The Rabbit Conundrum

More than 20 years ago, I cared for a baby bird who fell from a nest at the Saturn dealership. I named it Fred, (pronounced “Fwed”), and cared for it from helpless infant to independent adult. Once it became clear that the bird was ready for freedom, I released it at my Dad’s house, harboring the fantasy that I could visit anytime in the future, gently call out “Where Fwed?” like I had done constantly for weeks, and it would land on my shoulder in the same way it had in my house. I pictured being involved with Fred for the rest of his life, making sure he always had food, and demonstrating a bond that defied nature.

Full Story of Fred the rescued bird

As you can imagine, my hopes were dashed on release day, when Dad and I opened Fred’s cage and it flew away, never to be seen again. Despite many calls of “Where Fwed?” into the void of Dad’s lovely garden, my shoulder remained as empty as my broken heart. I knew I did right by Fred but also missed him greatly. I still think about Fred anytime I see a small brown wren sitting on a branch, wondering whatever became of the bird that consumed my life during those weeks in the late 90s.

Because of my experience with Fred, I knew not to expect a lifelong bond when I assumed responsibility for an injured rabbit at our dealership last week. I accepted that I would become enamored of the bunny, who would likely only tolerate me during our short time together. I pushed the thought out of my mind and focused on the present, promising to do right by the animal and not be selfish, understanding that I would want to keep it and that it would want to be free.

Kevin had texted me a picture of the rabbit they captured in the shop, and I went right up to them and bossily snatched the box from the hands of the technician who caught it, assuming that I would be the person to care for the frightened critter, despite the fact that there are over 100 other employees in the dealership who could have easily done just as well.

Perhaps my bossiness could be overlooked, given the circumstances. In addition to my Fred experience long ago, I had been seriously embracing my inner Dr. Doolittle lately. In the past month alone, I had cared for an injured bird and rescued kitten, both discovered at the dealership in similarly dire circumstances. This young rabbit, the latest addition to the Lexus animal menagerie, made a magical appearance by bounding out from the engine compartment of a customer’s car and onto the back of a surprised technician.

I knew right away that the small brown bunny was injured: I could see a large gaping red patch of flesh between the shoulder blades. I suspected that something in the engine scraped the rabbit’s back, which was completely devoid of any skin in that spot. My immediate commitment to the animal was to care for the injury and provide safekeeping for now; there would be plenty of time later for decisions regarding final outcomes.

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After many attempts to find the right veterinary partner for my patient, it was determined that surgery was in order, followed by a week of recovery, including the dispensing of meds. Dr. Boucher was the perfect professional to advise me. Rabbits are high stress animals, she explained, and wild rabbits cannot be domesticated. Too much stress can easily give a rabbit a heart attack, so calm nurturing followed by a release to nature was the ideal path. She had a financial estimate prepared for me, and I had a budget in mind which would determine the rabbit’s fate. If the quote for surgery exceeded my funds, some painful decisions would have to be made.

Fortunately, her quote came in slightly under my pocketbook threshold, so we proceeded with the surgery. I left the unnamed orphan in her care, whom they labeled as “stray rabbit Maskey”, and went to the pet store to purchase supplies. At this point the budget pretty much went out the window. I purchased the vet-recommended Timothy hay and rabbit pellets, as well as the largest rabbit cage I could manage (some assembly required). By the time the rabbit came to my home, it had a large condo filled with food, water, treats, bedding and a cubby area to hide during stressful moments.

“Stray rabbit Maskey” was the name I gave to the pharmacy tech when I went to pick up her meds. Upon realizing my quest, the tech graciously discounted the final expenses for blown-open budget. I offered to name the rabbit after her in appreciation. She giggled, and said, my name is Amanda. From that moment on, so was the rabbit’s.

