May 2014
Always a Student By Stan Pohmer

I’m a student, albeit a rather old one. I not only study consumers and what makes them tick (or not), but I also study industries, businesses and trends. I study the economy to try to figure out the signs that indicate we’re getting into some strong headwinds and look for indicators that there are opportunities. And I study leaders and managers who have been smart, charismatic, big thinkers and dynamic innovators inside and outside our industry.

I attempt to synthesize what I learn and try to connect the dots, linking various bits and pieces into an integrated and comprehensive bigger picture. Sometimes, if I’m successful, snippets of what I learn can hopefully provide you with some insights or stimulate thinking about how you might apply these findings to yourself as a leader or to your business.

Very few of us had the foresight or vision before we assumed a leadership role in our businesses to think about and come up with “rules” to guide us in how we managed or led our companies and teams, and I greatly admire those who did. One of these individuals who did just this was JW “Bill” Marriott, the son of J. Willard Marriott, the founder of the Marriott International conglomerate.

Born in 1932, Bill literally grew up in the business which he formally entered in 1956, after attending a public university and serving as a naval officer on an aircraft carrier. In 1964, at the ripe old age of 32, he was named president of the company, and chairman in ’74. I don’t know about you, but at the age of 32, I was still in a major on-the-job learning curve and ill equipped to take over the reins of a major corporation, so I greatly admire the caliber and maturity of someone who does. It was when he was named president that Bill thought about and developed his 12 rules of success that guided him throughout his career.

Rules Are Meant to Be … Followed

Here are JW “Bill” Marriott’s Rules of Success, with some of my commentary relating to them:

1. Challenge your team to do better and do it often. Success is never final. Set high expectations for yourself and your team, constantly pursue excellence and continually raise the bar. This is the only sure way to provide exceptional service and experience for your customers, one of the key and critical elements to achieving meaningful differentiation from your competition that is extremely difficult to replicate.

2. Take good care of your associates, and they’ll take good care of your customers, and the customers come back. Most companies say their most important asset is their people, but in too many cases, this is just lip service. Most hotels all sell the same things — beds for rent — likewise, most garden centers all sell many of the same plants. There’s not a lot of difference between the products you and your competitors sell. The critical differentiator that the customer will remember is the experience delivered and the way they were treated by your associates!

3. Celebrate your peoples’ success, not your own. It doesn’t matter whether it was the associate’s idea that succeeded or your idea that they executed flawlessly, the credit belongs to your associates. Recognizing and celebrating their successes will get you much more mileage as a leader and build teamwork and esprit d’corps.

4. Know what you’re good at and keep improving. Admittedly (and I’ve been told repeatedly), I am not a horticulturalist; I know just enough to get me in trouble. Clearly, this is not an area I consider a strength, and even with a lot of study and time, there would always be better skilled horticulturalists out there. But business management and leadership are strengths I am continually honing and developing. Contrary to many management gurus, you don’t always have to overcome your weaknesses if you can compensate for them by having someone on your team whose strength is your weakness.

5. Communicate by listening to your customers, associates and competitors. The entertaining purveyor of jurisprudence, Judge Judy, constantly reminds the people in her court that God gave them two ears and one mouth for a reason: “You should listen twice as much as you speak.” When Bill Marriott was just 22, he was introduced to then President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, who was staying at one of the family hotels. When faced with the choice of going out in the cold to shoot quail or cozy up to the warm fireplace, Eisenhower turned to young Bill and asked, “What do you think we should do?” By asking this question, the President engendered and communicated trust, respect and a genuine sense of caring to Bill. Think about how positively your team members would react if you asked for their honest opinions and then acted on them!

6. Do it and do it now. Err on the side of taking action. I once had a boss I greatly respected, Bob Ulrich, chairman of Target Stores. He created the corporate image of being cheap chic, trend forward with affordable fashion. This image was consistent throughout the store, whether it was lawn & garden or women’s fashion. It was important to always be the trend leader, rather than the follower. His mantra was, “Ready fire, aim!” Meaning it was more important to be first and 90 percent right, than to delay the launch and be 100 percent right. He believed you could always fine tune the last details on the run, but the customer gave you more credit for being the trend leader.

7. Success is always in the details. A poor plan flawlessly executed is often superior to a flawless plan executed poorly. We often spend more time in developing the plan than we do in planning the execution, and then we wonder why it wasn’t successful.

8. It’s more important to hire people with the right qualities than with specific experience. Though it’s tough for us to admit, it’s easier (and more beneficial) to hire someone with a great attitude and great people skills, but without great product knowledge to work in a garden center customer service position (you can always teach them product skills), but it’s extremely difficult (impossible?) to take someone with great product knowledge and teach them people skills.

9. See and be seen. Get out of your office, walk the talk, make yourself visible and accessible. Remember, as a leader, you’re in the people business. Try the management-by-walking-around principle. It really works!

10. Customer needs may vary, but their bias for quality never does. We’re not just talking about product quality here; we’re also talking quality of the customers’ experience, the quality of their treatment by your associates — the whole enchilada!

11. Always hire people who are smarter than you. Surrounding yourself with strong people makes you look better because you’re leading a successful team, and you can promote them or give them more responsibility, giving you more time to lead and strategize.

12. View every problem as an opportunity to grow. Or as I like to say, we don’t have problems, we just have additional opportunities to learn and excel!

Stan Pohmer

Stan Pohmer is president of Pohmer Consulting Group in Minnetonka, Minn. He can be reached at [email protected] or 612.605.8799.


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