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Establish Trustworthy Leadership

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Lessons from a legendary New York restaurateur.

We’ve explored the concepts of employee engagement and the positive outcomes that occur when you have a highly engaged team. One of the most important intrinsic motivators that employees desire is trustworthy leadership. Thanks to the ongoing leadership training program my company is going through, I’ve learned a lesson in this from a well-known restaurateur named Danny Meyer. In 1985, at the age of 27, Danny opened his first restaurant in New York City called Union Square Cafe. In his book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Danny relates a story of how he learned to use constant, gentle pressure to manage his growing company.

One day, Danny received a spontaneous visit from Pat Cetta, the long-time owner of Sparks, a famous New York City steakhouse. The two sat down at a table in Danny’s restaurant and Danny explained his struggles at getting across the standards of excellence he expected to his staff members. The constant testing from waiters and managers was driving him crazy, he said.

In a surprising response, Pat told Danny, “If you choose to get upset about this, you are missing the boat, luvah.” Then, he pointed to the set table next to them and asked Danny to take everything off the table except for the saltshaker.

After doing so, Pat asked Danny if he was sure he wanted the saltshaker in the middle of the table, where he left it. Danny looked again and moved it about a quarter-inch, but as soon as he did so, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.

The two exchanged in a game of push and pull, with Pat pushing the saltshaker off center and Danny putting it back. Finally, Pat said, “Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: That’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like. And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the restaurant!”

Understanding the “saltshaker theory” has opened my eyes to a leadership style that Danny Meyer calls constant, gentle pressure. I put a lot of stock into this lesson from Danny Meyer. Today, Danny owns dozens of restaurants and is the founder of the Shake Shack company that now has nearly 150 locations worldwide.

It doesn’t take much in a busy body shop to get the saltshaker off-center. Becoming upset about this is not effective and is definitely a waste of your valuable time and energy. Your job as a leader is to recognize center from off center and always set it right. The way that you set it right requires all three aspects of the saltshaker theory: constant, gentle, and pressure.

If you leave out one element of the three, you will not be effective. For example, if you exert gentle pressure but don’t do it constantly, your employees are going to get the wrong message. They will begin to doubt your word and they will mistrust your actions. This will completely destroy your credibility in their eyes and they will not believe that you are holding yourself accountable to the high standards you said you have in place at work. You will be the one that is moving the saltshaker off center.

In an upcoming column, we will dig deeper into the constant, gentle pressure management style and I’ll provide some real-world examples of how to deploy this at your shop with your team. Until then, I want to challenge you to ponder the following statement and question: People don’t respond to what you say or what you do, they respond to who you are “being” when you say or when you do. Who are you being?

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