When talking with leader, I often ask them about the most important lessons they’ve learned. I asked one such leader, Starla Eleson of Cabela’s, to share some of the best ideas she’s learned in her work with one of America’s great brands. She is a real-world practitioner and I believe you’ll find great value in her ideas.
Now, about Starla…
Starla Eleson is the Retail Training and Development Manager for Cabela’s, Inc, The World’s Foremost Outfitter. Her work includes the design and management of customer service and leadership training programs and curriculum. Cabela’s boasts 30 retail stores in the US and Canada, and was recognized as #11 in the 2008 Customers’ Choice Awards, announced by the National Retail Federation in January of 2009.
Starla also works as an independent consultant, specializing in sustainability planning, strategic planning, communications and change management, primarily for small business and non-profit agencies. She is the mother of three lovely young ladies, and shares her Sidney, Nebraska, home with Thor, the wonder dog.
Lessons from the Journey (Part One)
How often do you stop and reflect on what you’ve learned thus far? I know I don’t as often as I should. I’m generally wrapped up in thoughts of the future… new things to learn, new people to meet, new projects to implement…
And sometimes forget to REALLY assess and learn from the things I’ve been through so far. In speaking to a friend, he said, “It’s easy to let the “lessons learned” process get away from us. When we are younger, we figure we don’t have enough experience or expertise to take away anything of value from such a process. When we are older and on the downhill slide professionally, we figure there’s not going to be a way to apply the lessons we’ve learned, because we’re not real concerned about squeezing business process strategic design into our post-retirement golf game.”
Well stated. As individuals, many of us have room to do a little better in learning from where we’ve been.
Organizationally, the same thing often happens. Either we don’t capture our lessons learned, or if we do, we don’t communicate them and change our behaviors based on what we’ve learned. Lessons learned are often not assigned owners, and with no owners, they are properly documented, only to die quietly in a file cabinet or on a server drive.
So, how do we REALLY learn lessons? Give them proper consideration, and design and implement plans to change them. It’s a little scary at first, because to learn from our mistakes, we must first ADMIT to making some. Nobody enjoys doing that – but it is a crucial step in the process.
To make it easier for you, I’ll pick on myself a little bit. Here are some of my lessons learned thus far from the journey:
No Family Meetings
Seriously? What is she talking about?
No, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t have family meetings. It’s easier if I explain the history of that statement.
As a high school student, I was at a friend’s house one evening. We were sitting on a sofa, digging through pictures, when her mother entered the room and started flicking the light switch off and on.
“That’s IT! Family meeting time! Everyone to the den, NOW!”
My friend rolled her eyes and sighed. “You gotta go home now.”
“What’s going on? What’s a family meeting?”
“A family meeting means that someone screwed up and mom is mad. Instead of talking to the person that screwed up, we all get called into a family meeting and yelled at. See you later.”
A few years later, I was working in a management position for a newspaper company. Some news had been pushed my way, and I needed to get the information out to my staff before our next scheduled meeting. I stopped by each department and let them know that we would be holding an impromptu meeting shortly after lunch.
Twice I got the big sigh and the eye roll. It reminded me of my friend from high school, and I realized that I had fallen into family meeting mentality. Communication with the crew, as a group, took place for one of two reasons:
1) Because they were structured meetings that were required in the organization
2) Because there was some type of fire or emergency, or someone screwed up
It was my own fault that things had gotten to that point. We were a smaller staff, and spread thin. We ran and ran and RAN to hit our deadlines each day, and pulling folks together for impromptu meetings or anything other than required communication risked throwing things behind schedule.
That being said, the family-meeting-strategy wasn’t working, either. Communicating only as required by the organization or by fire isn’t leadership – it’s management. It doesn’t inspire people. It doesn’t ignite passion. If anything, they tend to disengage before the meeting even takes place.
“Who screwed up this time? A dollar says it was Bob.”
“I don’t know if it was Bob, but I’d give a dollar to the person willing to kick the guilty party in the butt so we don’t have to go through another of these meetings.”
I’m not quoting verbatim, of course, but you get the idea. These are the types of conversations that take place when we hold meetings and communicate ONLY for the purposes of pushing information that is either necessary, or negative.
So how did I change it? I added three meetings to the schedule. One meeting was a monthly state-of-the-business address that pulled them all up to speed regarding the performance of the business and our strategies to grow and stay competitive. Another meeting was a town hall meeting, where managers would take turns facilitating and the group was allowed to have a voice in the operation. Where did we have room to improve? What is missing? What do we have too much of? Items they identified were assigned owners, and those owners drove the change in the organization.
Finally, I worked up a recognition huddle-type meeting once each month. Two awards would be given for top performers of the previous month. They were nominated by their peers or by management, and their project or area of excellence was identified for the group. I didn’t schedule them. Just held them when it made sense, making it a fun surprise of sorts.
The change for the group was amazing. They no longer dreaded the impromptu meeting. They felt more a part of the business and were excited to take on new opportunities or to battle new threats to the business.
This is one of the first lessons I have learned as a leader. I have some others, and will share them with Mark in coming weeks. Until the next blog, consider your communication as leader. Are you hitting the mark? Blowing it out of the water? Or flicking a switch off and on and calling family meetings?