand, Teledyne’s stock value had collapsed.  As Collins said, “Singleton achieved his childhood dream of becoming a great businessman, but he failed utterly at the task of building a great company.”

So what type of leader would you prefer to be – a Level 5 Leader or the Genius with Many Helpers?  The choice is yours – and you also own the results!

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the hospitality industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers – those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hardworking hospitality managers throughout the country and around the world.

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