My week with Amanda was delightful for me and, I imagine, torture for her. I got to care for an adorable creature, she was forced to endure gentle pets on the head in exchange for free food and pain medicine spurted gracelessly into her mouth. Kevin hooked me up with a camera so that I could watch her every move, and “Rabbit cam” was born. Cute video updates to Facebook and Instagram kept Amanda’s fans informed on her progress. In the span of one quick week, we all watched her chew, groom, stretch, and rearrange her condo. In addition to the clips already posted on my Facebook and Instagram pages, I offer this snippet captured by #rabbitcam. I call it “I Meant That”, showing her falling off her ledge but acting all cool about it.

One moment which was not caught on camera throughout this ordeal was an episode entitled “The Great Escape”. I must have let my guard down one morning, or perhaps Amanda found a momentary surge of bravery. During my usual food refilling and cage cleaning, she bound out the condo door with the same zeal she used to escape the engine compartment. In that moment, she turned into a pinball. She was zinging from wall to ceiling to wall to window with a velocity that belied the calm days she had just spent lollygagging in the condo. I was acutely aware in this moment that I could name the animal and spend all the money and time I didn’t have to give, but nothing would change the fact that THIS RABBIT IS WILD.

I was able to catch Amanda and place her back in the condo, but I knew that the time had come for the sutures to be removed and the rabbit to be released. I carried the entire condo to Dr. Boucher’s office (thankfully it was on wheels), and Doc proclaimed Amanda healed and ready for new life. I returned home, forlorn. Despite my mental preparations warning myself otherwise, I was fully in love with this adorable critter. I used the rainstorms as an excuse and postponed the release for another day, not wanting the trauma of bad weather to make it harder for both of us.

This Sunday morning at 645am, I knew the time had come. It was quiet and I was ready. I wheeled the condo to the screened in porch, placed the rabbit cam strategically, and opened the porch door. Amanda was hiding in her cubby as I quietly opened her condo door and let it rest in the position that creates a down-ramp for easy exit. I silently let myself back in the house, not wanting my presence to add to her stress. I watched from inside the house, knowing that I was in for a wait.

At 6:55am she poked her head out of the cubby hole and froze. She sat motionless, looking out into the expanse of her potential freedom, but doing nothing. I watched her, imagining the decision-making or courage-summoning going on in her mind. A constant source of food, medical care, love and safety surrounded her. A world of birds, fresh air, grass, other rabbits, spacious land, unpredictable weather and predators offered an alternative future. It’s not unlike the conundrum we all face, essentially. There are the safe restraints of the familiar versus the dangers of unknown adventures. For Fred, it was no decision at all. He was born to fly, and he flew right away. Rabbits, however, are high-stress creatures. Amanda was immobile in her moment of trepidation, and I was watching in sadness from the other side of a pane-glass window.

 

At 8:01 she tentatively crossed the threshold, stepped down the ramp and ran into the porch area. After brief exploration of the porch, she bounded out the open door and into the yard. At 8:03 she was gone from our sight, and despite the condo which remains in place in case she wishes to return, the Rabbit cam is quiet. All that is left is me knowing I will be looking for her in every bunny in our rabbit-centric neighborhood, every small movement in our backyard. I will be asking “Where Amanda?”, knowing there will be no reply, and hoping, as always, that I did right for the animal I was trying to help.

Lessons in Leadership

My first team leader job was a Clinique Counter Manager position in my early 20’s; I was responsible for 1 full-time and 2 part-time beauty consultants. Back then, I could not have imagined that my entire career would revolve around various management responsibilities, or that learning about leadership would be a lifelong pursuit. My passion for servant leadership started a few years after the Counter Manager gig, when I accepted a position as Sales Manager for the Cosmetics department at a Rich’s store in a South Atlanta shopping center called Shannon Mall. It was the time I spent at Rich’s Shannon with 15 female sales professionals that ultimately became my foundation for  how to build a dynamic team and how to be a supportive boss.

Shannon Mall, sadly, no longer exists. It closed in 2010 after 30 years of business, and online pictures of the declining retail facility do not help me recall my years working there. The memories I cherish come from a folder I have kept since the 90’s, with photographs of my team, documenting a time when we created an encouraging work family. These are the women I grew to love, and for whom I would do anything to create a pleasant work atmosphere.

