Learning the ABCs of Leadership at 16

Whether you’re heading up a team of 100 or just a team of one, the more you step into a leadership role, the more you’ll excel, and the more you’ll provide value for those around you. The term “leader” gets thrown around a lot, and often gets bogged down with so many details, that we overlook the most foundational A, B, C’s of leadership; AwarenessBeing Flexible, and Connection

Who would’ve guessed where I would have witnessed the power of a true leader and the impact they could have both on team engagement and customer service. This life lesson happened at the tender age of 16, while working in a local ice cream parlor chain, in my hometown of Elmont, Long Island; a gazillion years ago.

 Scene opens. It’s my first job with working papers, curfews, and all. While I was “good enough” at the basic operational aspects of the job, my real strength was my people skills. I definitely got the schmoozer gene from my Mom, Edie. And you could bet your bottom dollop that when combined with my two favorite things in the world; conversations with strangers and ice cream, not necessarily in that order, my shmoozer gene went into full tilt.

In a matter of moments after taking customer’s orders, I managed to hear their life stories, dietary needs and aspirations (yes you can go low cal/low fat and still engage in the festivities) while joking with the kids, making up silly voices and play games with them. Who says you can’t multi-task and Sparkle at the same time!

Since we pooled the tips, the other workers weren’t thrilled with me even though I definitely pulled my weight. Ironically, there was not a lot of room for fun in this joint. They were very strict across the board from very specific protocols on how to address customers, wipe the counters and memorize the exact initials for all 55 flavors. Mint Chocolate Chip was MCC! No periods no commas, nothing else but MCC. And if you wrote down anything else, you’d be written up. Lots of rules; lots of chores; and two hours of clean up every shift. Ice cream became not fun, very quickly! How is that possible?

The manager was a lovely guy who, while appearing laid-back, had a deep emotional intelligence and understanding of efficiency.

One Easter everyone poured in after church. There were lines out the door and lots of crying children. We were short-staffed and sweating it. I’ll never forget what he did. Amidst the mayhem, he gave me a few plastic hand puppets that were freebies, he moved all the families with young screaming kids into the same section, and told me to put on a puppet show.  The other employees started to whine. “Why does Lois get to have fun while we’re working so hard? We shouldn’t have to split the tips with her?”

He shook his head and said, “You don’t understand. Lois is working just as hard—even harder, in fact, because she’s under more pressure. Her work just looks different. If we don’t quiet the kids down, three-quarters of the customers will leave and you’ll be twiddling your thumbs for the rest of the day. Do you want that?” Of course, they all shook their heads, “No.” “But if she quiets down the kids and entertains them, then everyone will be happy. They’ll stay longer, order more, tip generously, and we can accommodate the rush. Reluctantly, everyone agreed.

Step-by-step, he threw away the official manual and broke all the rules. He moved everyone around into positions that highlighted their strengths. One girl, who knew the cashier keys by heart, was put on the register. He utilized the big guy who could carry eight sundaes on a tray by leveraging his sweat equity. He moved the other girl, who could recite the acronym of all 55 flavors in her sleep, to the role of the head ice cream scooper.

An entire third of the restaurant with families of screaming kids was moved over to my section and was transfixed by the puppet show. Instead of crying, they were literally squealing with delight. Their parents were beyond grateful for the reprieve. Other people came by to listen. They kept ordering more food. The rest of the team was on fire because they were utilizing their best skills and what they enjoyed doing most. We felt like superstars. We were like this fast-food fireworks show that was lighting up the sky.

Customers felt our energy and focus. That day, I learned the magic of what is possible when, like Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, says, when you put the right people in the right seat on the right bus: the bus moves on its own. 

While it may be important for employees to expand their skill sets and stretch themselves, it’s a far more effective strategy to celebrate and utilize each team’s strengths and be willing to change. Put your team members in positions where their natural talents shine. By doing that, they get to celebrate their unique contribution and everyone wins!

As a leader, how often do you apply the A, B, C’s of leadership: Awareness of your team’s strength, Being flexible to move things around, and Connection with your team. 

Lois Barth is a Sparkling Funny Motivation Keynote Speaker, Human Development Expert, Coach, and Best-selling Author. She delivers powerful solutions in a playful way!  “Where there is laughter, there is learning”, therefore Lois’s principles and tools for what she calls “trans-fun-mation,” are delivered in a very playful yet powerful way, mixing in thought provoking Lois-isms to enhance learning and retention. Book Lois today. Whether Onstage or Online (Virtual) she is still In Person! https://bit.ly/2K4ljhx

About Sue Falcone

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