Jul 30, 2008

Leadership lessons from Danny Boy

I have not posted to this blog as much as I would wish in the last couple of months, but I have what I think is a good reason. I am coauthoring a book with AJ O'Neil, owner of a coffeehouse in Ferndale, Michigan. Last March, AJ started off a whirlwind when he decided to have a 50-hour marathon of singing the song "Danny Boy" in the days up to and including St. Patrick's Day. When it came time for this thing to take place, there were stories in hundreds of newspapers around the world, interviews on public radio in four countries, coverage on CNN and a visit from Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan, where she led the crowd in singing the song. The time goal was achieved, although Guinness has rejected the record because they don't have a category it fits in. So when AJ invited me to help with the book, as improbable was his promise that we'd be on Oprah promoting it, I decided to go along.

Click on the picture to see a few more...



I could see early on that Danny Boy had some lessons for lean leaders, but just hadn't teased them out of the 50 interviews and e-mails going into the book. But I might have known, AJ came up with a pretty good one to start with. It must be said that until 18 months ago, AJ had never owned or even managed a retail food business. He was a roofer. Dennis is AJ's brother, who has some cognitive disabilities, but a great many other types of intelligence. Dennis is AJ's key employee in the coffeehouse and he makes a great tuna sandwich and serves it with true caring about his customer. Here's AJ:

An outsider on one of our roofing jobs might see me loading heavy shingles on precarious peaks very high off the ground, then measuring, applying and facilitating an installation job to complete a finished product. complete with flashing, capping, and trimming to what may appear to be a lion's share of the work.

Dennis would be either assisting me by handing me shingles, one at a time until completion, or meticulously cleaning the ground and throwing out all the debris into a dumpster. He may have to root through a messy truck bed to find another hook blade, or a piece of metal or some such thing. An average bystander might think that he has the easier of the tasks on this job, that his percentage of total work load might seem much simpler.

What they would not see is the years of experience and dedication that both of us had put in, to streamline and create a system where each of us knows exactely what we are doing, and we have found the fastest, most efficient way to complete a job with the minimal amount of effort on BOTH of our parts.

What they would not see, except for the fellow roofers with whom we have taught, is that we are completing a job that would easily be a four person task; quickly, easily, and with as little exertion as possible. We will take breaks as often as we need them, whistling and singing and joking as we work, and our job will be done so well that we will get complimented and referred to by our customers. That would be the norm for us.

We have found a way to take the best of what each of us had to offer, find a common goal, and streamline that into utmost efficiency. We did not go out and define this ahead of time. We just became open to learn from each other, not to compare abilities, but to identify with what each other best brought to the given situation and , as the comedian whose name escapes me puts so well, "get 'er done!"

That is precisely how the Danny Boy Marathon evolved. A task was before us , all of us in this case. I had "sold" a job, the marathon, and that was the task that we were facing. We had, just as a roofing job, a well defined goal. In the case of the marathon, our charge was to complete fifty hours of non-stop performing of Danny Boy. We had a specific start and finish time, an array of workers and were able to do just as Dennis and I had learned to do; that is to find a way to take the best of what each of us had to offer. We knew our common goal and we streamlined that into utmost efficiency. We were open-minded to each others abilities and identified with them. We brought the best of what each of us had to the given situation and we "got 'er done!"

Needless to say, we whistled, hummed and sang along the way! I hear so many comments at how well organized our event was. Truth is, we only had these principals to go on. This had never been done before, by us or anyone else. Anything can get accomplished if you have ethic and principle to guide you. Work is so much a part of a persons life that I would hope that what Danny Boy teaches us all is that work does not have to be bad, awful, drudgery. We all will go through these periods, to be sure, but it does not have to be the norm!

While it sounds like it ran like clockwork, its organization was almost completely improvised. AJ didn't write any job descriptions or org charts. He just talked about the goal endlessly to anyone who would listen and they began to believe it could be done -- if they just gave what they had. So a video engineer came in and set up the stage, the sound system, the video recording system and the flow path for the performers. Where the plan for flow didn't quite work, a choir director quickly tried out and found a better way. People who had run open mics before organized themselves into a battalion of hosts to keep things running, even overnight. People who had never even thought of it before in their lives wrote and sent out press releases.

It went on and on...which is what the book is about. So AJ just sent me the paragraphs above, and I have to get to work on the project that's become a joy to my heart and a perfect way to spend many hours of interviewing, writing.and editing.

1 comment:

Lester said...

Karen,
I had seen the coverage on TV. This sounds like a great project, I am interested to hear in your blog how it develops; and to see you on Oprah.....

Best,

Les

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