When the Store Manager of Rich’s at Shannon Mall offered me the opportunity to run my own department, I was initially uncertain. In an effort to help me decide, I visited the store and skulked about the cosmetics area to get a sense of it. I watched the women working there, who seemed to have a sense of dedication and camaraderie, and I could easily imagine myself in their midst. I accepted the position and the transformation began immediately. From the impressive individuals within that small space, I learned how to be a team leader. They taught me about building a culture, resolving conflict and communicating in a positive way.

 

There is a popular leadership quote: “people want to know how much you care before they care how much you know”. I approached the job with this in mind, in a position of humility, knowing that I was young and inexperienced and that they knew the business top to bottom. Once the team had a sense that I was more interested in offering support than disruption, they began to trust me and provided me with the tools I needed to succeed as their leader. The key, as is so often the case, is to listen for the answers, instead of forcing one’s own answers onto others.

I constantly asked questions and accepted guidance. I rolled up my sleeves to work with them. I was open to new ideas. I was not afraid to put in long hours. In exchange for this, the team rewarded me with not only their knowledge, but their kindness and their trust. They made grand gestures for my birthday (see photo of a money tree above) and they were committed to the success of our business. We worked hard and played hard and cared about one another. There were struggles and fights, much like any family, but at the end of the day, there was respect.

When I think of the kind of boss I am today, I know that I have these women to thank. I am not afraid to have the tough conversations with people, but I know that you have to do it with calmness and consideration. I am known to launch innovative projects, but I value process and protocol. I accept that there is a fine line between supervisor and friend, but realize that you can truly love the team members you serve and fight tooth and nail to make sure they are happy. All of this I learned from these 15 women, and my subsequent team members through the years can give them the credit (or the blame) for the type of boss I eventually blossomed into being. Although we only spent a few years together, it was a pivotal time in my leadership development, and an experience I greatly treasure.

Pet Matchmakers

I have claimed for years that my BFF Crystal has a superpower: she is the perfect matchmaker between animals and their forever human caretaker. It has happened enough times for me to be convinced that she possesses some special sixth sense for it. I learn of someone in search of a pet, give Crystal the particulars, and she miraculously finds a cat or dog which sparks with that individual. One couple I know, friends of mine, have adopted two separate rescue dogs from Crystal. The dogs not only bonded with my friends but with one another. These connections are instantaneous and a powerfully touching thing to witness.

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In recent months, it seems as though I have become ensnared into the matchmaking business.  Today my co-workers saved a kitten by removing the grill from a car and extracting the tiny feline from a dangerous hiding place. It was a beautiful team effort-three guys got the tiny critter, one took pictures and found a home for it, and another brought it to me to safeguard until her new family could come to the dealership. All of this on the same day my in-laws left to go home to Missouri with their new rescue dog-an adorable fluffball named Bella, for whom they drove two days across the country to meet and adopt.

One lucky Kitten!

Rescued from the inner workings of a car.

It’s also the same day that one of our esteemed Lexus customers won an award for her ongoing passion for rescuing homeless animals, especially those who tend to slip under the radar. It’s easy to find a home for a kitten like the one we saved today-it is tiny, adorable and likes people. It has a cute story that accompanies it. Pairing dogs and cats who are older, or have special medical needs, or timid personalities, is a tougher challenge, and our customer Martha Ann Tudor has the superpower for that. She has a gift as matchmaker for homeless animals with more complex stories but equal amounts of love potential, and the Augusta Chapter of the American Red Cross rightly honored her for this work.

Martha Ann explains her gift for helping animals

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There are bumps in the road, to be sure. Matchmaking with animals, much like with people, comes with a fair amount of blind dates gone wrong. Pets can be shy or traumatized and not show their full personality for a week or more, which is challenging for those of us who believe that a commitment to a pet is a promise for life. Having a rescue matchmaker increases the chance for success, a blessing for both sides. Martha Ann and Crystal get the backstory on the potential pet pairing and offer transparency regarding what to expect.

