Uplifted in the Down Economy – Guest Article by Bill Curran

I don’t know about the best of times but these sure feel like the worst of them. It’s as close to Dickens’s London as I dare want to see us go. Dickens would have been hard pressed to pen an economic/social setting as ugly as the one we find ourselves in today. Eventually, we will tire of being reminded of just how tough things have become. Maybe I have reached the depths of despair and have hit a plateau. I am in search of finding something positive and, in a small way, I did early on Saturday morning. A great example of customer focus and personal leadership were about to appear in the most unlikely of settings…and then repeat itself twenty-four hours later!

It’s cold and cloudy and my son Dan and I are navigating Rte. 24 South heading to another hockey rink. The news on the radio is thoroughly negative as story after story describes the hellish business conditions the likes of which only my elderly parents seem to recall. Even sports radio piles on, railing about ticket price pressure in a recession. It’s all quite depressing. I retreat to an oldies CD and make my way onto Rte 104 in Bridgewater. Although I don’t drink coffee, I am a quasi regular at Dunkin Donuts and as any self respectful hockey parent can attest, a stop at DD is part of the game day ritual. I open my window at the drive-through and am staring through the outdoor menu board, still half asleep. The cold wind is biting as I wait to hear the tinny voice of the invisible employee going through the motions.

What happens next startles me. I am lifted from my funk by an energetic, enthusiastic, and pleasant voice wishing me a good morning and “welcome to Dunkin Donuts!” What catches my attention is that the voice does not sound robotic nor like a teenager who wishes she were still in bed rather than laboriously taking order after order from grumpy consumers. She has, dare I say, passion. I can feel it! My son, Dan, is a bantam in youth hockey. He’s fifteen, also half asleep, and convinced I was put on this earth to embarrass him. Did you hear her?!” I whack him on the shoulder to get his attention. He rolls his eyes as he knows a mini-lecture is coming his way.

I work in both the corporate and academic sectors and my work (passion) revolves around leadership and customer-focus. I help organizations develop their leadership bench strength. Its hard work but the results are worth it. As a student of the topic, I am always looking for examples in my daily life. They are called leadership moments. The wrong behavior is easy to spot but positive role models seem more elusive. However, every now and then you hit the jackpot. Most people miss these seemingly inconsequential moments that brush past each and every day. We think of leadership with a capital L and think of moments of what I call ‘Churchillian’ proportions. Most leadership moments won’t determine the fate of the free world but they do define the person…and the company. If you’re paying close attention, you might just find one of these leadership moments in the drive-through!

The research today equating strong organizational performance and leadership is compelling. The bottom-line differentiator between great places to work and the rest of the pack is something called employee engagement. It is the degree to which an employee feels connected to the mission of the business and is reflected in his/her output. Workers have up to 25% of discretionary effort that they choose to give…or not. Great managers treat their people differently. They give the employee the sense that their job and effort matters and they’re darn good at saluting that effort and making the workplace fun. They tap into that twenty-five percent and it pays off. It’s the difference between employee compliance and commitment. Not only does the business profit, the environment is a breeding ground for future leaders or, in this case, store managers.

The voice behind the sign at Dunkin Donuts in Bridgewater was a sixteen year old high school student trying to earn some cash but she has decided to go the extra mile and deliver service with a smile – even if I couldn’t see her face. She is highly engaged. These people believe that one person can make a difference and her enthusiasm made my day. When I got to the window, I asked the young woman if she took my order. She said no and pointed, “It was Kelly.” I asked her to come to the window. My son is slinking down as far as the car’s front seat will let him. I yelled out, “Kelly, you are so good. I love your energy and customer focus. I wish everyone gave it like you!” I received my drink from the other employee and got my change. I hesitated then offered the dollar bill from the change and yelled, ‘Give this to Kelly…a tip!” Everyone but Dan laughed. Ok, I’m not the last of the big spenders but I felt the need to reward a kid who brings energy to the workplace and it was a spontaneous gesture on my part. As we left and Dan started to sit up again, I tried to provide my son with a teachable moment, “If she keeps that spirit and energy up with customers, she’ll go places. I guarantee it.”

As luck or fate would have it, I found myself in Brockton the next night at…yes…another hockey rink. My neighbor and I dropped our boys at the door and dutifully headed back to the Dunkin Donuts around the corner. Along the way, I told him of my customer delight encounter of the previous day. We entered the store and found ourselves to be the only customers. The young lady behind the counter greeted us by saying, ‘Hi. May I help you?” I jokingly responded, ‘How did you know?” We laughed. I described what I wanted. “I’ll take a medium hot chocolate with whipped cream in a tall cup.”

A voice from around the corner said, “You like whipped cream?” I said, ‘I love whipped cream!” She filled my order and placed the cup and the closed lid in front of me. She decided to put her own signature to her work by placing a small mountain of whipped cream complete with a chocolate syrup design on top of the cup’s lid. I yelled, ‘Holy cow. It’s a work of art!” Two Dunkin Donuts in two days by two teenagers who, incredibly, get it when it comes to dealing with customers. There may be no odds for this. Working the window or the counter is not easy stuff. It is perfectly fine to perform the task at hand and do no more. It isn’t expected. But when someone goes above and beyond in this kind of setting, you are witnessing leadership in action. It’s what is known in customer service circles as WOW moments.

I told this story to several people at the rink and I suspect they thought my drink was spiked. For a few short moments I forgot all about the troubled economy and other world maladies and relished poetry in motion by a couple of teenagers. I was happy. I was uplifted. In an uncertain age where folks are keeping their heads down as a form of survival, these two chose to use their positions as a medium for shouting out their zest for life. There was no supervisor peering over their shoulders making sure policy was being adhered to but I suspect these two stores had strong managers, i.e. leaders. They decided to make their work an opportunity to express themselves to customers in a positive light thus allowing their employer to be viewed in a very positive light as well…no additional charge. Companies would and should die for this kind of behavior. Someone once said, “Leadership is doing the right thing when no one else is watching.” They served as terrific role models to young and older employees alike.

One person can make a difference. In this case…two did. Savvy employees don’t do just enough to get by. They bring their A game each and every day. They don’t hunker down and hope to survive. They stand tall…and stand out. To hell with this down economy. It, too, shall pass. There is hope yet for the future. These two employees are helping to lead the way. I’m off to the rink and in search of another Dunkin service-leadership moment.

Bill Curran is a senior leadership consultant. He has served in a variety of leadership development roles at companies such as PerkinElmer, EG&G, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Sensata Technologies and Marshalls. He has extensive adjunct faculty experience in leadership and organizational behavior at Boston College, Stonehill, Babson, and UMass-Boston. He’s also an unpaid chauffer to many hockey rinks throughout New England! He can be reached at www.BillCurranAssociates.com or at billcur@comcast.net