TO GET THERE, YOU HAVE TO DRIVE THROUGH BOURBON AND CUBA
Sadly, on the way, you do not get to also drive through nearby Festus or Huzzah.
This place is about 120 miles into the southwest of nowhere.
It's called Licking.
It's in the Ozarks.
Cue the banjo music, right?
Not yet, my friend.
I'm on my way to see a client.
WHAT KIND OF CLIENT IS OUT HERE IN THE OZARKS?
A client who lives in Miami, actually.
It's a construction materials company.
Two brothers have developed a revolutionary cold asphalt product. They license it for production across the US, and in 20 countries around the world.
These are great guys to work for.
But the question remains: why have I driven out here into the Middle-Of-Nowhere, Missouri, down the road from an Amish farm, to a place originally called "Buffalo Lick," whose high-school basketball team is nationally renowned, and is the place where the Japanese-born Mrs. Livingston from The Courtship Of Eddie's Fatherspent her final days?
HELLO, CORPORATE RETREAT!
Yes, it's a corporate retreat in the Ozarks just three weeks away from Christmas.
And yes, other business owners have called these guys crazy. So be it.
As I drive up to their farmhouse getaway, the brothers are working in the enormous outdoor kitchen they've built on the back patio. One of them is roasting walnuts in a wood-fired oven.
It's great to see these gentlemen. It's been too long. As always, they are welcoming with big hugs and big grins. They thank me for coming, especially because they gave me late notice. I tell them it's no problem, happy to do it. Because (as the faithful reader to the screed knows), we at Slow Burn Marketing have a policy.
THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF CLIENT WITH WHOM WE DO BUSINESS
And that client is the one with whom we'd look forward to having dinner.
So when when the walnut-roasting international entrepreneur before me thanks me for coming, I mention the dinner qualifier.
He looks at me and says, "You stole that from us!"
"Our litmus test for whether we'll do business with someone is are we willing to break bread with them, and will they pick us up at the airport?"
And here we at Slow Burn thought we were being so smart.
SEEMS WE'RE NOT ALONE IN BELIEVING LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR ANYTHING LESS
These brothers do business in locations as far flung as Napa Valley and the Australian outback, the Yukon and the Caribbean.
Their product saves customers huge money on infrastructure repair. (This product can save as much as 50% over the traditional asphalt repair process.)
And their baseline for doing business with someone regards an agreeable dinner and airport livery.
They visit licensees around the world who will essentially drop everything for several days and rearrange their schedules to make an hours-long airport run and spend that time with these guys.
SOMETHING INTERESTING IS HAPPENING HERE
I've known these brothers for years, and they've always been a pleasure.
I've also always ascribed their convivial good nature to being raised in close proximity to their Swedish heritage. If you've spent any time with Swedes, you know they tend to be a gregarious people with a willingness to laugh and have a good time.
But in a fast-moving international business climate, who expects to see this kind of demeanor in business relationships?
As your relentless screed is pondering this, the walnut roaster tells me something else really interesting.
He says he was recently having a conversation with one of the dinner-companion/airport-driver clients, who asked him, "How many people do you have on staff, anyway? One hundred? Two hundred?"
A REASONABLE QUESTION
After all, with dozens of licensee producers across the US, and many more in 20 countries spanning the globe, it's a noted brand with a substantial operation.
But not all is as it seems.
The brothers accomplish all this with a staff of 13 employees.
It's a jaw-dropping answer to a question from someone whose employee headcount probably numbers in the thousands.
This globe-spanning operation is run by a baker's dozen.
HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
That's a good question.
A lot of it boils down to efficiencies. They run a lean operation that has zero fat.
It also has a lot to do with management's attitude.
Yes, they embrace the new technologies that make streamlining possible.
More importantly, the brothers have eschewed the traditional top-down, authoritarian management culture that has been the norm of modern business-school thinking.
They let their people make stuff happen.
During this retreat, there was a morning meeting with all of the employees. There was considerable discussion about company culture. And three words were used prominently: "character," "excellence" and "respect."
As one of the owners said in a round-table discussion, "We couldn't to what we do in 20 countries with only 13 people without character, excellence and respect."
And something else...
"EMPLOYEES ARE NOT YOUR GREATEST ASSET"
Yes, he also said that.
And he followed it with, "Excellent employees are your greatest asset."
Not mentioned during the conversation that morning was this following quote:
The highest type of ruler is one of whose
existence the people are barely aware...
The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things
have been completed, all the people say,
'We ourselves have achieved it!
ANY CHANCE YOU RECOGNIZE THAT?
It's from a fundamental philosophical text that dates to the 4th century BC.
It's not dissimilar to a passage a faithful reader to the screed might recognize:
...whoever wants to become great
among you must be your servant,
and whoever wants to be first must
be servant of all.
And for a contrary quote you're utterly unlikely to recognize:
The laws are applied by officials each
of whom is servant to the men over
whom he has directing control. In vain
does president or vice-president, manager
or superintendent, issue orders and
delegate power under current organization.
THE FIRST QUOTE IS LAO TZU WRITING IN THE TAO TE CHING
The ancient philosopher is a legendary figure in Chinese culture. His work is embraced by a range of thinkers, from legalists to anti-authoritarians. (How's that for irony? One: "We're for bureaucracy!" Other: "We're for anarchy!" Both: "Yay, Lao Tzu!")
The second quote is from the Gospel of Mark, a book whose hero is a man of action, a healer and a worker of miracles.
The third quote is from Harrington Emerson, an engineer and efficiency expert, writing in his 1911 book, The Twelve Principles Of Efficiency. Emerson had issues with "the industrial problem" of authoritarian management.
In their own way, each of these three thoughts represents a philosophy that has influenced a management style that has become known as "servant leadership."
SERVANT-LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY DATES BACK OVER 6,000 YEARS
However, the term "servant leadership" never came into use until the phrase was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf.
Mr. Greenleaf was a management consultant who "felt a growing suspicion that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in U.S. institutions was not working." (Thank you for the quote, Conveyor Of All Veracity, Wikipedia.)
It's nice to know that this suspicion isn't limited to a somewhat obscure, mid-20th century thinker.
In an article at ManagementParadise.com, "Guru" Netra Shetty discusses the management philosophy at that weird little company called IBM, which touts "collaborative influence":
In a highly complex world, where multiple
groups might need to unite to solve a
client's problems, old-style siloed thinking
just won't cut it, and command-and-control
leadership doesn't work. "It's really about
winning hearts and minds..."
HALLELUJAH AND A POX UPON THE SILOS!
Winning hearts and minds, indeed.
And it's not just about winning the hearts and minds of customers.
It's also about winning the hearts and minds of the people inside the business who must meet the customer challenges, reach out to the customer with solutions and, in the process, extend those winning efforts accordingly.
What this little international company of 13 employees is doing in management is, at its core, not much different than the management essentials practiced by one of the biggest, most successful corporations in the history of world business.
AND LET'S NOT FORGET: CHARACTER, EXCELLENCE AND RESPECT
For some businesses, that whole character, excellence and respect thing can disappear in the daily grind of actually doing business.
Not for these brothers and their 13 globe-spanning employees.
One of the reasons we love this powerful little company is that they are a truly authentic brand.
And one of the key reasons they are authentic is because they recognize that their brand is about people.
Their brand is about how the core customer feels about the business.
And how the core customer feels about the business is a direct result of how the employees feel about the management.
And all of that is potent, indeed.
Here's to dinner, airport pickups, and your brand.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
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Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.