When it clicks, it sure is a sweet thing to witness. Watching Bella leave for Missouri, knowing the mutual happiness which is imminent in her new home, was incredibly heartwarming. Seeing rescue kitty snuggling up to her new person, I could breathe a sigh of relief and feel a surge of vicarious joy. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing reports from people who have fallen in love with their new furry family member, gushing about what a perfect fit they found, and expressing appreciation for a pet who has enriched their lives.

Martha Ann and Crystal know this joy well; they live it every day, working to match each dog and cat with the ideal person, but we all can play a small role in this process. We can help rescue the needy or injured animals we find. We can like or share the social media post which could connect a pet with a new home. We can volunteer at shelters or offer to be a foster home for cuties in transition. Ultimately, we can all be matchmakers, helping one another to find the perfect pairings for the pets who deserve our love. Thanks Martha Ann and Crystal, for your superpowers and for inspiring us to be heroes like you.

 

7 Leadership Books for a World Class Culture

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It has been said that leaders are readers, but it is often difficult to find the time to sit down with a self-improvement book in the midst of life’s fullness. For many of us, reading is not only a reprieve from stress, but an inspiration to find new ways to do a job more effectively.

The books I most appreciate are the ones which resonate with my own experiences, especially as a self-described high maintenance customer. My bosses expect excellence from me, and I have been conditioned to demand it from the companies where I spend my money. As a consumer, I can tell instantly if a business cares about building long-term relationships. There are 2 big tests of an organization’s culture of customer service.

1-Are the employees happy? I am sure you have walked in to a business and instantly caught a positive or negative vibe about the place. This vibe is a result of the team culture, which is rooted in how the associates are treated by their team leaders. We cannot expect our employees to offer good customer service if we don’t show them exemplary support and common courtesies. I have 12 different responsibilities in my job, but the one thing that is the most important to me, and I can do nothing else until it is done, is making sure my team has everything they need to be successful.

We all know that sub-standard employee performance and high turnover can be the death of any business. There is no greater responsibility than to recruit the best, train them well, and SUPPORT them. I just had a team member celebrate her 10-year anniversary with my department. During that time, I have made a conscious effort to offer my ongoing encouragement and tell her that I appreciate her often. It is the ideal relationship of mutual respect, and one that allows her to foster that same loyalty in the team she develops.

There is no way that the team members will care about the company, the product or the customer if the boss doesn’t care about them, as workers and as people. It has been said that 90% of an employee’s job satisfaction is how they feel about their boss. The strongest leaders I know in building a culture of customer service embrace servant leadership, where the boss is willing to jump in and work alongside of the team, both to set an example of excellence as well as to show that they are willing to help. They ask about their employees, they know about what is important to them, and they are approachable if the employee has a concern. They say thank you…a lot. They ask for their input. They know their strengths, and are interested in fostering their development. For more on this topic, consider these books:  The Customer Comes Second by Diane McFerrin Peters and Hal F. Rosenbluth and The 12 Elements of Great Managing by James K. Harter and Rodd Wagner.

2- How does the company handle mistakes? The second test of an organization’s customer service protocol is what I call the Art of the Apology. There was a time in my dealership’s history when our customer service national ranking was 210 out of 220 dealerships in the country. During those years, I called myself the professional apologizer. I learned what to do and what not to do during an apology, enough to write a book of my own. But the essence is this: we are people, we are going to mess up, but how we handle it shows our character for the better or worse. Think about how your employees apologize to you when they make a mistake. What do you like to hear? It’s the same thing that your customer wants to hear from you: I take responsibility, I will make amends and work to minimize the chance that it will happen again. What bosses and customers do not want to hear is excuses, reasons, finger pointing. The customer NEVER needs to hear why something messed up. Even if they ask why it happened, I tell them I am focused on the solution and assure them that I will later work behind the scenes to fix whatever broken process caused the problem. The only thing worse than having to apologize, is having to apologize to the same customer more than once for the same thing. If you find yourself if this position, there might be some teamwork issues to repair. Thankfully we have since repaired our team issues and are back into the top 10 in the nation, but let me assure you, it was an arduous climb back to the top. Fixing a culture is difficult, but it’s the only long-term solution. If this is a focus for you, check out The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Many business books like this are presented in fable format, knowing that the busy executive only has the time and attention span for a helpful story-with-a-lesson. It makes for a quick read and a powerful testimony to the essential value of teamwork.

