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How many of your employees take it personally?

Jul 24, 2011 Management, Sunday Nation

Every once in a while, this column looks for ordinary people who exemplify the attitudes that Kenya needs. This week again, it has found one to name.

Clement Githinji is a restaurant manager who runs one of Nairobi’s finer eating establishments. My wife and I are often there, and recently had an interesting encounter.

After our meal, my wife asked for a cup of hot chocolate. This is perhaps not a frequent request at this place, but one was duly served. I looked at it and thought: Hmm…rather a dull and uninspiring offering from a restaurant that upholds such high standards. I called Clement over and told him so.

So far, this is a rather uninteresting story for a Sunday morning, I know. But bear with me – what’s interesting is what happened next.

In response to this rather minor complaint, Clement’s face fell, almost as though I had just slapped him. He stared at the cup of chocolate in mortification. When he finally found his voice, he apologized profusely. He left me feeling startled, almost wishing I had not brought up something so trivial. The hot chocolate was, after all, perfectly acceptable. It just had no ‘wow’ factor.

A few weeks later Mr and Mrs B returned to the restaurant, having forgotten the matter. At the end of our meal, Clement walked up and asked my wife if she would like a hot chocolate again. And then proceeded to serve up a beautiful beverage in a flamboyant cup, the froth whipped expertly into a signature flourish, with flakes of homemade chocolate as a garnish. A serving, in other words, that befitted the quality of the restaurant.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a ‘wow’ experience is all about.

It hinges on the smallest or largest of things, but it always requires a single driving force behind it: someone who gives a damn.

Clement certainly gives a damn, and he sets the standard and the tone for his restaurant. The reason this restaurant flourishes is that it is headed by someone who takes the issue of its standards very, very personally. When a complaint is made, no matter how trifling, this leader feels it very poignantly, and personally. And so makes amends, urgently and comprehensively.

That is what it’s all about. Excellence comes not just from great systems, processes, procedures – it comes from a few people who first set the standard and then turn excellence into a daily habit. And this is not about highly paid jobs in high-end organizations – it is needed at all levels.

It is people like Clement we need to look out for in our teams, those who quietly but doggedly keep the standard high – because it matters to them. They don’t need much training, brainwashing, conditioning – they come with the right set of attitudes in the first place.

These days, I pretty much only employ or deploy people with that same set of attitudes: a personal standard in work that’s high, simply because it is; a willingness to accept fault and take responsibility; and that elusive desire to correct something that’s wrong.

Look around you: at the highest levels in our organizations and institutions, those attitudes are patently lacking. The reverse is commonplace: people who laugh off complaints; who take evasive action and seek to divert blame; and who think the business of the organization is not their personal business.

In the public sector, that is why we have, in the 21st century, unstable power, an international airport that routinely goes missing in action, a demoralized police force, and no enforcement of traffic discipline. In the private sector, that’s why we have bored receptionists, blasé customer reps and relentlessly poor service.

In all those places, no one is taking it personally.

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