by Bill, Leadership, Management

A Manager’s Second Greatest Contribution

1 Comment 17 March 2011

I’ve long maintained (no original thought here) that the most important thing a manager, any manager does is make decisions about who does and does not wind up on the payroll. That is especially the case in an environment where there simply are no spare parts, ‘er humans, and each person’s contributions or lack thereof are vital.

The next most important managerial contribution is getting the “system” off peoples’ backs so they can actually do the jobs they were hired to do to the very best of their ability. What do you mean by “system” some would ask? I’m talking about rules, procedures, methods, customs, policies and the like. Things that were probably once appropriate and well intended, but make absolutely no sense in that moment today when the rubber hits the road. I’m not railing at all procedures and policies mind you, just the clunkers, of which there are plenty.

I saw a perfect example yesterday in the Atlanta airport. Hustling through Concourse B, I decided to grab a sandwich before my flight, so I stopped at the Muffulettas’ vending station. Two staff members were there busily counting merchandise and cash. I stood for a moment, then interrupted the lady counting the food items and asked if I might purchase a sandwich. Before I even finished asking, and with her back still turned, she replied, “We’re on shift change. You’ll have to wait about ten minutes.” “But I just want to buy a sandwich” I countered, to which she replied, “I can’t sell you anything for about ten minutes. We’re on shift change.” Thud.

Flummoxed, I stood there for a couple of minutes with a $10 bill still in hand. In that time span, four more hungry travelers approached and got the exact same treatment. Two of them uttered some not so nice words at the women before walking off. As I, too ventured off for a sandwich place that might be more open for business, I thought, “what a crappy way to make a living.”

These two women get ten minutes at the beginning and end of each and every work shift ruined by a process that unintentionally but decidedly turns them into idiots in the eyes of customers. They didn’t invent the shift change process, but they have to live with it, and judging from personal experience, it improves neither worker performance nor earnings.

These are the kinds of things that, just like a pinch of sand in the shoe, wear people down, make them crazy, and cause them to unplug, whether they actually leave the job or not.  We’ve all got them in our workspace, and it is up to those of us who are in leadership roles, regardless of the number of stripes on our sleeve, to relentlessly find them, root them out, and make it a tiny bit more possible for our people to do their very best work.

And speaking of best work, I did see some of that yesterday, too. Shortly after arrival at Kimpton’s Ink48 Hotel in New York (and still hungry), I called room service and ordered some food, which was soon delivered by a server who is a recent immigrant from Tibet. In halting but perfectly serviceable English, he politely introduced himself, inquired about my stay, told me that he was proud to work for Kimpton, and explained that he looked forward to being of service both today and in the future.

When replying to his question about where I’m from, I told him that I’m from Tennessee, which drew something of a deer in the headlights look. After a little further explanation to no avail, I quickly popped up Google Maps on my open laptop and showed him, mentioning that the state was home to Elvis, and a couple more localisms. End of story, or so I thought.

A couple of hours later, after calling to secure permission, another room service server delivered a gracious, handwritten hospitality note from my new Tibetan friend, along with a bucket of ice and two miniature bottles of guess what? The world’s best sipping whiskey, which just happens to be made in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

From a socio-economic standpoint, this fellow’s job is very much on par with the two ladies I ran into earlier in the day in Atlanta. He delivers food to guest’s rooms, and they sell it out of a refrigerator in the airport. But that’s where the similarity ends.

They get worn down each day by at least one dumb process designed or approved by someone who I suspect hasn’t spent one hour watching what kind of aggravation it brings to others. The Kimpton guy, working for a management team that has obviously told him to do what it takes to be nice to guests, is free to do his very best work, and it shows.

Evidence abounds that workers who believe that they have an honest shot at doing their best work deliberately turn up the boost on their discretionary effort, because performing at that level is exhilirating. Those who don’t, mail it in. So the choice is there for each of us to make. Do we want to invest a little time every day making the path a bit clearer for our folks, or do we want potential customers putting their hard earned money back in their pockets and walking next door?


A thought leader in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at



- who has written 228 posts on Contented Cows.

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1 comment

  1. Bill:

    This is a great article. I plan to share this with my team. I want my team to root out little rules and eliminate them in our work culture.

    I especially want to compliment you on your acknowledgement of the exemplary service. Too many times it seems that people are eager to point out the negatives and not promote the positives. While internalizing your story, I reflected on a policy that was recently eliminated in my company. We have a signature, vintage, red, 1955 Chevy pick up truck that we use to promote our property management company at community events and parades, etc. We used to give new residents a bottle of Red Truck wine as a Welcome Home gift when we took over management of a new property but we had to stop because we were accused of promoting drinking to some residents who were recovering alcoholics. It’s very hard not to let the few sour grapes spoil things for everyone else. Unfortunately we had to stop our practice because we didn’t want the liability, but we do need to try to think of a new practice that could replace the old one.


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Considered thought leaders in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden speak to, train, and coach managers on leadership practices for better business outcomes.

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