In addition to taking ownership, the other critical components of an apology include acknowledging the other person’s feelings and demonstrating sincerity. I put myself completely in the moment, give the apology my full heart and intention, and offer empathy for any frustration I may have caused them due to my lack of leadership. Let’s face it, if I had better leadership and processes, the incident would likely have not occurred in the first place. I am at the core of the mistake and should own that. People know when you speak from the heart, so mean what you say with your whole being. Acknowledge their feelings by saying “I know that must have been frustrating for you. I would feel the same way.” ONLY then can the relationship start to mend. For this topic, I suggest Legendary Service by Kathy Cuff and Victoria Halsey. I have had the honor of meeting Kathy and she changed my entire understanding of how to make amends with someone who is upset.

Here are a few action items to consider if you are dedicated to a culture of customer service.

  1. Create a personal mission statement-Life is short. Ask yourself what is your legacy. Do you want to be known as a nice person? A good father? A good boss? Your personal mission statement should infuse your actions at home and at work. Mine is to be a blessing to others. This mission simplifies my decisions and reduces my stress, because it guides my actions and demeanor. Consider the book Give and Take by Adam Grant as you craft your own. It may help you grasp why some people give more than others and why a shift towards giving is essential in business. If you are a giver in a world full of takers, it also helps you accept your less helpful coworkers better because you know they are wired that way.
  2. Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement and should be a part of everything you do. The only way to become a better leader and human being is to ask questions, read, take an interest in others and challenge yourself to learn from mistakes. The best title for this is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith: It’s chock full of readable examples of top leaders and how they had to learn to change their ways to reach the next level of success.
  3. Learn these two phrases and say them often. I am sorry, and I appreciate you. (customers and employees). Mean it.
  4. Focus on your people. Get to know them, absorb stress for them, let them have some fun once in a while.
  5. Read How Starbucks Changed My Life by Michael Gates Gill. It will just take just a couple of days but it will stay with you always. A job with a supportive atmosphere can be life-changing for your employees. What a way to be a blessing to someone, and how rewarding to watch them thrive and develop while in your care.

One extra last Title I recommend:

Everybody, Always by Bob Goff: If spirituality is an important part of your life, this is a compelling message on how to love even the most difficult people in your world.

Just Ask

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Addressing envelopes is one of my favorite volunteer gigs. In addition to improved penmanship, it gives me a productive but relaxing vibe, almost percussive.  I enjoy falling into the hum of a wandering mind while writing out names and addresses in whatever handwriting style I’ve adopted for the day. These cerebral meanderings take place several times a year, when I help Leadership Augusta mail invitations or letters to their alumni family.  There are over 1,300 past graduates of the program, at least 800 of whom are still within our reach to contact. The remaining have either passed away, moved away, become MIA, or asked to not be involved. Every year 30-40 new names are added to the books. We try to send correspondence to everyone we can, with the hopes of keeping the program sustainable.

I enjoy seeing the names of these alums each year. Some are good friends I know well, some are people I have met only briefly, others I have never met but feel like I know after writing their information on invoices and invitations so many times. I delight in seeing the new names, recent graduates with their alumni future shining brightly in front of them. I wonder if they will attend events, become involved in the community, encourage others to participate in this leadership program affiliated with the Augusta Chamber of Commerce, which has been in existence since 1980.

During this year’s dues invoicing, writing out envelopes led me to ponder how vastly different the LA experience has been for everyone who has graduated. We were all exposed to behind-the-scenes glimpses into what makes Augusta tick, hearing insights into such topics as criminal justice, healthcare and education. We were all encouraged to use our leadership skills not just within the bubbles of our own diverse industries, but also to venture into other territories in the community which might be in need of our talents. In the years which follow this grand networking adventure, however, the responses vary greatly. Many of us pay dues, attend luncheons, volunteer on future classes and serve on charitable boards, while others continue with their lives, unchanged. The range of involvement spans from the people whose lives are transformed, to those who contribute only briefly, to those who never offer their time or their financial support.

