This article was written by Chuck Swoboda from Forbes –
Recently, NPR’s Guy Raz sat down with famed New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack, for Raz’s podcast “How I Built This.” While Meyer has been a leader in New York City’s fine dining scene for some 35 years, the focus of the interview was Meyer’s Shake Shack, a fast casual restaurant chain known for its burgers, namesake milkshakes, and lines out the door. Meyer grew Shake Shack from a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park—part of a 2001 community art project to support the park—to, today, a publicly-traded company with over 250 locations in 15 countries.
In the hour-long interview, I was struck by a story that Meyer shared about his now-late grandfather, which, while timeless, seems especially relevant today as business leaders everywhere confront the COVID-19 and economic crises. He told Meyer to “stop complaining about problems,” as problems are “the definition of business.”
“The people who do the best in business are not the ones with the least problems,” Meyer’s grandfather said to him. “They are the people who solve their problems better and have more fun doing it with better people.”
Such a perspective can, and should, be enormously empowering. Too bad, then, that many business leaders struggle to embrace it. As a result, in continually complaining about problems or, often, even avoiding them altogether, they squander precious opportunities to lead, innovate, and grow their business.
Sound familiar? Here are three ways to benefit from the simple yet sage advice given to Meyer by his grandfather.
1. Don’t “scratch the itch.”
To complain, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to express grief, pain, or discontent,” i.e., “complaining about the weather.”
As a leader, complaining can actually be helpful. You’re giving voice to something that’s going wrong, and to be sure, you can’t correct anything if you don’t acknowledge it exists in the first place. But when taken too far—by going beyond just identifying a problem—complaining creates a disempowering negativity that greatly hinders progress.
When it comes right down to it, in business, complaining is hardly ever a constructive, solution-driven activity. Instead, it tends to be a purely emotional response that, rooted in frustration, implies a lack of power or capacity to make things right. And while complaining can scratch the itch, so to speak, it won’t get you far, if anywhere, in the long run. To boot, it drags your team down, rendering them less creative, engaged and productive.
So, simply put, stop complaining. After all, as Meyer emphasizes to Raz, “without problems, you wouldn’t have a business.”
2. Reduce the friction.
To stop complaining is important, but it isn’t nearly enough. You also need to focus on solving the problem at hand.
Fundamentally, business success is about creating something that your customers value and then executing it better than your competitors. Last year, I had an interesting conversation with Darren Jackson for my podcast, “Innovators on Tap.” Jackson has served as CFO of Nordstrom, CFO and COO of Best Buy, and chairman and CEO of Advance Auto Parts. When I asked him what makes certain businesses successful, he talked about the importance of providing “a frictionless customer experience.”
One way to look at problems is that they are like friction. In your customer’s life, every problem is added resistance. As a business leader, reduce those frictions, and you’ve added value in the market.
By framing problems this way, it’s easier to bypass the distraction of what’s going wrong. Then you can focus all your energy around finding and developing a solution. It’s akin to that old adage: “The past is in your head. The future is in your hands.”
3. Build a team of problem solvers.
In addition to not complaining about problems, and instead focusing that same energy on solving them, it’s important to build a team of problem solvers. And the fact is that, while some people just enjoy calling out or complaining about problems, others are highly motivated to solve them. Their mindset is to actually seek out challenges and then embrace the fun of overcoming them.
But the question is, how do you find these people? They may not be able to tell you, but given the opportunity, they can certainly show you. One way to do this is to give a prospective team member a problem and then see how they react. The nature of the problem doesn’t matter; in fact, neither does coming up with the right answer. Instead, what you’re looking for is how they respond to the challenge. Are they smiling and rubbing their hands together, excited to get started? Or already grimacing with doubt and frustration?
In a Wired excerpt from the Daniel Levitin book “The Organized Mind,” there is a discussion article about “Fermi problems,” named after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who was famous for being able to make estimates with little to no actual data, for questions that seemed impossible to answer.
Consider, for example, this Fermi question: “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” As the excerpt says, “There is an infinity of ways one might solve the problem, but the final number is not the point—the thought process, the set of assumptions and deliberations, is the answer.” (The excerpt, however, goes into a litany of fascinating assumptions and estimates. If you’re interested, you can find them here.)
As Meyer’s grandfather wisely said, problems are “the definition of business.” So stop complaining about yours—and start having fun solving them.
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