Leadership Lessons from Downton Abbey
Tuesday, January 07, 2014
Posted by: Dr. Alan Zimmerman
Dr. Zimmerman's TUESDAY TIP:
"Leadership entails a series of
behaviors ... and two of those behaviors are being able to articulate the
organizational vision and taking care of the employees."
Sherm Jaffee, Manager, Boeing
Dr. Alan Zimmerman's Personal
As the BBC television series opens its
fourth season, I hear lots of people tell me they are "addicted to"
or "hooked on" the series.
Well, I am too, but I don't like either one of those phraseologies. I prefer to say I'm a "huge fan" of
And I particularly like one character,
Mr. Carson, the head butler and the chief of staff, because he reminds me of
one of my favorite bosses when I worked in a mini-Downton Abbey decades
ago. As a teenager, I lived and worked
in England in an 18th century mansion named Underscar and reported to Mrs.
Jackson, who served in a role much like Mr. Carson. She was in charge of the kitchen staff, the
wait staff, the laundry workers, and the room attendants. And like Mr. Carson, she was a zealot for
standards and style.
Most importantly, her leadership
taught me leadership lessons that have continued to serve me throughout my life
and my career. I thought you might
benefit from the lessons she taught as well.
As a leader, teach your people how to do things and then expect them to
do it ... right.
Mrs. Jackson was not an advocate of
today's belief that says, "Do your thing ... Do whatever you like ... Just
do what comes naturally ... or ... It doesn't matter what you believe as long
as you're sincere." No, there was a
right and wrong way to do things, and she expected us to do things the right
way. She knew it didn't work to have a
hundred different definitions of "quality" being acted out by her
For example, I served meals in the
mansion's exquisite dining room. But
growing up in a blue-collar, Midwestern home, I had no idea how to set out 12
pieces of flatware for each guest, let alone six different glasses and an
assortment of plates. She taught me how
to do that. And she expected me to
adhere to those standards once she taught me how to do it.
According to Mrs. Jackson, there was a
vast difference between "giving someone a dining experience" and
people "going out to find something to eat." The first approach created a lasting and
positive memory, while the second approach did nothing more than satisfy a
biological need. Obviously, at
Underscar, the first approach was the right approach for our guests.
Are you teaching your people what they
need to know? And are you holding them
accountable for doing things right?
As a leader, teach your people that customer service should be more of
an "experience" than a "transaction."
Underscar was set in a spectacular
location, on the side of a mountain, looking down into the village and the
crystal-blue lake beyond. The setting
was so majestic that I could stand and look at the view and be transfixed for
hours at a time. But so could our
guests. Mrs. Jackson knew that.
So she made sure that we, the
servants, did not do anything that would distract from the WOW experience the
guests were having. She taught us how to
communicate with respect, no matter who the person or what the situation, using
such phrases as: "Sir ... Madam ...
I'd be happy to ... and ... It would be my pleasure." She taught us how to make a bed with sheets
so tight that they didn't loosen and they didn't wrinkle. And she taught us how to pick the correct
flowers to place in each room and where to set the flowers for the guests'
Mrs. Jackson knew that our basic job
description was to house and feed our guests.
But that was "transactional" in nature. And that wasn't good enough. We had to do more than merely do our
jobs. We had to create an emotional
experience FOR our guests and build a quality relationship WITH our guests so
they would continue to talk about us in the future. She knew that was the kind of customer
service that made for a successful enterprise.
Are you making sure that your
customers have a positive "experience" with each and every one of
your products, services, and service providers?
As a leader, teach your people that tasks trump titles.
In the Downton Abbey series, it's
obvious that titles mean a great deal.
In today's companies, job titles ... and where a person happens to be in
the organizational chart ... mean a great deal.
And that's okay for normal times.
But when the crunch times come, that
approach can become highly dysfunctional.
During the crunch times, we don't need a group of people saying,
"That's not my job." We need
people saying, "I'm here, ready to do whatever needs to be done." Mrs. Jackson taught me that as well.
For example, I'll never forget the
time the Lord and Lady of Underscar and their 40 guests all came down with the
flu. Mrs. Jackson brought the entire
staff together ... from the gardening staff to the kitchen staff and everybody
in between ... and indicated our new job was to nurse our guests back to
health. Whether it was brewing a special
cup of tea for our ailing guests, or bringing cold towels for their foreheads,
or delivering medications, that was our new priority.
Mrs. Jackson ignored the
"titles" of people or the "ranks" of people. She dismissed the silos. And she would not abide by her staff saying
such things as "That's not what I signed up for when I took this
job." Hogwash! Her approach was simple and
straightforward: If there was a job to
be done, do it. And she was right in there,
leading by example, doing the very same things we were doing in trying to help
Are you instilling an attitude of
"it's everybody's job" to get the important things done?
As a leader, take time to "be" with your staff.
Even though we worked from early
morning to late evening as servants in the mansion, there would be occasional
breaks in the mid-afternoon. Those were
the times Mrs. Jackson would sit down with a pot of tea and one or more of her
teammates. I'm sure she was as tired as
anybody else from the long hours, but she also knew this was the perfect time
to connect with her teammates.
Sometimes the conversation would be
simple chit chat. We would learn more about each other ... which was a way of
team building. Other times she would
hold an informal huddle, asking people what went right on their work shift,
what could have been done better, and what ideas might we have for improving
our performance. Again, more team
building and continuous quality improvement.
I suspect Mrs. Jackson never knew that
she was 50 years ahead of her time.
Because that's the very thing that the Ritz Carlton hotels do with every
employee in every department every day.
No wonder their service is so spectacular.
Are you taking time to "be"
with your staff?
As a leader, take time to help your staff, if they reach out to you.
When I finished my employment at
Underscar, I did not finish my relationship with Mrs. Jackson. I moved back to America as a young man but
never forgot her calmness, her wisdom, and her deep sense of caring for each
member of her staff. So I sent her
letters. Dozens and dozens of them
decade after decade.
I wrote about the good times and the
bad. I told Mrs. Jackson about my
successes ... because I knew she would be proud of me. I told her about the death of my mother, the
loss of my wife, the estrangement of my daughter, and the challenge of an
impossible job. And Mrs. Jackson always
wrote back, expressing her care for me, her belief in me, and a couple of ideas
for handling my situation.
Her influence on my life ... as one of
my favorite bosses ... influenced my life for the better. She taught me that when you are called to a
position of leadership, your leadership role doesn't always stop when the employment
relationship is over. You can continue
to influence people ... you can continue to lead by example ... and you can
continue to help bring out the best in others.
Are you doing that as a leader? I hope so.
I will miss Mrs. Jackson. She passed away this last week in her 80's
... but as influential as ever.
Select one of the five leadership
lessons to focus on this month. Give it
your very best every day for the entire month, and you will be very pleased
with the results you achieve in your job and with others.
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About the author:
@2013 Dr. Alan R. Zimmerman
As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan
Zimmerman is focused on "transforming the people side of business."
His keynotes and seminars are noted for high content, high energy, and high
involvement that transform people's lives and the companies where they work. To
learn more about his programs and products, or to receive a free subscription
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