Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

As a consultant, speaker and panelist, two questions that I’m routinely asked include: “What are the most important characteristics of a successful hospitality organization? Is it the concept, the menu, the marketing, the training, the brand, or the decor?” The correct answer is “none of the above”. Companies don’t build “business,” they build people. People build business….

By Jim Sullivan

Between then and now, there is a chasm across which swings only the frayed-rope bridge of memory.Richard Seltzer

As a consultant, speaker and panelist, two questions that I’m routinely asked include: “What are the most important characteristics of a successful hospitality organization? Is it the concept, the menu, the marketing, the training, the brand, or the decor?” The correct answer is “none of the above”. Companies don’t build “business,” they build people. People build business. And the best organizations have learned that actively collecting and archiving the past experience of its people (think of it as knowledge capital) is critical to a successful future.

Preserve Corporate Memory

It’s said that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. But what you don’t know that you don’t know can cripple a successful business. Most hospitality companies put a premium on preparing for the future, but many of them fail to put a similar value on capturing the lessons of the past. The mystery of history in your operation, once revealed, can teach both your present and future leaders valuable lessons about obstacles to anticipate and strategies to overcome them. We’re all familiar with the classic old saw warning that “those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat the past,” and it’s true, especially when you consider the fast-approaching potential brain-drain in our industry.

While many chain restaurants in the QSR arena have been around for 50 years or more, most successful casual theme restaurant chains are relatively young, having originated or grown in the 1980s. Unlike current McDonald’s or KFC executives who most likely never met Ray Kroc or Colonel Harlan Sanders, many of the current casual theme leaders may have worked directly with the company founders, like a Norman Brinker (Chili’s), Bill Palmer (Applebee’s), or Bill Darden (Red Lobster/Olive Garden). And while founders may write memoirs, what experience did their second-tier associates (today’s CEOs, COOs, and Area Directors) gain as they grew the concept? What did they learn as “second-generation-standard-bearers”, and what cautionary tales do they have to share with future leaders? Is someone collecting their stories?

Time Is Fleeting

Over the next decade, a considerable number of these “silverback” executives will soon consider retirement. And whether you’re big or small, unless you’ve made a concerted effort to capture, record, preserve and share this collective corporate memory on an ongoing basis, you’re facing a serious knowledge gap. Statistics show that the “Baby Boom” generation of 72 million Americans born between 1948 and 1963 currently comprises some 47% of the US workforce, but that number is projected to shrink to 32% in five years, and 21% by 2014. That’s a lot of experience, insight and culture going out the door. And while most Boomers deny the very notion of “retirement” from the workplace, it will occur, either by chance or by choice. In fact, consider this timeline perspective if you’re in denial: we are now closer to the year 2043 than we are to the Beatle’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.

How to Upload More Memory

I’ve helped many companies, big and small, collect, archive and re-distribute knowledge capital to the next generation. Here’s a primer on how to extract key learnings from the past (and present) to help your future:

  1. Videotape speeches at retirement dinners and award ceremonies
  2. Track down and archive every menu edition, employee manual and relevant photos from opening day to yesterday.
  3. Interview all key personnel who have been with you for 10 years or more. Record stories relevant to company milestones, anecdotes about the early days, growth challenges and how they were overcome, and insight gained from the experience. Who do they know that might have photos or memorabilia from the “early” days that you’re missing?
  4. Make sharing company history a critical component of any mentoring program.
  5. Collect stories from current team members that may grow to be classic tales of selfless service, tireless teamwork or customer-centric behavior. A good way to start is to ask team members this question: “what story do you wish everybody here knew?” Now not every shared story is valuable or appropriate, but the ones that are can be used as “training parables” in your manuals or videos to illustrate concepts much better than “steps” can.
  6. Today, tomorrow and the next day, start taking lots of photos of team members, the dining room, kitchen, menus, uniforms and customers. File them, label with names, dates, locations. Fifteen years from now, these will be “archive” photos, 30 years from now they’ll be “historical.”
  7. Ask your senior executives to make a list of “The 10 Stupidest Things We’ve Done”. Then make sure you no longer do them.
  8. Solicit your newest hourly employees to make a list of “The 10 Stupid Things We Do”. Compare it with the list from the senior execs. Hopefully it doesn’t look familiar.
  9. What we learn about the past helps us understand what is true about today and possible tomorrow. Memory is the pilot light of the future. Keep it burning by capturing it and spreading the flame. Don’t procrastinate—in two days tomorrow will be yesterday.