A few years ago, while conducting a study of top-performing managers for the electronics retailer Best Buy, I interviewed Ralph. He was a star, having transformed one of Best Buy’s lowest-performing stores into a repeat award winner. On virtually every metric, from revenues to profitability to employee engagement, he had taken his team from the bottom 10% to the leading 10%. What had he done, I asked, to effect such dramatic change?
Ralph said that he had played on his likeness to the young Fidel Castro. He had called his store “La Revolución,” posted a “Declaración de Revolución” in the break room, and made supervisors wear army fatigues. As I was scribbling all this down, he told me about the whistle.
Because his team was at the bottom of every district performance table, he wanted to give people a way to celebrate the fact that good behaviors were actually happening in the store, and to make them aware that they were happening all the time. So he issued a whistle to all employees and told them to blow it whenever they saw someone do something good. It didn’t matter if the person they observed was their superior or worked in another department; if they saw anyone go above and beyond, they were to blow the whistle.
“Didn’t it make the store incredibly loud?” I asked.
“Sure,” he replied, with a wide Castro grin. “But it energized the place. It energized me. Heck, it even energized the customers. They loved it.”
I was so taken with this innovation that I included it in a book I was coauthoring, Now, Discover Your Strengths(Free Press, 2001). But I didn’t include what happened next.
Scale Concepts, Not Techniques
Clearly, Ralph Gonzalez is one of a kind. Not everyone leads like him, or could. However, the typical leadership development paradigm would not make that assumption. It would try to incorporate Ralph’s standout behavior into a competency model and spread it throughout the leadership ranks.
Sure enough, the whistle technique started down that path. Having been shared at a number of company gatherings, Ralph’s story began to take on a life of its own. All of a sudden it was cropping up in districts and regions around the country. “Whistles for everyone!” There was talk of a whistle hierarchy: green whistles for store managers, white ones for supervisors, regular silver ones for frontline blue-shirts. There was talk of checklists: the 12 conditions when whistles may be blown, and the 20 conditions when they must never be.
What had begun as a vibrant expression of a particular leader’s personality was fast mutating into a standard operating procedure. Fortunately, some wise Best Buy executives, realizing that the technique was almost entirely dependent on the presence of Ralph himself, killed the mutation before it could spread.