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Leading Strong

By Peter Lodemore

A strong leader is hard to find, so it seems. A recent global study found that over two thirds of organisations are NOT getting what they need from people in leadership roles (May 2017). Weak leaders come to work but don’t really show up, not when it comes to crucial aspects of leadership like addressing poor performance, people management, inspiring teams, and building culture.

Flaccid leadership – or lack of leadership accountability, as they call it in the study - is hitting the bottom line, with weak-leader firms proving less agile when it comes to leading change, exploiting new ideas – like disruptive technologies – or getting new ideas to market. And I can’t imagine these firms are much fun to work at; I bet they struggle to attract or retain top talent; and I cant believe their customers aren’t noticing all this.

So, dear reader, what’s to be done about it? How do we bring more juice to organisational leadership to solve what is arguably one of the biggest issues facing organisations today?

The first thing to do is accept that the squillions of dollars being thrown at leadership development worldwide each year is not producing strong leaders. IMHO, it’s often too academic and based on tedious quantitative research; too feature orientated (‘Latest Neuroscientific Thinking’…) rather than result-focussed; too utopian, spewing out idealised lists of strong leader behaviours; or too ‘candy-flossed’ and sanitised, papering-over the shadowy realities - the grunt and grind - of everyday leadership life.

So here’s my solution. Why not find real people, doing real leading – strong and successful leaders - and listen to what they talk about when they talk about their experience of leading? A qualitative, more personal, human approach. Leadership gold, straight from the horses mouth, so to speak.

Today, dear reader, I am proud to introduce to you a rare and intriguing beast; one at the pinnacle of the food chain in many ways; a hi-octane, heavy-lifter of a leader by any standard…

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Ginger Zerbetto is the talent behind some of the greatest fine-dining experiences on the planet - winners of awards like best restaurant in the world (Nobu London) and most fashionable restaurant in the world (Nobu Milan). He’s the guy who will lead the revolution to turn things around if your swanky eatery is losing it’s swank; or the one you give a blank canvas and your millions to conjure a new, fully functioning masterpiece of high-end dining.

Beyond Textbooks & Approval Addiction

The first time I met Ginger (And yes, Ginger is his real name) was on a flight from Amsterdam to London. It was a couple of years ago and I remember two things very clearly. The first is how much he relishes challenging popular notions about leadership, especially voguish notions around everyone being equal at work, e.g. ‘teams’, ‘empowerment’, and other democratising ideas that he has little time for. And he has a repertoire of hilarious sketches featuring over-enthusiastic, approval-seeking leaders, which is partly behind the second thing I remember - a kind of Mexican wave of disapproving faces that kept appearing over the seats ahead of us. But we were laughing a lot.

The ALL-IN Leader

As a leader, Ginger expects a lot of those around him probably because of how much he expects from himself. I get the impression he’s putting his neck and reputation on the line with every project he gets involved with. His only point of hesitation is in deciding on his next project. Once he decides he’s in with both feet, both arms and whole body. He’s whole-hearted in what he does, when he steps into the arena.

The job in Amsterdam he was flying back from, he’d devised the overall concept for the restaurant, created the menus, designed the interiors (décor, fixtures and fittings), and recruited and trained the staff. And he was taking it through to launch to iron-out any glitches before handing it on.

How much more ALL-IN could a leader be?

‘Well, I’ve just finished a course in architecture because I want to be more involved with creating the physical space where it all happens’, he says.

Leader as Visionary Director

Ginger uses the metaphor of leader as film director. Not the kind of director who would use a focus group. He’s more the French ‘Auteur’ tradition of directors: it’s his masterpiece, his interpretation of the story. There is no committee. A bit like Steve Jobs of Apple, who said he’d have never come up with an ipad if he’d asked customers what they wanted.

‘What’s the difference between a fool and a genius? Only the outcomes’, says Ginger.

Walk in to w36 – the restaurant Ginger was launching in Amsterdam, and you’d see his flair for driving a vision and risk-taking. Where else would you be confronted by a cleaver-wielding butcher centre stage in a spotlight? It’s so distinctive. Sushi meets Psycho.

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And it reveals another facet of this leader: his determination to subvert convention, toying with the traditional barriers people are familiar with, and maybe hide behind.

‘Leading is a human endeavor, a messy business like eating and sex.’

