1: When renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer walks into one of his eighteen New York City restaurants, there is one particular thing that brings him delight.

A waiter lifting a wine glass off the table. Holding it up to the light. To check for smudges.

Why? Not because he is an “unreformed smudge freak,” he writes in his book Setting the Table. “But because someone is showing care for a small detail—smaller even than what the average guest may notice.”

This example of personal accountability suggests the waiter has empathy, which is one of the five emotional skills that define what Danny calls a “51 percenter,” the type of person he seeks to hire. “To me, a 51 percenter has five core emotional skills. I’ve learned that we need to hire employees with these skills if we’re to be champions at the team sport of hospitality,” he notes.

2: Skill one is empathy, which he defines as “not just an awareness of what others are experiencing; it’s being aware of, being sensitive to, and caring about how one’s own behavior affects others. We want waiters, for example, who can approach a new table of guests and intuitively sense their needs and agenda. Have they come, for example, to celebrate or to conduct business? Are they here to experience the cuisine, or simply to connect with a colleague over a light meal?”

Yes, guests go out to restaurants to eat, but Danny believes their primary need is to be nurtured. “The most direct and effective way to let our guests know that we’re on their side has always been to field a team that exudes this infectious type of empathy.”

“Optimistic warmth” is skill two. “I want the kind of people on my team who naturally radiate warmth, friendliness, happiness, and kindness. It feels genuinely good to be around them. There’s an upbeat feeling, a twinkle in the eye, a dazzling sparkle from within,” writes Danny. These are the type of people we want to spend our lives with because they make us feel good and inspire us to learn and grow.

Skill three for 51 percenters is intelligence: “Not just ‘smarts’ but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning,” writes Danny. “A hallmark of our business model is to be improving continually. I need to stock our team with people who naturally crave learning and who want to evolve—people who figure out how each new day can bring rich opportunities to do something even better.”

This desire to learn may present as a broad knowledge of many subjects or a deep understanding of one specific area. “I appreciate it when waiters want to learn more about cooking. I love it when cooks want to learn about wine. I adore it when hosts and reservationists want to learn more about the person behind the name they are greeting on the phone or at the front door,” Danny shares.

Skill four? Work ethic. The natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done. Many things can be taught. “What is impossible to teach is how to care deeply about setting the table beautifully,” Danny notes.

Fifth and finally: Self-awareness and integrity, which Danny believes are linked: “It takes integrity to be self-aware and to hold oneself accountable for doing the right thing.”

51-percenters are aware of their mood and its impact on others. “No one can possibly be upbeat and happy all the time. But personal mastery demands that team members be aware of their moods and keep them in check,” Danny observes. “If a staff member is having personal trouble, and wakes up angry, nervous, depressed, or anxious, he or she needs to recognize and deal with the mood. It does not serve anyone’s purposes to project that mindset into the work environment or onto one’s colleagues.

“We call that ‘skunking.’ A skunk may spray a predator when it feels threatened, but everyone else within two miles has to smell the spray, and these others may assume that the skunk actually had it in for them,” he notes. “It’s not productive to work with a skunk, and it’s not enjoyable to be served by one either. In a business that depends on the harmony or an ensemble, a skunk’s scent is toxic.”

3: Danny’s critical insight: Don’t spend time training or teaching people to act like a 51-percenter. Hire people who already are. 

“It may seem implicit in the philosophy of enlightened hospitality that the employee is constantly setting aside personal needs and selflessly taking care of others,” Danny notes. “But the real secret of its success is to hire people to whom caring for others is, in fact, a selfish act. . . Their source of energy is rarely depleted.

“In fact, the more opportunities [51 percenters] have to care for other people, the better they feel,” writes Danny. 

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: How do the qualities of a 51 percenter translate into my organization? How might we identify these qualities in the people we seek to hire?

Action: Discuss with a colleague.

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