Friday, June 01, 2007

Setting the Table - Danny Meyer

Subtitled The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. I first knew about Danny Meyer from Bo Burlingham's book Small Giants (reviewed here in March 2006.) He was profiled as one of those entrepreneurs who had made the decision to control the growth of his business in order to maintain the true integrity, culture and value of the company he started. Shortly after that, Meyer was profiled in FastCompany Magazine just as his book was hitting the shelves in 2006.

Unfortunately for me, I have never set foot in any of the ten restaurants that Meyer has established in New York City, but feel as if I know him and his restaurants intimately after reading this book. The book is just such an enjoyable read, truly one of the most interesting and engaging business books ever! I could happily read it all over again - it's just that good. It's part autobiography, part coming of age story, with a great deal of story telling and shared wisdom from his mentors thrown in for good measure. His writing style is so very warm and personal, that it's easy to see how he has created restaurants that have exactly that same feel. And of course, that's the whole point of the book. Businesses can use the basic principles of hospitality throughout their organizations, internally and externally, to create an environment where employees thrive and consumers want to maintain their relationship.

I've got post flags stuck all over this book! One of my favorite concepts, and one I will carry with me always, is what he calls "The 51 Percent Solution." It's basically the idea that you can teach someone almost any skill necessary to do their job, you can't teach them to care about doing their job well. You have to hire for that. So his equation is that you hire based on 49 percent skill set, and 51 percent emotional intelligence. He put it like this: "It's not hard to teach anyone the proper way to set a beautiful table. What is impossible to teach is how to care deeply about setting the table beautifully." Not a hard concept to grasp: you hire for character - which is the one thing you can't teach someone. But how many of us try to grasp character traits from a resume or an interview? Is it even possible to do that? I believe absolutely that he has got this right, but it is a way of looking at employee hiring and management that is outside the mainstream.

There are so many wonderful analogies he uses, and the stories he tells are so absorbing I sometimes felt like I was reading a novel. His chapter on leadership, entitled "Constant, Gentle Pressure" is just excellent. He tells how one of his unlikely mentors, Pat Cetta who was himself an veteran restaurateur in NYC, gave him the example of a salt shaker in the center of an otherwise empty table. He explained that every day his employees and guests were going to move that salt shaker off the center of the table, and it was up to him as the leader to keep moving it back to the center. His center. That it was his job to let his people know what excellence looks like to him and what the core value of the business is. And so through a system of what he has termed constant, gentle pressure, Meyer learned to maintain the high standards of his business by continually leading his managers and employees back to the core values of the company. I thought that was a brilliant explanation of a basic leadership fundamental.

The whole book is like that. I have quoted parts of it in two different newsletter editions I put out earlier this year. If you are looking for something to take to the beach that isn't total fluff but is still thoroughly enjoyable, this book would be the one. I could happily start reading it all over again.

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