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Delis and Agencies: Lessons in Leadership

15 Sep

I wrote this post three years ago and am reposting due to the good nuggets in there. Made me a little bit sad to read as my first deli boss, Audrey Block, has since passed away.

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I started working when I was 14, at a Dairy Queen in Pickerington, Ohio. My commute involved a short but uphill bike ride to work, and a blissful downhill coast coming back home. Since then, I have worked at 14 places, including: six restaurants, one preschool, one au pair arrangement in France, two PR agencies, one university and one state agency.

Hands down, my favorite places to work have been those where true leadership reigned. The common theme was “here’s how we do it here,” but not in the McDonald’s way. The earliest examples were delis, all of which had standards for performance, built upon years of experience. And they were led by people with the ego strength of titans.

Audrey Block of Block’s Bagels is a good example. She never approved of my crazy mohawk or weird hair color, and made no bones about telling me so. She most liked the more carefully coiffed girls from Walnut Ridge High School who lived closer by. Probably because I was less presentable than these girls, Audrey had me come in to work at an ungodly hour, 6:30 a.m., to help the bakers take bread out of the ovens and pack it for delivery. Working with bakers is tough. They are an unforgiving lot, and I don’t think that they were very happy to be working with a little punk rock girl like me. I have never been quick in the morning, but this job made a keen set of reflexes absolutely necessary.

When you have hot loaves of bread being gunned your way by grumpy flour-covered men twenty years older than you, being light on your feet is a must. There are important people out there waiting for bread, and getting their order right is priority one. Being directly in the line of fire, I learned quickly. This was character-building at its best, both because of having to get up so early and because of not being cut any slack. Today, when I go into Block’s with my two kids, Audrey is always amazed that by all outward appearances I turned out normal, and she makes sure I know it. My kids have no idea what she is talking about and just think she’s a very opinionated grandmotherly figure.

Another common theme among my favorite leadership styles is this: We will teach you how to do it right, but if you want to put your own, individual stamp on the work–if it means adding quality that keeps people coming back–then be our guest. Even more: If you have a personality, please let it be known. It makes working here funner, and it makes our unique approach to service stand out in people’s minds. When waiting on people, throw some personality into it. For goodness’ sakes, don’t be shy. Feel free to give people a hard time if they can take it. They’ll remember you for engaging them in the sales process.

Katzinger‘s is probably the best case in point. This deli is anti-flair (ever seen Office Space?) but pro-individuality. Diane Warren ruled (and continues to rule) the roost. She’s small but mighty. All cheese had to be labeled with a hand-made sign, faced appropriately and wrapped so tightly that customers had a clear view of the goods. There is a special deli secret to doing this, so that you cannot even tell that the cheese has been wrapped.

And another thing…THE most important thing: TELL A STORY. This helps people to remember what you’re selling. Lack of interactivity in sales is a killer. If there’s not a story that goes along with that 15-year-old cheese, then why bother? The story should involve either a monk or a Red Riding Hood Grandmother-esque character involved in making the product. Preferably in an exotic or isolated location.

My deli learnings eventually led me into public affairs and public relations. I’ve found that, when done well, agency leadership models the discipline and passion that my deli leaders upheld. It makes a difference when a leader of any business–deli or agency–comes into the office every day, armed with the rigor and the vigor to make a difference. Sitting quietly in one’s office doesn’t get it. Mingling with the people in the business and constantly thinking about what’s next is what builds a business.

And another thing, which is the true measure of a leader: Let your people live up to their potential. My current leaders set the tone for how it’s done, and they expect everyone to go well beyond. There’s always a better way to do the work. It’s about discipline, getting there early and staying late on some days. But more than that, leadership in the client-focused world is about cultivating creativity, so that our clients’ success reflects back on us. All of us are leaders in one way or another, and the best organizations’ leaders know it. Good agency leaders are not offended when associates ask questions and try to improve business processes. Holding people accountable and expecting them to take on responsibility is the best compliment a leader can give.

In my last eight months at my current agency, I’ve seen this ethic hard at work. There’s always more to do, but the trick is in approaching best practices slightly differently each day. Quality is a given. What should be different is how we constantly improve how we do the work, so that we are always making it more of a challenge for ourselves. This is how we distance ourselves from the same old/same old…how we build business during challenging times.

Who knows, maybe I will start riding my bike to work, just like I did 27 years ago for my first job at the DQ. If it helps me to think differently in the process, then I’m one step ahead of the expected.