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Being held to high standards early in life pays off

Oct 15, 2023 Leadership, Success

I recently commended a food & beverage manager at one of our leading coastal hotels on the efficiency with which her staff were handling a packed-out dinner service, and the attention to detail they were demonstrating.

Rather than bask in the praise, she immediately told me that she had an early mentor to thank for this. When she was a young trainee in a different hotel group, the general manager there drilled certain routines and standards into every staff member. Smile and greet guests, ideally by name. Lay the cutlery out in exactly the same way every time, with precision. Keep looking around to see which diner needs your attention. Dress immaculately—no slippage in cleanliness and smartness is permitted.

The drilling she received, the manager told me, put her in good standing throughout her career. She is now in the leadership team of one of our most prestigious boutique hotels. Without that rigorous on-the-job training, her standards might not have been that high.

That got me thinking about how we learn to excel. As youngsters, we are far from fully formed. We have not yet had the life and work experiences that will define and shape us. Those typically come in our twenties, when we are exposed to supervisors and managers and leaders for the first time. Those early interactions can be extremely important.

I myself am very grateful for some of the hard-ass managers I encountered early in my career. It is a piece of great fortune to have been exposed to those standard-bearers and nit-pickers. It was not fun at the time, let me admit; many of those managers were terse and brusque, and despotic in their approach. They would brook no relaxation of the standard. There were many moments of despair at being pulled up yet again, at being told something I had done was not good enough, at a piece of writing I had submitted being thrown back after receiving the brutal red-pen treatment.

But life, as Kierkegaard told us, can only be understood backwards. I was exposed to the highest standards by a procession of tough managers during the formative years of my career. My feet were held to the coals many a time. It was painful, but I know now that it was also fruitful.

Most careers benefit hugely from early rigour—but we have to be tough enough to embrace it. Many lines of work require adherence to rules, standards, and codes. A writer cannot play fast and loose with spelling and grammar. A coder can’t be slapdash and careless and expect to get away with it. A doctor cannot rely on guesswork and whimsy. A lawyer must know the letter of the law, and how to interpret it. An editor must be painstakingly watchful of the material that is being published. A carpenter must be extremely mindful of angles and measurement. Anyone delivering customer service cannot be attentive momentarily—it’s an all-or-nothing requirement.

In these occupations and professions—and indeed in most forms of endeavour—a slapdash or lackadaisical approach does not cut it. Those who try to get away with shoddy or perfunctory work soon get found out. It is the same when you are running your own business or freelancing. For how long can you get away with low standards? After a sequence of failed orders or rejected submissions, you will be sitting in the debris of your collapsed venture.

And so, we must be ready to accept and embrace tough lessons in our careers. They strengthen us and make us more adept and skilled. Of course, imparting essential skills to young people can also become a form of bullying. Back then, too many managers were gleefully harsh, as their managers had been with them. Holding youngsters to high standards was sometimes done with an ugly acerbity, an unforgiving severity. That need not be the case.

The best teachers and mentors hold you to a high standard, but they do it with compassion and empathy. The real difference comes from the purpose of the training and drilling—is it for the trainer’s advancement, or the trainee’s? Those who do it for themselves have no interest in the person, just the process. It is their own accolades and rewards they chase.

Those with a bigger deal in life are very interested in the uplift of others. They don’t want precision and perfection for their own sakes—but for humanity. They want their lives to reflect an advancement, a modicum of progress in the way things are done. They work through others to attain a higher standard for all.

Back at the hotel I referred to at the beginning of this column, I saw an interesting occurrence. I was running a client seminar, and had an impromptu request: for breakout groups to be set up outside in the gardens. I observed some employees who were bringing the chairs and tables gazing at the grass. It was slightly long—but not noticeably so. Nonetheless one of them ran off and came back with a mower, and cut it in a precise pattern. 

No manager was needed; the junior employees felt the need themselves, and just did it. Aha, I thought. Someone’s wise drilling has done its job.

(Sunday Nation, 15 October 2023)

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