July 8, 2018

Tips For Turbulent Times: Norman Brinker Has A Suggestion

“I saw your memo to Bill Jones today.”

Norman Brinker was sitting back behind his desk, feet up, relaxed. It had been a long week in Miami and he’d be heading back to Dallas in the morning. Outside, the headquarters parking lot had emptied and the sun was sliding down over West Kendall and the Everglades.

“Yes,” I said, hoping for some praise from the boss for the insight and anticipation reflected in what had been a detailed and prescriptive note to one of my two senior leaders. In my own still wet-behind-the-ears mentality, I had demonstrated deep knowledge of the business and a solid sense of command.

“Well, ‘ said Mr. Brinker, “I have an idea for you next time you get ready to do something like that.”

That made me pause. This wasn’t going where I thought it was going.

“What you might do…next time…” Norman now leaned forward over the desk. The folksy tone continued, but it was clear he was about to send me a message. “… is give Bill the objective you want him to hit, and let him figure out how to get it done.”

He now had my full attention.

“That way,’ he continued, “you’ll learn two things. The first will be just how smart Bill is … or isn’t.” He smiled that million-dollar smile. “The second thing that may happen…may happen…is that Bill will come up with ideas about how to get the thing done that you didn’t think of. Then you’ll both be ahead of the game.”

He had made a point. And it was one I would never forget.

That was the Brinker way.

Over the course of a decades-long career, Norman Brinker not only made himself successful, he inspired thousands of other people to be better than they thought they could be and accomplish more than they thought they could accomplish. Over 40 people who worked with him would later become Presidents or CEO’s in their own right…and every one of them (myself included) would be quick to tell you how much they owed their success to the privilege of having worked with Norman.

But perhaps the most memorable thing about him was his whole approach to leading others.

Here was a man who could have bought and sold most of the people he worked with many times over, who had achieved more than any ten of them combined, and yet he always seemed to be the most humble man in the room.

Norman’s way of leading was by asking you questions and then listening intently to the answers he received. His belief was that the job of a leader was to help people discover their own greatness in the process of coaching them toward the goal line. And he was always interested in what you thought.

This was not what we had become used to during our first decades in the business world.

The old model of the CEO – the pre-Norman model, if you will – was the “superstar.” This was the Steve Jobs type who led by vision and willpower who tolerated no “B” or “C” players, and who levitated his company (and its stock price) by force of personality and personal genius.

The prevalent notion was that, without such a unique figure at the very top, an organization was doomed to mediocrity or worse.

Today, that idea has arguably lost much of its credibility…and it should have.

I’d never take anything away from Steve Jobs and what he was able to accomplish, but they don’t make too many of those “special” folks.

What we need are more Norman Brinkers.