1: “Opening this new restaurant might be the worst mistake I’ve ever made,” Danny Meyer confessed to Stanley Marcus, the legendary long-time leader of Neiman Marcus, the high-end retailer known for extraordinary service.
The year was 1994. Danny was in Dallas on a book tour. At dinner, he had been seated next to Stanley. Today, Danny owns 18 uber-successful restaurants in New York. But at that moment, he was feeling overwhelmed and outmatched. He had just opened his second restaurant, and things weren’t going well.
Danny was worried he had “betrayed my own commitment to expand only if I was certain I could do so without compromising quality,” he writes in Setting the Table.
Now almost 90-years old, Stanley set down his martini. He paused and looked Danny in the eye.
“So you made a mistake,” he said. “You need to understand something important. And listen to me carefully: The road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled.”
2: Stanley’s words were a turning point for Danny on how he approached business. The insight reminded him of
something his grandfather had once told him: “The definition of business is problems.” Success comes not in eliminating problems but in the art of creative, profitable problem-solving.
“Indeed, business is problem-solving,” writes Danny. “You’ve got to welcome the inevitability of mistakes if you want to succeed in the restaurant business-or in any business. It’s critical for us to accept and embrace our ongoing mistakes as opportunities to learn, grow, and profit.”
3: Which is why Danny is so passionate about servant leadership.
“Ultimately, the most successful business is not the one that eliminates the most problems,” he writes. “It’s the one that becomes most expert at finding imaginative solutions to address those problems.
“And lasting solutions rely on giving appropriate team members a voice, as well as responsibility for making decisions,” Danny notes.
This approach to leading requires patience and commitment. “There is definitely an art to this inclusive type of leadership. It can take a lot more time than leadership based on ‘my way or the highway.’ It demands dialogue, compromise, and a willingness to share power,” he observes.
But it’s worth it.
“I’m a bottom-up manager who subscribes to the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ as articulated by the late Robert Greenleaf. He believed that organizations are at their most effective when leaders encourage collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and empowerment,” writes Danny.
Danny’s philosophy is very much in alignment with Nordstrom’s “inverted pyramid”, which we explored last week.
“In any hierarchy, it’s clear that the ultimate boss (in my case, me) holds the most power,” Danny writes. “But a wonderful thing happens when you flip the traditional organizational chart upside down so that it looks like a V with the boss on the bottom.
“My job is to serve and support the next layer ‘above’ me so that the people on that layer can then serve and support the next layer ‘above’ them, and so on. Ultimately, our cooks, servers, reservationists, coat checkers, and dishwashers are then in the best possible position to serve our guests.”
Danny fuses his commitment to servant leadership with a zeal for the pursuit of excellence.
“A balanced combination of uncompromising standards and confidence-building reassurance sends a very clear and consistent message to [our] team: ‘I believe in you and I want you to win as much as I want to win.'”
Reflection: Consider Stanley Marcus’ insight: The road to success is paved with well-handled mistakes. Is there evidence of this in my life? How might I benefit from this wisdom in my life in the future?
Action: Set aside 10 minutes to journal on the questions above.