My personal Leadership Augusta story was one of the transformations. I served on the board, volunteered with the alumni committee, recruited new leaders to apply.  I consider my Leadership Augusta experience to be the best thing I have done professionally, one that enhanced my confidence at work, as well as brightened the stamp on my community service efforts. I am grateful to this organization for introducing me to the opportunities which gave voice to my talents, and ultimately, to my life’s purpose, which is, simply, to be a blessing to others.

Knowing what Leadership Augusta has meant in my life, and knowing that it has not been that for everyone, I contemplate the reasons for this broad spectrum of impact while I write on these envelopes. For my experience, I have 3 people specifically to thank. Had I not met these people, my Leadership Augusta experience would be just a pleasant memory from the late 90’s era. If they had not voiced their faith in me, I, too, would have sat shyly behind the scenes and lamented that I passed through the program, unchanged. In the 38-year history of the organization, I realize that I am in a small minority who can say my life was touched in a profound way. I indebted to the 3 people who bravely said, “I think this girl has something to offer.”

The first is Woody Merry, a graduate of the class of 1987, who nominated me to participate in the first place. Our interaction prior to that was minimal (perhaps serving on a political campaign together, if I recall correctly), but he must have seen some potential, and I thank him for that initial leap of faith. The next Angela champion, and the most significant, was Brenda Durant. She was in my class of 1999, and ever since then has been an awesome connector who throws my name into the hat for projects in the community. One of them, Celebrate 2000, was the catalyst for the creation of VolunteerAugusta.com, which connects charities and volunteers. Finally, Bryan Quinsey was the Leadership Augusta Coordinator in 2002 who recommended me to the Board of Directors, the start of a 12-year term of service. He must have seen something in me when we served together on the Red Carpet Tour during Masters week, and I’m forever thankful that he did.

Sometimes one person is all it takes. By nominating someone for a position or program, inviting them to join you on a project, or encouraging them to get involved, you can be the difference between a memory and a potential metamorphosis. During the interviews referenced in my last blog about Leadership Augusta ( Angela’s LA journey ), I asked a bank president why she never got involved in the organization after graduation. Her reply was profoundly straightforward: “Because nobody asked me to.” It only takes one person to reach out to another and vouch for their gifts, or let them know they are needed. We can make our volunteer organizations stronger and enrich one another’s feelings of connection and engagement. No matter how trivial the job might seem, there is a person in your circle of influence who would appreciate being nominated, who is hoping to be included. Take the time and just ask. I am indebted to my three champions for their initial encouragement, and to the current board of Leadership Augusta, who continue to reach out to me. I hope they continue to ask me to jump in, as well as the many other alumni members who are ready to get involved. For the meditative benefits alone, I would be happy to address envelopes for years to come.

Open Letter to Andy Jones

Dear Andy,

Before I knew Kevin as a spouse, or a boyfriend, or even a friend, I knew him as a co-worker. He is the best kind of co-worker: helpful, smart, fun. You can trust him to have your back and to work at his highest ability. He is the type of person who cannot cut corners, or pretend to work for the sake of appearances. He’s just not wired that way. So as a battle buddy in the field with him, I could lean on him for customer issues, technical questions or honest advice.

I imagine that any of his bosses in the automotive industry for the past 3 decades would say that in addition to being the best kind of co-worker, he is also the best kind of employee. If he is at the job, he is working. Period. Because Kevin is never one to shy away from tedious or arduous tasks, the boss knows that giving him a project is the best way to be certain that it will be completed. Kevin is always willing to make sacrifices for the company, work through lunch, show up on time and stay past the required shift. Kevin’s integrity guarantees freedom from concerns about unethical behavior. Granted, his honesty sometimes hurts if he disagrees with your opinion, as he is never one to play to the political or ego-based side of an issue, but that seems a small price to pay for an employee who genuinely wants to do well. Kevin is who he is, no more and no less. He is never someone different depending on the audience.

