Legend has it that there once was a man was driving his relatively new Rolls Royce across the English countryside, when all of the sudden the luxury vehicle’s engine unexpectedly coughed, sputtered, and stopped running. Luckily, he was able to guide his vehicle to a wide spot in the road. Realizing it was several miles back to the nearest small town, he called the dealership where he had purchased the car for their advice. The friendly service tech got his location and promised to have a response in less than a half-hour. The man was a bit surprised since his Rolls dealership was two hours away.
Twenty minutes later a helicopter landed on the roadside near his Rolls and a repairman got out and began to do mechanical surgery under the bonnet (a.k.a. hood) of the car. After a few minutes the car was running perfectly again and the helicopter departed just as quickly as it had arrived. The man was very impressed by this James Bond-like, over-the-top adventure.
A couple of months later he realized he had not received a bill for the roadside service. He called his dealership and they reported no record of a roadside repair. “But, where did the helicopter and mechanic come from?” he asked. The service tech suggested someone at corporate headquarters might know and transferred him to the Rolls Royce headquarters in London. Again, a friendly service person could not find any record of a service call and suggested he worry no more about it. As he was about to hang up the phone, she warmly added, “Besides sir, Rolls Royce cars do not break down!”
Through the lens of this story, examine what it would take to create a magical myth that your offering was perfect. It starts with a deep pride in product and service coupled with the zeal to guarantee it to always match your customers’ hopes, not their expectations. It requires elevating standards to the pinnacle of superiority. But, it also takes leadership that inspires employees to remain in the middle of a vision quest. It takes service leadership unleashed.
Seek a Much Higher Purpose
A vision quest was the Native American custom of sending an adolescent boy on a solo journey to find his true self and discover his spiritual and life direction. The phrase in the Sioux language Lakota literally means, “crying for a vision.” Native American oral historian Paula Underwood interviewed dozens of Native American leaders about their rite of passage vision quests as young boys. The consistent report was one of exhilaration and joy. “It was the purest moment of my life,” said one Sioux chief. Another described it as “a blend of the terror of the unknown followed by the ecstasy of knowing whom you were and why you were here.”
How do service leaders foster perpetual vision quests? It starts with having a compelling vision that excites, challenges, and points to a noble aspiration. Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s mission: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” describes the pursuit of a guest relationship as near-perfect as a Rolls Royce. It invites associates to always be their best and summon guests to follow suit. It also leads them to treat each other with the same care and respect they treat their guests.
Visions are not like strategic plans lined with the practicality of results-oriented metrics. Visions are aspirational attractions that elevate, embolden and encourage. They are about spirit, not about arithmetic. And, they are tools for endurement. When Arie de Geus studied companies that have lasted more than 200 years (reported in his book The Living Company), one feature he found common was a values-centered vision that served as their North Star, guiding them to greatness and sustainability. Visions are the corporate version of Robert Browning’s famous line: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Turn Bricklaying into Cathedral-building
The well-worn story of the two stonecutters paints a sharp contrast between the completion of a task and the pursuit of a purpose. When the first stonecutter is asked what he is doing, he curtly responds, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait until 5 o’clock to get out of here!” Meanwhile, a second stonecutter exhibits a very different perspective, stopping regularly to admire his progress. When asked what he is doing, the man smiles, gazes upward and proudly states, “I’m building a cathedral that will be admired and enjoyed for centuries to come.”
Part of the leadership challenge is not just about getting employees to do their assigned duties; it is about inspiring them to embrace the deeper purpose of their undertakings. When a friend of ours is asked about his job—he’s a trainer—he always says, “I train human race horses to win championships.” When a dentist friend is asked about his occupation, he characterizes his responsibilities as “a creator of smiles.”
Research undergirds the premise that a life well lived is one exemplified by purpose; the ramifications are significant not just at the individual level but corporately as well. Numerous studies suggest that people who live with a strong sense of purpose tend to have higher energy levels, enjoy more meaningful relationships and generally live longer than those without a defined purpose. In their wildly popular book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras reveal that organizations driven by purpose and values outperform the market an amazing 15:1. I don’t know about you, but this is exactly the type of company I want to emulate!
Remove Barriers to Greatness
Empowerment is ensuring employees closest to a problem or need have the authority to make judgments on how a problem is solved or a need met. Empowerment does not mean unlimited license…”just do whatever you need to do…” it means responsible freedom. It means helping employees balance the freedom to go the extra mile for the customer with the responsibility of taking care of the organization. Bottom line, it is helping employees maintain the perspective of an owner.
Empowerment is not a gift given to employees by leaders. When leaders ask, “How do I empower my employees?” you get a sense they’re thinking of it as a gift. The job of the leader is to release power…to remove the barriers that keep employees from acting with power. When an airport shoe shiner was asked about his job, he quickly said, “I do not shine shoes. The shine is already in the shoe. I just work with the brush and wax to bring it out.” Like the shoeshine philosopher, unleashed leaders examine the work environment and their own leadership practices to identify barriers getting in the way of responsible freedom.
Empowerment is also not a concept that can simply be delegated into practice. This mindset would be on par with asking a child with no prior financial training to suddenly manage your investment portfolio. Employees need to understand what empowerment looks like at a practical level based upon a wide range of circumstances and scenarios. As a leader, you must personally demonstrate the nuances of empowerment with your team – role playing common problem scenarios, celebrating empowerment success stories, and consistently coaching your team on opportunities to improve.
According to the official Rolls-Royce history, when Henry Royce was designing the first Rolls-Royce, a colleague suggested he “turn out a reliable car at a low price.” Royce had a different vision—to turn out “the best motor car in the world regardless of cost.” Now making such a bold and audacious statement is one thing, but actually bringing the vision to fruition is a completely different matter.
As the old adage goes… “talk is cheap.” Henry Royce (and his partner Charles Rolls), however, led with such purpose and conviction that his dream became a modern day reality; a reality that would not have been possible without him inspiring his fledgling Rolls-Royce team to dream big and bold, and lead with a spirit of service unleashed! Would your customers say you and your organization have a Rolls-Royce spirit?