Ginger likes to provoke. But his lead statement today is more than a way of grabbing attention. Leading isn’t an intellectual pursuit. There’s a far more grounded, basic element to leading for Ginger. And, it’s not always neat and tidy (if you do it properly). With Ginger, you can forget the artificial barriers we erect at work that limit us, and protect who we are from what we do. Leading transcends these things; it’s not just about a ‘work you’. It’s about being ‘seen’; not hiding; about moving beyond politeness.

His statement represents a deconstructionist at play, and I hadn’t realised, not until today, how important his irreverence for traditional barriers informs how he creates restaurants, leads, and how he trains his staff to create and re-create world-class service experiences hundreds of times a day, every day.

Purpose Not Perception

‘Too many people are too concerned with what other people think of them. We all do it to some extent, but it is especially a problem for leaders. A lot of leaders are too worried about staff perceptions, wanting everyone to like them. The job of the leader is about purpose not perception – its about communicating why we are all here.’

You Can’t Always Make It Comfortable

‘People want to feel safe. They don’t want someone’s foot on their head, squashing them and making them feel uncomfortable. But I need to move at speed. I don’t always have time to explain why I need something done a certain way. Sometimes I want staff to work it out for them self, to learn my way of thinking. I expect people to perform for me, to prove themselves to me.’

Ginger has a clear line – a backstop position. It doesn’t define how he leads for most of the time, I think. But it’s there: clarity about who’s in charge. The steely fist in the velvet glove, and I can easily imagine putting in a great shift for this man, ensuring the gloves stay on.

We Are Not A Team, But All My Staff Play A Part In The Same Story

‘I used to think of my role as leader like an army general, but I didn’t like the idea that staff have no choices, like conscripts. It’s a dream killer. I want staff to feel they are all specially selected. And that they have a unique part to play in the story we are creating. And I want flexibility. It’s my job to make sure everyone understands what the story needs from a scene. I want people to manage this information. I’m not interested in people just learning their lines.’

A Meticulous Understanding of The Service Experience

Ginger puts a huge amount of time into training his staff, especially deconstructing the notion of a customer and service. It’s not about the service you want to give, it’s about the experience you want the customer to have. It goes beyond the place, the food and the drinks - the technical bit. It’s more about the human, emotional elements, the service experience, and he has an incredible forensic attention to detail.

For example, I’d never thought about training staff to smile less. It seems counter-intuitive.

‘When my waiter brings you your drinks, how can he or she know what’s going on at your table? They can’t know. You could be in the middle of discussing the most important business decision of your entire career. You could have met the love of your life and be about to ask them to marry you. Why would you want a stranger sticking his or her big smiling face right into the middle of that? It’s too intrusive.’

Ginger demonstrates this for me; coming at me with a big, toothy smile, pretend drink in each hand. A big smile is intrusive, and it would steal that scene.

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Instilling The Affective Context

Being the leader is not just about ensuring your staff have the right knowledge and skills. Ginger’s trainings are much more about commitment to what’s going on for the customer – the stars of the story - and understanding what’s at stake for them in a scene.

‘You have to understand what is going on for customers. How important this experience could be for them. How many hours they will have spent thinking about what to wear and how they look. If you spill some water on them, even a drop, it will probably really affect them. They might not say anything but it could make them feel very uncomfortable and distracted. It could affect their life.’

Understanding Identity And What Makes Us Tick

A lot of what I admire about Ginger is how he leads from the front. He has real backbone, and however else he goes about his role, he is not afraid to stand up and be counted. He is the kind of strong leader a lot of organisations are lacking.

And he’s a long way from the leader who talks about empowerment, leaves people to get on with things, and then produces a red pen at the back-end of a project to find fault and criticize, which ultimately stifles initiative and innovation. I really like the honesty in him ‘flying point’ on his projects and everyone knowing where they stand.

This guy has backbone and heart. Ginger is someone who has been on his own journey with identity. His understanding of human wants, frailties and vulnerabilities - how we tick – shines through in how he shows up, in what he does, and in how he leads and trains his people. He’s being the person other people will follow. He’s being the person people want to work with. And what I like most is he’s being the person he wants to spend a day with. I like spending a day with him too. He’s authentic and inspiring - a kind of permission slip to be yourself, to believe in yourself, to have the courage to be whole-hearted and all-in.

Interested in leadership and making life more of an adventure? Please sign up to my mailing list. I’ve more ‘In conversation’ blogs coming as well as a variety of other musings around life and leadership. ‘Leading Strong’ is my new bite-size, thought-provoking and inspiring lunchtime workshop, so please do contact me if you are interested in bringing these kinds of messages in-house to your own leaders.

Thanx for visiting.

Peter Lodemore