I suspect that as his boss, you had some of these feelings about Kevin, inspiring you to make grand gestures of support during his tenure with your company. I was a beneficiary of the generosity you extended. (See my past blog about your kindness early in the relationship: Kevin Superstar ). You allowed him to take time off when he needed surgery. All seemed to be going smoothly. The job was certainly stressful for Kevin, as he put in 70+ hours a week to manage a 60-person department, but profits and customer retention were good, so the ship stayed on a straight path to success.

Then something shifted in the relationship. Stress for both of you increased exponentially. Kevin was not allowed to replace needed employees and became severely short-staffed. Your stress seemed to spike during the time when another dealership was added to the auto group. Suddenly the mutual pressure manifested into a final break. Kevin was asked to step down from his role as Service Manager, with little explanation and few options. In the weeks since this has occurred, I have experienced a wide range of feelings. I have now reached a point where it is important to me that you know that I do not blame you for this inevitable ending, which was sad and confusing while it was taking place, but is now proving to be a blessing.

Kevin would never have left this leadership role on his own. I think you know that, based on a particularly striking moment when he was provoked to do so and held his cool. I know of no one else who could endure that. No matter how much he suffers, he just does not back down from a challenge and has a suprisingly high tolerance for discomfort. So it was up to you to make the difficult decision for him. The good news is that Kevin is suddenly healthy again. His blood pressure is normal for the first time in years, he is more emotionally accessible, he eats and sleeps better. While the future is extremely uncertain and I know it causes him great consternation, there is a peace in the assurance that the trials of his recent past are behind him.

At one point, near the end, you took Kevin out to lunch to figure out how to fix it. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the conversation as if I were the proverbial fly on the wall. You chatted quickly, trying to get him to open up. Kevin was recalcitrant and withdrawn. When he told me about the lunch, I told him that I felt sorry for you because I know what it is like to try to bring him out of his shell after he crawls in it. It is hard to reach out and try to communicate with someone who has shut down. I get that. The difficulty is that the lunch was probably a year too late. By that time, there had been too little support, too little thanks, too little honest conversation on both sides. From a business management perspective, it was the perfect storm.

Suffice it to say, it is a sad outcome anytime someone who has worked hard for so many years is asked to step down. I know it could not have been an easy decision for you and I do not hold any grudges. In fact, if I leave you with anything, it is my sincere appreciation. I thank you for giving him the opportunity to manage such a large operation, and for the gestures you extended during that time to let him know you appreciated how much he grew the business. I thank you for all that you do in the community, and for supporting other employees who have dedicated their careers to your organization. Mostly, though, I have to thank you for letting Kevin go. I cannot fully articulate how happy I am to have him back, and I will do all I can to ensure that whatever is in the cards for his next adventure, that he does not give so much of himself that he loses his way or gives up the fun balance in his life.

For the past 8 years, when people would ask me about Kevin, I would always offer some variation of a reply indicating that he was working too much, as ever. From now on, my reply will be that Kevin is finding his life again, and is truly happy. Kevin takes ownership of his parting from your management team, knowing the responsibility to tell you what was failing rested on him. Trust was lost on both sides, and let it be a lesson to us all; we can ill afford to take any relationship for granted. We need to nurture it with more “What can I do for you?” -type questions and more “I appreciate you” -type statements.

 

My best regards to you and your organization for ongoing success. If I can ever be a blessing to you in the future, I hope you will not hesitate to contact me directly.

Sincerely,

Angela

Angela Maskey

P.S. I also need to thank you for asking me to take your Guest Relations Manager to lunch when she started her job, to give her advice. It was during that meeting I came up with the title “Happiness Manager”, a nomenclature I have since embraced officially at my job, with tremendous results. I don’t know that the lunch helped her much, but it was transformative for me. For that as well, I am forever grateful.

Two Japanese Words

kaizen

Any time I talk about customer service, I have to break out two of my favorite Japanese words, commonly used in the world of Lexus: kaizen and omotenashi. Kaizen means continuous improvement, an ongoing passion for personal and professional development. It goes without saying that any conversation about customer service will require a constant pursuit of offering better service today than we did yesterday. We must read, learn, try new things. Omotenashi is a little trickier to explain, as I don’t know that there is a true English equivalent.

