Learning to love seminars

    A couple of months age, Ralph, my General Manager, announced that he had enrolled himself and five of our store managers in a one-day management seminar titled "In Search of Excellence."
   "How about a company scavenger hunt instead?" I asked. "That’s more our style, and I’m sure it would be far less expensive."
   "The seminar is costing only about $400 total," responded Ralph. "And it will be well worth it if we manage to find some excellence."
   I had gone to similar management seminars in years past and had found them rather dull and simplistic. But I was jaded. Ralph looked eager, and he claimed the store managers were thrilled that we would actually attempt to educate them, so I reluctantly gave the foray my blessing.
   The day after the seminar I arrived at the office and immediately felt the energy. Not mine, which was stuck in its usual idle – I sensed the increase energy of Ralph and the other managers.
  "How was the seminar?" I asked. "Did you track down that elusive excellence?" Ralph looked me straight in the eye, which he seldom did before, and then shook my hand, which he never did before. "It was…excellent. Thank you for paying for it."
   "What did you learn?" I cringed, knowing what was coming.
   "We learned what a pathetic job we do around here managing people, providing customer service, and staying in touch with what’s going on."
   I was afraid of that. Ralph and his managers had gone in search of excellence and had only found our failings.
   "Let me guess," I said, my jadedness bubbling to the top. "As an example of retail excellence, they cited Nordstrom department stores."
   "As a matter of fact, they did," replied Ralph. "Did you know the Nordstrom employee operating manual is one sentence long? It reads: ‘Use your own best judgment.’"
   "Ralph, we are not Nordstrom. If we reduced our seven-page Standard Operating Procedure to ‘use your own best judgment,’ I’m afraid we’d be out of business in a week."
   "Besides," I added, "Nordstrom profits were down 48 percent last quarter. What do they know?"
   Ralph wasn’t dismayed. "I wish you had come with us to the seminar. It was very inspiring."
   I shrugged, happy with my failings, content not to emulate Nordstrom. A tuxedoed piano player in the middle of one of our stores would probably be splattered with tomatoes within minutes. Our business would never be like Nordstrom’s. We were in search of a different kind of excellence – our kind.
   I explained all this to Ralph, who listened patiently. It only took me three or four days after our conversation to realize I was wrong.
   It wasn’t Ralph who convinced me; it was the other managers who attended the seminar. One by one they came to me with thoughts, ideas and observations they had gleaned from their search for excellence.
   And their enthusiasm didn’t immediately dim, as I had predicted. A week later some of the managers were still sending me well-thought-out memos with stimulating ideas.
   All were discussed, and most were discarded. But a few stuck, including the importance of every level of management, including me, having customer interaction. And for the first time in many years, the seminar prompted all of us to look at the way we handle customer service.
   As it turned out, it was well worth the $400 to search for excellence. The seminar didn’t provide any answers, but it obviously did an outstanding job making the participants ask the right questions.
   It certainly got me thinking and I didn’t even attend.
   What I realized is that my attitude needed some adjusting. It’s so simple and easy to become jaded, to think there is nothing new to learn when it comes to the basics of management. There’s nothing wrong with doing things your way as long as you’re aware of and have considered other ways to do it.
   That’s why I’m sending Ralph and all managers and supervisors to another one-day management seminar six months from now. And assuming they learn something, which they will, they’ll do it again and again.
   But there will be one difference. Next time, I’m going with them.



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