Omotenashi loosely translated means hospitality, but it really is a stronger version of it. Imagine that your favorite celebrity is going to visit your home: think about how you would put out your best dishes, purchase fresh flowers, and prepare their favorite foods. This level of service is anticipatory, offering amenities which the guest doesn’t even know they want or need. It is a hospitality level designed to delight the guest, help them feel at ease, and create lasting memories. For a company aspiring to the utmost level of the customer experience, one can easily sense that omotenashi is the ideal goal.

In thinking of customer service in this way, I am reminded of the motto held by the Ritz Carlton: We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. I love this phrase, because it conveys a sense of manners and graciousness. It implies that it is an honor to serve others (which it truly is). When I hear about a situation involving a heated debate with a customer or coworker, I think of this motto. Keeping a poised demeanor is absolutely essential, and the more that we maintain our decorum, the calmer the other person will pick up on our dignified presentation and respond in-kind.

In addition to these two concepts, I am unable to discuss customer service without mentioning employee engagement. I believe with my full heart that there can be no ongoing culture of exemplary guest service without a conscious commitment to the internal customer, the associate. It is not realistic to expect team members to be superstars of omotenashi and kaizen without a direct supervisor who embraces those same values. Of the 8-10 responsibilities I have at the dealership, the one which is my absolute priority is caring for the 5 employees for whom I am responsible. I cannot do anything else unless I know that they are ok, and that they have everything they need for the day. I work extra hours to accommodate special schedule requests, ask them about life events, keep communication lines open about their duties and tell them I appreciate them. As we have built our relationship over the years, they have rewarded me with a loyalty that impresses me daily. These amazing individuals provide anticipatory service to the Jim Hudson Lexus customers, seeing things that need to be done for them and jumping in without having to be asked. Ours is a relationship of the utmost level of mutual respect; we watch out for one another and safeguard a positive work experience. When guests comment on the friendliness and service extended by my department, I feel that it is a direct reflection on how they feel about their job.

It has been said that how one feels about their job is 90% related to how one feels about their supervisor. This is why I take my leadership responsibilities so seriously. Considering how much time we spend at work, I have the power to impact someone’s daily life in a significant way. I am sure that John Mackey of the Whole Foods organization concurs: “If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.”

The best way to fulfill this obligation is to lead by example. If I instruct my team to be punctual, well-groomed, polite, attentive, hard-working…then I myself must demonstrate those attributes in excess of the level I expect from them. If I am encouraging kaizen and ongoing learning, then I must pursue it, as well. My team and I help one another to be better employees, and by extension, better human beings. As we sustain an elevated level of courtesy and graciousness in our environment, that same optimistic attitude begins to ooze into our personal lives, with positive results. We become a blessing to one another.

Being a blessing to someone is at the core of everything I choose to do in my life. It has become my mission statement, informing every interaction at home, work or in the community. The cool thing about having a personal mission statement is that it simplifies decisions. Anytime I am overwhelmed or in doubt, I ask myself how I can be a blessing to the other person, and the answers and actions flow from that. Followers of my blog will recall how I came to discover this mission statement a couple of years ago, but perhaps do not realize how transformative it has become. Be a Blessing Blog By asking myself how to be a blessing to others, it brings personal significance to the customer service I extend. I want to bring the most beautiful aspects of omotenashi to the guest in front of me in each moment, and I am rewarded with a feeling of actually being in love with my job. I go home each night knowing that the work I am doing is my life’s purpose, and it is more fulfilling than any career I could have imagined for myself 30 years ago when I helped my first customer in my first job almost 40 years ago.

While there are still moments of incredible stress and frustration in my work life, I cannot imagine doing anything else, for any other company, as long as I am physically able to work. Customer service positions have to be the most challenging and difficult of any jobs today, but by embracing two small Japanese words and coming up with a mission statement that resonates for you, I can testify that even a job you have had for many years can become new, fresh, and amazing.